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City Includes $1 Billion for Overtime in 2016 Budget

Gotham Gazette - Mon, 04/27/2015 - 1:00am


Mayor de Blasio presenting his preliminary budget (photo: @NYCMayorsOffice)

Some of the most prominent city agencies will again spend considerable portions of their budgets on employee overtime in fiscal year 2016, set to begin July 1, 2015. The allocation of $1 billion toward personnel overtime raises questions around optimal staffing levels and balancing cold fiscal calculation with whether understaffing might impact performance and well-being of employees.

City officials argue that staffing levels are mostly appropriate and the overtime expenditures being made is wiser fiscal policy than additional full-time hiring. There is widespread agreement, though, that employing overtime control mechanisms is in the best interest of the city. 

In his preliminary $77 billion budget for fiscal year 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio has included just over $1 billion for personnel overtime, mostly spread across the city’s vital public safety agencies. Over three-quarters of the sum, about $798 million, is in anticipated overtime work by uniformed employees, such as police and corrections officers, firefighters and sanitation workers.

There are a variety of reasons compelling the city to rely so heavily on overtime, but one in particular stands out: it actually saves the city millions of dollars.

“In many instances overtime is going to be cheaper, up to a certain point, than bringing in new recruits,” said Doug Turetsky, chief of staff and communications director at the Independent Budget Office, a publicly-funded budget watchdog agency.

“Look at the Police Department for example,” Turetsky continued. “Let’s say you hired new officers and you were able to bring some of your overtime cost down, your personnel cost in general may actually be going up because of pensions, health insurance, and other fringe benefits.”

The NYPD remains one of the most overtime-burdened city agencies. For fiscal 2016, the department is allotted more than $423 million in overtime just for its uniformed employees, nearly 16 percent of the agency’s total salary budget, according to the preliminary budget outline. Civilian personnel overtime will cost an additional $248 million, according to a report released by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton during a March budget hearing at the City Council.

Other New York City agencies are also wrestling with staffing levels and heavy overtime expenditures, which the de Blasio administration have been working to address.

According to the mayor’s preliminary budget, released in February, the FDNY has projected overtime expenses of more than $204 million and will allocate 16 percent of its personnel budget for overtime. The budget also estimates the Department of Correction will spend over $84 million in overtime, 8.3 percent of its total personnel expenditures; and the Sanitation Department over $91 million, 8.7 percent of its uniformed personnel services - according to figures that do not include snow removal, which increases overtime costs every year. But, it is seasonal expenses like snow removal that city officials and others say it makes sense to utilize overtime for rather than upping full-time staff.

The remaining $300 million in overtime is allocated to cover the cost of work in other agencies, including $23 million for the Department of Environmental Protection; $35 million for the Department of Transportation; and $17 million for the Administration for Children’s Services.

Both Commissioner Bratton and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito have argued that the NYPD is understaffed, calling for new hiring. For a second straight year, the Council is calling for the hire of 1,000 new officers and new measures to curb NYPD overtime spending.

“In order for NYPD to continue to keep New Yorkers safe while also implementing new reforms and initiatives we need to increase the overall headcount of the department,” Mark-Viverito said in a statement just before the Council released its preliminary budget response.

Mark-Viverito also pointed out that each police precinct in the city lost an average of 60 to 75 officers since its peak headcount in fiscal 2001, and that NYPD has to systematically demand officers work overtime in order to meet the city’s daily enforcement demands, and sometimes has to rely on non-patrol precinct staff to work parades and sporting events.

Bratton appears to have asked the mayor for the green light in hiring 1,000 new cops. But Turetsky, a budget expert who has studied the city’s expenses for years, said he is skeptical the demand will be entirely met, citing the cost of the operation as the main issue.

“Our estimate is that 1,000 [new] cops will eventually cost about $100 million [per year],” Turetsky said, adding that the Council plan appears to include NYPD hiring 500 new officers, half the number requested, in each of the next two years. Turetsky said that the costs will ramp up over multiple years, in part because city pension contributions do not get made immediately.

Between 2009 and 2014, overtime expenditures for the NYPD averaged $484.6 million, according to a report on the fiscal 2015 Executive Budget issued by the City Council.

Amy Spitalnick, a spokesperson for the City’s Office of Management and Budget, said the NYPD has used overtime mostly to fund public safety programs targeting specific times of the year, citing as an example the anti-violence summer initiative the NYPD rolled out in 2014.

“NYPD overtime is not currently being utilized to cover positions that require an officer year-round,” Spitalick said. “In order to address the crime conditions of a short period, overtime was utilized to increase security for that specific time period in specific locations as needed.” This was also true in December, 2014 as protesters took to the streets on several nights in response to the non-indictment in the Eric Garner grand jury case.

Despite a reduction in overtime expenses since de Blasio took office, New York City is behind other major cities around the country in terms of money allocated to police overtime - thus leading to the call by the Council and other budget watchdogs for the City to implement an overtime-cost savings plan.

The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, allocated only 2 percent of its personnel costs to overtime for its current fiscal year, a significant drop since 2010, when it hit 10 percent, according to data released by the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

It is similar with the Houston Police Department, which maintains its overtime expenditures under 5 percent of the total personnel cost, according to the Mayor’s Office of the City of Houston. 

Experts say that Los Angeles and Houston police departments may be aided in keeping down their overtime costs because both metro areas are served by both police departments and other law enforcement agencies like the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol in LA and the Harris County Sheriff's Office in Houston.

The NYPD is the only law enforcement agency on regular patrol duty across the five boroughs. This may contribute to the NYPD, the largest police department in the nation with over 49,000 full-time employees (including about 35,000 uniformed officers), struggle to keep overtime under control.

Looking at the budgets of other cities where street patrol is the jurisdiction of the municipal police department alone, the numbers are closer to those in New York City, though they are still fairly far off.

The Philadelphia Police Department, for instance, is spending over $50 million in overtime salaries this year, more that 11 percent of its total personnel expenditures, and the Chicago Police Department, the second largest municipal law enforcement agency in the nation, allocated $71 million in overtime pay, about 6.7 percent. The NYPD is at about 16 percent.

Meanwhile, staffing issues at FDNY have been chronic for several years, beginning during the Bloomberg administration, when the uniformed headcount fell from 11,459 in 2009 to 10,646 in 2011, before reaching a record low of 10,180 in 2013.

FDNY overtime expenses shot up from $152 million in fiscal 2009 to over $292 million in 2014, the fiscal year during which Bill de Blasio took office, and the FDNY spent nearly 29 percent of its salary expenditures in overtime. And these increases in overtime expenditures have not coincided with or been a tool toward a decrease in overall department spending.

Decreased headcount and increased overtime at the Fire Department began with an event that had nothing to do with money-saving strategy. In 2007, the department was sued in a major civil rights lawsuit concerning its hiring process, and since 2009, when Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled FDNY’s admissions test discriminated against African-American and Latino applicants, a court order practically froze new hiring for several years. 

After a settlement in 2014, the Fire Department has moved to hire new - and diverse - personnel as quickly as its resources permit. “The City was unable to hire any new firefighters for a period of over four years,” Spitalnick said. “Firefighter hiring resumed in January 2013.  The City is actively hiring new firefighters up to budgeted headcount.”

At a late March hearing of the City Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the agency is in need of 600 additional firefighters to fulfill its duty, and that it takes a period of 18 months to hire and train new cadets, which the city is doing in waves. The FDNY Office of Public Information said in an email that the agency “is not expected to be at full headcount for the next several years.”

Although the Fire Department significantly reduced its use of overtime in the last two years, the projection for fiscal 2016 remains large.

Unforseen Events
Overtime expenditures at FDNY and elsewhere, especially NYPD, are indeed often the result of unforeseen events, rather than being a carefully planned piece of staffing and budgeting calculations.

In the fall of 2011, during Occupy Wall Street protests, the NYPD spent $17 million to keep police officers on the streets overtime, then-Commissioner Ray Kelly said at the time. 

In late 2012, Superstorm Sandy required significant extra work by public safety agencies. In the days of the storm and its aftermath, the city spent over $154 million in overtime from October 29 to December 24, according to a report published by the Independent Budget Office. Of that total, over $70 million was spent in NYPD overtime, nearly $54 million for sanitation overtime, and nearly $9 million went to FDNY overtime.

Events unfolded last winter leading to high overtime bills. The protests over police brutality and the Garner grand jury decision cost the city $22.9 million in NYPD overtime, Commissioner Bratton said during a press conference in December. By early January, the Staten Island Advance reported the OT bill was up to $35 million.

OT Rise
A Gotham Gazette review of the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports for fiscal years 2004 through 2013 published by the Office of the New York City Comptroller shows that overtime expenditures have been stubbornly on the rise since 2004, around the end of Michael Bloomberg’s first term.

In 2004, the Bloomberg administration and City Council adopted a budget with over $507 million in overtime, but ended up spending more than $777 million. In 2006, the adopted budget projected overtime expenses of nearly $620 million. By 2010, expected overtime costs reached $848 million, before hitting an adopted overtime expenditure of $1.05 billion in 2014.

In December 2013 the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, issued a report totaling the final cost of overtime work during fiscal 2013 at more than $1.4 billion.

“That administration didn’t have a strategy to limit overtime,” Maria Doulis, director of city studies at Citizens Budget Commission, told Gotham Gazette about Bloombeg’s, calling it “an open question” as to why the OT costs were allowed to increase so dramatically during his tenure.

At the time the CBC report came out, the organization encouraged the city to limit overtime through a series of reforms. One was cracking down on endemic absenteeism; another was to find more efficient ways to staff predictable events, such as community festivals and parades, without extending employees’ normal shifts. By adopting such measures, the report outlined, the city would have saved about $125 million.

“There is some logic behind relying on overtime,” Doulis said, mentioning savings in pensions and insurance policies that arise with new hiring, “but there is a point where you could save money if you hired more personnel instead.”

More than $
Beside the financial aspect, there is another side of the overtime coin.

While overtime is a budgetary tool that can help agencies save money in training and benefits, long work shifts also affect not only performance, but the safety of the employees and the public as well. 

This is particularly true in the case of the Department of Correction, an agency that spends heavily on overtime, and where, according to a report compiled by the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, understaffing and psychological stress has played a role in the episodes of violence at Rikers Island jail complex, which have been on the rise. It is something the de Blasio administration has pledged to address with reforms it recently announced.

“The Administration is committed to reducing overtime and shifting the workload from overtime to straight time,” said Spitalnick, the de Blasio spokesperson, said regarding corrections. She added that “given the amount of time it takes to hire and train new Correction Officers, the overtime reduction will take some time to be fully realized.” 

Since he took his post as corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte has looked for ways to fix the city’s correctional system as part of what the administration unveiled as a 14-point anti-violence agenda, a bundle of reforms that would act to calm a climate of violence and abuse at Rikers.

One of the points in the agenda focuses on reducing overtime. “Recruiting, hiring and training more officers are key planks of Commissioner Ponte’s 14-point anti-violence agenda,” said Eve Kessler, a spokesperson for the Department of Correction. Kessler added that the department is also planning an overhaul of recruiting procedures, with the intention of improving the standards used in the hiring of new officers.

The Correction Department estimates that 8.3 percent of its total salary expenditures, over $84 million, will pay for overtime next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Despite being lower than the current year, when it topped $124 million, overtime is still one of the department’s key issues, especially from the point of view of safety for both officers and inmates.

“Overtime is just one of the problems for my members,” said Norman Seabrook, President of New York City Correction Officer's Benevolent Association. “They are forced to work up to 16 hours a day everyday in some facilities. Something has got to change.”

by Marco Poggio, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated with a correction from IBO's Doug Turetsky on IBO's estimates of the costs of 1,000 new officers being added to the NYPD force.

Categories: State/Local

Better Understanding Entry to the City's Specialized High Schools

Gotham Gazette - Mon, 04/27/2015 - 1:00am

Bronx High School of Science

A recent report by the city's Independent Budget Office claimed that the city's eight test-in specialized high schools – including my alma mater Brooklyn Tech, where I head the alumni foundation – have higher percentages of students from higher-income census tracts than the average in all city high schools. Some politicians, activists and academics who are hostile to the use of a pure merit system for selecting students for these schools have attempted to argue that this report somehow shows that the test-in schools are for the wealthy among us. That is misleading to say the least.

The facts are that the specialized high schools are the most economically diverse of all high-performing public high schools in the city.

The IBO report did not point out that in the academic year ending last June, 52.4 percent of students in the eight specialized high schools (including two-thirds at Brooklyn Tech) qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch, the federally-established measure of poverty used by the school system. By comparison, just 37.6 percent of students at the eight highest-performing selective high schools (based on SAT scores) that use the more subjective multiple criteria wanted by critics of the test qualified for the lunch program.

It should come as no surprise that specialized high schools, which draw students from across the city, would have more students from higher-income brackets than neighborhood-based schools where the student bodies reflect the socioeconomic standing in those communities. The IBO report reflects that higher-income neighborhoods have better performing schools because they are given better resources. But an apples-to-apples comparison shows that the specialized high schools continue to draw far more economically-diverse student bodies than schools using subjective criteria to decide admissions. In other words, use of the test, the SHSAT, prevents parents of less academically-prepared children from wealthy families from using non-pedagogical influence to gain admittance.

New York's test-in high schools like Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science provide an incredibly challenging college-level curriculum to the children of New York City's working class, immigrant and poor families. For 90 years their students have received an unmatched public school education enabling them to go to the nation's best colleges and have a real opportunity to escape the poverty they were born into.

In many instances these graduates have gone on to do great things benefiting our society. Diseases have been cured, wars won, and marvelous inventions have been created which improved the lives of millions. Fourteen graduates have received the Nobel Prize, more than most nations can claim.

The State Senate Education Committee will vote Tuesday on a bill to end the reliance on the Specialized High School Admissions Test without having heard five minutes of testimony from either side of the issue. Senators could have listened to representatives from the NYU Research Alliance for New York City Schools, which recently released a report showing many of the proposed changes – such as using state assessment test scores, grades and attendance – either would result in little change in specialized school admission rates for underrepresented minorities or could actually result in fewer black and more white students being offered admission.

There are over 1,900 African-American and Latino students currently attending the specialized high schools. There should be more. What is missing from the bill and from the IBO report is a true understanding of what must be done to improve the racial and ethnic diversity of students attending these schools.

Instead of eliminating the test-in system which guarantees all applicants a fair and objective standard for admission, the city should work far harder to give students from underrepresented communities the same educational opportunities in elementary and middle school grades currently being afforded students in higher-income neighborhoods. It is discouraging to see recent reports that the city is not offering Gifted and Talented Programs in so many communities that are later underrepresented in the specialized high schools.

Similarly, too few students from underrepresented communities sign up to take the SHSAT, perpetuating a cycle of disenfranchisement that requires a commitment and investment of resources to change. The school system should identify high-performing students, nurture them through enhanced academic programming and test preparation to ready them for the rigors of the exam and the schools' curriculum.

It can be done. The Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, working with the school and a grant from National Grid (which is led by a Tech graduate), just saw the fruits of a pilot "pipeline" program it established to focus on students from underrepresented middle schools across Brooklyn. Of 30 students who went through the program – which included tutoring, enhanced academics and test preparation – 26 received an offer of admission to either Brooklyn Tech or Stuyvesant. Half of the students offered admission to Tech were African-American or Latino. More importantly, because of an even broader effort by the school to reach out to underrepresented middle schools, over 300 African-American and Latino students were offered admission this year to Brooklyn Tech, reversing a downward trend of many years.

I am a labor lawyer and have spent my entire 30-year career fighting for the rights of poor and working people. I believe in diversity, fairness, merit and providing excellent educational opportunities for the children of working families. If we are to reduce the huge income inequality in our city we must reduce the huge educational inequality of our elementary and middle schools. And, we must preserve the specialized high schools which truly have been – and remain – the engines of social advancement for the children of New York's poor, immigrant and working class families.

Larry Cary is the President of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max:

Categories: State/Local

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 27

Gotham Gazette - Sun, 04/26/2015 - 1:00am

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

  • Movement toward Mayor de Blasio's Executive Budget, due out May 7, according to the mayor
    • the mayor has promised additional detail on a number of fronts, and the city's updated 10-year capital plan is due along with the updated FY16 budget
    • what will happen regarding NYPD staffing - will there be money for the 1,000 new officers the Council has asked for? a compromise at 500, perhaps?
    • other key issues on the table include funding for libraries, seniors, farmland, and more
  • Tuesday marks one week until the special elections in New York's 11th Congressional District and 43rd Assembly District
    • does Democrat Vinnie Gentile have a chance to defeat Republican Dan Donovan to rep Staten Island and a small chunk of Brooklyn in Congress?
    • could we have the first Working Families Party-only candidate elected to the state Assembly?

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of, see below for our day-by-day rundown.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max:***

The run of the week in detail:

After another trip out of town - this time he was in Wisconsin talking about the inequality crisis and bashing WI Republican Governor and presidential candidate Scott Walker - Mayor Bill de Blasio starts the new week with a limited public schedule, he "will travel to Connecticut and return to New York City in the afternoon. Later, the Mayor will swear in 28 judges to Family Court, Criminal Court, and Civil Court."

Governor Cuomo starts his Monday in New York City with a 9:30 a.m. appearance at the "Daily News Citizenship NOW! Phonebank Event" at Stella and Charles Guttman Community College. The governor will then travel to Albany later in the day.

On Monday morning at 10 a.m., City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will appear on "HuffPost Live"; then at 11:15 she will attend CUNY Citizenship Now Call-In; and at 4 p.m. she will speak at Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adam's Community Affairs Recognition Ceremonial at Brooklyn Borough Hall.

On Monday at 11 a.m., it is reported that Vice President Joe Biden will swear in Loretta E. Lynch as the 83rd Attorney General of the United States.

At 11:30 Monday morning, the State Senate Democrats will renew their push to close the infamous LLC loophole, preceeding a vote in senate committee. The push is being led by Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and bill sponsor Daniel Squadron. They will be joined at the press conference by other legislators from both houses and advocates. [Read about the pending Monday vote on the LLC loophole and the larger campaign finance reform push in our recent article on the subject]

On Monday morning, WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show will welcome City Council Member Brad Lander, who will discuss, among other city news, "the "Stop Credit Discrimination in Employment Act" he sponsored that was approved by the City Council. It would prohibit credit checks for hiring for many jobs."

On Monday morning, ahead of the City Council's hearing on a resolution declaring the city a "TPP-free zone" there will be a 9:30 a.m. press conference at City Hall: "Leaders from New York City's labor, environmental, social justice and faith communities will rally and testify in support of City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal's resolution urging Congress to reject "Fast Track" legislation for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and declaring the city a "TPP-free zone." The rally will include "City Council members, Communications Workers of America, Working Families Party, Sierra Club NYC Group, New York City Central Labor Council, New York State AFL-CIO, Food & Water Watch,, Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY), United Steel Workers, Alliance for Retired Americans and WE ACT for Environmental Justice." Speakers will include Zephyr Teachout and Josh Fox, director of Gasland.

Just after that rally, also outside City Hall, Council Members Margaret Chin and Paul Vallone will hold a "press conference calling on Mayor de Blasio to add new funding for vital senior services in his forthcoming Fiscal Year 2016 executive budget."

Human Services Council will lead a "COLA Rally" at City Hall at noon on Monday: "Join HSC, social service providers, and friends of the sector in urging the City to increase [cost of living adjustments in city contracts] for the social service sector."

Monday’s City Council schedule includes a meeting of the Committee on Women’s Issues to consider a resolution regarding “Prohibition of differential pay based on gender”;  a meeting of the Committee on State and Federal Legislation to consider a resolution declaring the City of New York a ‘TPP-Free Zone’; a meeting of the Committee on Land Use; a meeting of the Committee on Health to consider a resolution “recognizing this and every April as Organ Donation Awareness Month in the City of NY” and to discuss a new bill which would “require the department of health and mental hygiene to issue an annual report regarding hepatitis B and hepatitis C”; and a meeting of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations to discuss a “comprehensive cultural plan.”

At 1:30 p.m. on Monday in Albany, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie will hold a "news conference regarding equal pay. He will be joined by Labor Chair Michele Titus, members of the Assembly Majority and advocates."

Monday afternoon: City College of New York competition expo and Standard Chartered Women Entrepreneurs Prize awards.

At 5:30 p.m Monday, the Contracts Committee of the Panel for Educational Policy will hold a public meeting at Tweed Courthouse.

On Monday evening, City Council Member Helen Rosenthal will hold a town hall with representatives of several city agencies there to answer constituent questions and at which she'll announce the winners of her district's participatory budgeting process.

Also Monday evening, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and special guests Lin-Manuel Miranda and Arturo O’Farril will host An Evening of Arts and Culture at Pregones Theater, in the Bronx.

Comptroller Scott Stringer starts his week with one public event: at 6:30 p.m., Financial Women's Association will host him for an open conversation at TIAA-CREF in Manhattan.

At 8 p.m. on Monday, New York City "First Lady Chirlane McCray will introduce author Toni Morrison at a reading and discussion of Morrison's new book, God Help the Child, at the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center."

And, there is another scheduled debate in the NY-11 congressional race scheduled for Monday evening. Republican Dan Donovan has skipped several opportunities to appear alongside Democrat Vinnie Gentile and Green James Lane and it was reported that he will not be debating again, though it is unclear if he will attend Monday evening's event at 7 p.m. at the College of Staten Island.

Tuesday is one week until the special elections in New York’s 11th Congressional District (Staten Island, Brooklyn) and 43rd Assembly District (Brooklyn).

Tuesday morning in Albany, the New York League of Conservation Voters will host a Capital Region Eco-Breakfast at Fort Orange Club: “Every year, our Capital Region Eco-Breakfast brings together environmental leaders from across the state. We are excited to welcome all three Environmental Conservation Committee chairs in the State Legislature as our featured guest speakers. We will also honor The Nature Conservancy for their tireless work on the Community Risk and Climate Resiliency Act, which was signed into law last year. State Senator Diane Savino will join us to give remarks on this achievement and to present them with their award.”

Tuesday afternoon in Albany, Empire State Pride Agenda will host New York LGBT Equality & Justice Day 2015, "the largest statewide annual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocacy day."

At 1 p.m. on Tuesday outside City Hall, "Advocates and elected officials will call on Mayor Bill de Blasio to allocate more NYCHA public housing units to help reduce record high level of homelessness in the city. Although the Mayor restored federal housing assistance to homeless families, he is only allocating 750 NYCHA public housing apartments each year to homeless families, far less than what's needed" - via Progressive Cities.

Tuesday’s City Council schedule includes a meeting of the Committee on Finance to consider the following resolutions including one “Establishing a property tax credit for commercial landlords who voluntarily limit the amount of rent increases to small business owner tenants upon lease renewal”; and one “Establishing a real property tax credit for small business owners who own their properties and for commercial landlords who retain tenants”; another meeting of the Committee on State and Federal Legislation on the resolution “Declaring the City of New York a “TPP-Free Zone”; and a full-body Stated meeting of the City Council starting at 1:30 p.m., with the usual pre-stated press conference at 12:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Tuesday evening, the New York City Bar Association will host The Evolving City Council: “The Committee on New York City Affairs is presenting a panel discussion addressing the governance of the City Council. What impact do the recent amendments to the Council's Rules have upon the Speaker's powers, independence of Council Members and Committee Chairs, and the effectiveness of the Council in performing its obligations under the Charter? Is a strong Speaker necessary for the Council to act as a check and balance to the Mayor? What further amendments to the Rules are necessary, or should any of the recent amendments be reconsidered? What additional powers, if any, does the Council need to perform its duties effectively and to act as a check and balance to the Mayor?” Participants will include Public Advocate Letitia James Advocate, several current and former City Council members, Manhattan BP Gale Brewer and Queens BP Melinda Katz, Common Cause New York's Susan Lerner, and several law experts.

Also Tuesday evening, the African Leadership Project will hold a panel discussion on access to quality education titled: "Our Children Matter: Is Access to Quality Education a Civil Rights Issue?" at the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building on West 125th Street.

On Tuesday evening in Albany, "City & State convenes leaders in government, business, advocacy and the media to discuss some of the biggest issues and opportunities in New York. The first discussion will focus on affordable housing, highlighting the economic development and jobs aspect of the housing crisis. The second discussion will touch on the need for a better understanding of the unique New York and Canada bi-lateral relationship covering everything from energy to transportation and more! The final panel will look to pull elements from the first two discussions and assess the current state of New York's Infrastructure."

Tuesday, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will hold three fundraisers in New York City, followed by a Wednesday morning speech at former Mayor David Dinkins' annual forum at Columbia University.

Wednesday morning, Hillary Clinton will give the keynote address at the 18th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University.

Wednesday is Denim Day NYC, and there will be a rally at City Hall led by City Council Women's Issues Committee Chair Laurie Cumbo and others to raise awareness about domestic violence and continue the push against it: "Sexual Violence must end. Join the #DENIMDAYNYC rally on Wed. April 29, 11AM, City Hall."

All day Wednesday, Capgemini and Thomson Reuters hosts its Chief Digital Officer Summit New York City. Amen Mashariki, Chief Analytics Officer at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, will attend and speak at one of the panels.

Wednesday’s City Council schedule includes a joint meeting of the Committees on Consumer Affairs and Housing and Buildings on new bills regarding “Licensing tenant relocation specialists”; “Required notifications by persons negotiating tenant buyout offers”; and “Amending the definition of harassment to include repeated buyout offers”; a meeting of the Committee on Sanitation Solid Waste Management for an oversight hearing regarding “Sustainability in the Commercial Waste Industry”; a meeting of the Committee on Technology, jointly with the Committee on Higher Education for an oversight hearing regarding “Diversity at CUNY TV”; a meeting of the Committee on Environmental Protection on “limiting nighttime illumination for certain buildings”; and a meeting of the Committee on Veterans for an oversight hearing on “Veterans Liaisons at City Agencies.”

Wednesday afternoon, the Rockefeller Institute of Government will host a forum on state government immigrant policy with New York Secretary of State Cesar Perales: “This forum engages key policymakers from both the executive and legislative branches to discuss achievements and new initiatives to help new immigrants and refugees, as well as assist permanent residents become U.S. citizens. As comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level has stalled, the states are increasingly passing legislation and implementing initiatives to further immigrant integration. New York is among the handful of states with an Office for New Americans. Working together with a taskforce in the legislature, the Office for New Americans has developed innovative programs that are increasingly referenced across the country, most recently in the “Federal Strategic Action Plan on Immigrant and Refugee Integration” issued on April 14th by the White House Task Force on New Americans.” Assembly Member Marcos Crespo, chair of the Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force and chair of the Task Force on New Americans will attend.

Wednesday at 6 p.m., there will be a Panel for Educational Policy meeting at M.S. 131, 100 Hester Street, Manhattan.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, The Center for New York City Affairs at The New School will host Affordable Housing: Rent and Reality. “Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious affordable housing agenda is at the heart of his administration’s pledge to start a new chapter in “a tale of two cities.” In 2015, Albany serves as the rent-regulation battleground but the true impact of this fight will be felt in the five boroughs where more than 2.3 million people live in rent-regulated housing. While proposals to construct new affordable housing continue to garner the most media attention, the mayor’s State of the City address revealed just how dependent his strategy is on preserving the affordability of existing units. What does the battle over rent regulation in the state capital portend for turning de Blasio’s vision into reality? Join a forum with leading officials, experts, and practitioners who will shed light on this question and more.”

On Thursday, Public Advocate Letitia James will hold a "Forum on Housing Crisis and Rent Reform" at 10 a.m. at the 1199 SEIU Auditorium: "a forum to discuss New York City's housing crisis, landlord abuses of tenants, and the need to strengthen the rent laws that protect the affordable housing of over 2 million New Yorkers. The forum will consist of two panels followed by an intimate roundtable between the Public Advocate and four tenants. The forum is being hosted by the Real Rent Reform Coalition, The Alliance for Tenant Power, and 1199 SEIU." [Read our recent profile of Public Advocate James]

Thursday at 11:30 a.m. at Human Resources Administration's Waverly Job Center on 14th Street, The Safety Net Project will launch "Your Guide to Welfare in NYC," its latest collaboration with the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP). "There will be a short press briefing and remarks from NYC Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steve Banks; Denise Miranda, Managing Director of the Safety Net Project and CUP."

Thursday’s City Council schedule includes a meeting of the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency, jointly with the Committee on Public Housing for an oversight hearing regarding “Monitoring FEMA’s $3 Billion Dollar Grant to NYCHA for Sandy-Damaged Developments”; a meeting of the Committee on Governmental Operations to discuss new bills relating to “Establishing term limits for community board members”; and “Making urban planning professionals available to community boards.” [Read our recent report on the bill to establish terms limits for community board members and read our recent report on the bill to require a city planner for community boards]

On Thursday evening, City & State NY hosts its "inaugural 'On Queens' cocktail reception featuring Queens Borough President Melinda Katz...City & State's first-ever Queens Special Issue, which will be officially released at the event, will focus on the landscape of Queens' politics, feature spotlights specific to the borough, and have perspectives from Queens leaders." 6:30 p.m. in Long Island City.

Friday and the weekend
Friday morning, NYU Steinhardt hosts another in its Education Policy Breakfast Series. The topic will be affordability and sustainability in early childhood education: “As New York prepares to expand pre-K, what can we learn from other cities and countries that have undergone similar efforts?  In particular, what are the different models for funding early childhood education?  How have countries with less wealth succeeded in implementing pre-K?  Our guest speakers will include an economist who focuses on early childhood development and poverty alleviation issues internationally, and a former appointee in the Obama Administration who oversaw pre-K programs in Washington, DC.”

Also Friday morning, the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School will celebrate its 20-year anniversary with a breakfast event featuring NYC Law Department Corporation Counsels past and present, including current corp counsel Zachary Carter, and formers Michael Cardozo and Paul Crotty.

At 10 a.m. Friday, the City Council Committees on Health and Consumer Affairs will meet jointly for a hearing on a variety of business and regulatory policies and practices. Also at 10 a.m., the City Council Committee on Immigration will meet for an oversight hearing on “Implementation of IDNYC - New York City’s Municipal Identification Program.” 

On Saturday, the FDNY celebrates its 150th anniversary with open houses at fire houses and EMS stations all over the city.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Rati Mukhuradze, Marco Poggio, and Ben Max

Categories: State/Local

Business ties to Cuba not easy

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 04/25/2015 - 1:07am


Gov. Andrew Cuomo's whirlwind trip to Cuba, which concluded Tuesday, may raise more questions than it answers about the communist nation's capacity for doing business with New York, particularly its food production and agricultural sectors.

For New York companies like Chobani Yogurt, delivering products to Cuba is easier said than done, Cuba trade experts said.

Cuba's lack of infrastructure — for yogurt, cold-storage warehouses and refrigerated trucks or trains — "is definitely an issue that has to be overcome," said Paul Johnson, CEO of Chicago Foods International, which exports supermarket-type goods like mayonnaise and peanut butter to Cuba "They have infrastructure, but it's not up to par."

Chobani's founder and CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya, was part of the business delegation that accompanied Cuomo to Cuba.

Being among the companies that break through the wall of Cuba's long-endured economic isolation after more than 50 years of U.S. trade embargo would be the latest achievement for Ulukaya, a Kurdish-Turkish immigrant who began Chobani in 2005 after purchasing a defunct Kraft yogurt plant in New Berlin. Another issue, according to Johnson, is that Cubans are used to soy-based yogurt partly subsidized by the government. It may not be as good as Chobani, but "it's cheap," Johnson said. That can be important on an island where average monthly wages are less than $20.

The flurry of Cuba-related U.S. trade activity got its spark from President Barack Obama's December announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would re-establish full diplomatic relations, a major shift in historic American hostility to the regime of Fidel (and now his brother, Raul) Castro that dates back to the early 1960s. Lifting the embargo, however, requires congressional approval. Republicans who control Capitol Hill are not likely to acquiesce anytime soon.

Participation in the Cuomo trip may be less about the realistic possibilities of selling to Cuba and its 11.3 million inhabitants in the short term and more about establishing New York's relationship with the island for the long haul. "It's too much about optics," said John Kavulich, president of the New York City-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, who has been critical of the timing of the Cuomo mission. "New York has terrific products — apples, vegetables — but if you have high-value products and the country you're exporting to is a low-value purchaser, the opportunities might not exist at present."

Food and agricultural products have been off the U.S. embargo list since 2001. But because current U.S. law forbids credit extension to Cuban purchasers, American food exporters have suffered a downturn in business since the 2008 peak of $700 million in sales.

Still, U.S. firms have managed to sell a variety of products to Cuba in recent years, including frozen chicken, soybeans and corn. Companies like Cayuga Milk Ingredients of Auburn will have an easier time selling to Cuba because its primary product, powdered milk, comes in bulk packages that do not require any special handling.

Cayuga's CEO, Kevin Ellis, also was on the Cuomo trip. Spokespeople for Chobani and Cayuga Milk said the CEOs were returning late Tuesday and were not available for interviews.

Although it did not have a representative on the trip, the New York apple industry has been eyeing trade to Cuba for over a decade, said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association in Fishers, near Rochester.

New York produces an annual total of 30 million bushels, making it the nation's No. 2 apple producer behind Washington state. About 8 percent of that is exported, with primary customers being Canada, Israel and the U.K. Allen noted that New York apples also find their way to places like Vietnam, India, Malaysia and the Philippines — markets with climates and infrastructure issues similar to Cuba.

"I think (Cuba) will be a good market for New York apples in the future," said Allen, who participated in U.S. trade missions to Cuba in 2002 and 2008. "In the long term, as the economy grows so will the market and so will the potential to export apples and all sorts of New York agricultural products." But, he added, "it won't happen overnight."

Categories: State/Local

Senate leader Dean Skelos stays low as loyalists offer support

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 04/25/2015 - 1:07am


It was an ordinary start to the second half of the legislative session on Tuesday, with a certain level of anxiety crowding the edges of the frame.

It was the first day Senate Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos was in Albany since The New York Times revealed last week that he and his son Adam are being looked at by federal prosecutors. The Long Island senator stayed out of public view as conference members quietly entered his office and the adjacent Republican conference room throughout the day. Reporters camped outside his office in hopes of getting him to expand on a one-sentence comment he made last week confirming the investigation.

Shortly before 6 p.m., Skelos still had not so much as poked his head out his closed office door — assuming he didn't leave the Republican suite of offices by a different route. To fill the vacuum, some of the Senate's top Republican members voiced support for their leader.

"We've got two more months of session, and his level of support is fine," Sen. John DeFrancisco of Syracuse said.

"It seems to be the thing of the day to be investigated," he added. " ... What do you say? 'I'm innocent, and I'm going to continue doing my job.' And that's the proper perspective."

Sens. Ken LaValle and Carl Marcellino stood by their fellow Long Islander.

"People are where they are with the leader — they have trust and faith in him," LaValle said. "Don't you think we're being a little presumptuous?"

Though numerous reports say a number of Long Island senators have been subpoenaed in the matter, LaValle declined to say if he had received one. "That's a non-issue," he said.

Marcellino confirmed that he has been contacted by prosecutors, but he declined to say what they were looking for.

Also Tuesday, Capital New York reported that a former Nassau County official who signed off on a deal at the heart of the federal investigation is a former and current top aide to Skelos.

The aide, veteran lawyer John Ciampoli, appeared on the contract between the county and AbTech Industries, a company that secured a $12 million contract to build a wastewater treatment system for the county. Adam Skelos, the senator's son, was employed by the company.

During his work as Nassau County's attorney, Ciampoli was the recipient of a lobbying agreement sent by Brian Meara, a prominent Albany lobbyist whose firm represented other entities connected to the AbTech contract.

Meara's friend and fellow lobbyist Mike McKeon, speaking on Meara's behalf, said he had no role whatsoever in the Skelos probe.

Lobbying records show that Meara sent an April 2013 letter to Ciampoli, then the Nassau County attorney, on the letterhead of the Meara Avella Dickinson firm revising its lobbying agreement with the county and extending it for a year. The letter stated the firm would "represent Nassau County before the New York State executive, legislative and administrative branches of government" at a rate of $5,000 a month. Ciampoli signed off on the revised agreement in May 2013, which meant that the deal would have run through May 2014.

In October 2013, the now-controversial $12 million deal in question was finalized between Nassau County and AbTech Industries. Meara's firm represented a corporate sibling of AbTech, though that deal began more than a year after the controversial contract was signed.

McKeon said Tuesday that Meara's work for Nassau County actually stopped after the first half of 2012, long before the AbTech deal was inked.

The May 2013 contract between Meara's firm and Nassau County was signed because the county "wanted to re-engage ... but then (it) never fully executed the contract or asked (Meara) to do any work," McKeon wrote in a email. He added that Nassau said as much in an email Meara filed with the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics in January 2014.

Though Skelos did not appear in the chamber on Tuesday, the GOP and their Democratic counterparts held their first day of session in more than two weeks following the passage of the state budget. The Senate Rules Committee, which Skelos chairs, also met, though without the leader.

The Senate passed all eight bills before adjourning, including a package themed around Earth Day.

The coming months will be far more tension-filled. Left before the Senate are hot items that could not be included in a state budget deal, including a proposed increase in the minimum wage, the DREAM Act and the Education Investment Tax Credit. Also on the docket are rent regulations for New York City, which are set to expire in June.

The GOP senators who spoke to reporters Tuesday were optimistic about what effect, if any, an investigation of Skelos will have on the rest of their business for the year.

"It remains to be seen — hopefully nothing," Marcellino said as he left the Republican conference room.

Categories: State/Local

Photos: Nurse rally at Empire State Plaza Convention Center

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 04/25/2015 - 1:07am

Members of the New York State Nurses Association rallied to advocate for patients' health care needs and better RN staffing levels in the state's hospitals Tuesday at Empire State Plaza Convention Center.

Categories: State/Local

Lawyer asks rebidding of four upstate casino sites

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 04/24/2015 - 8:07am

A law firm that represented one of the failed casino license applicants has written to state Gaming Commission Chairman Mark Gearan urging him to reopen the bidding process for four upstate casinos.

Michelle Merola contends in a 12-page letter that members of the commission's Gaming Facility Location Board added selection criteria after the initial bids were submitted last summer.

For example, Merola said, the initial request for applications didn't specify that the location board would consider which applications would help disadvantaged areas.

"These 'additional criterion' were not disclosed to any potential bidders, were not set forth in the Act and were established too late to comply, " Merola wrote in her April 14 letter.

"The location board considered which proposals would best provide economic assistance to disadvantaged areas of the state. This factor, crucial to a decision about what location to select for an applicant's proposal, was not disclosed prior to the submission of applications,'' she added.

Gaming commission officials had no comment on the letter, dated April 14.

It comes as the process has sparked one lawsuit as well as a similar letter of complaint.

Lawyers for the Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack in Farmington, Ontario County, in March sued over the recommendation that a license be given to the planned Lago resort between Syracuse and Rochester.

Finger Lakes, a thoroughbred racetrack and video lottery operation, said Lago would cannibalize their market since it's only 33 miles away.

Lawyers for the Oneida tribe, which operates the Turning Stone casino on Native American land, offered a similar argument. It said the Lago site is about 76 miles away from their Oneida County operation.

None of the three projects recommended by the location board — Montreign in the Catskill community of Thompson, Lago, and Rivers in Schenectady — have final licenses from the gaming commission.

They instead have recommendations from the location board that the commission needs to act on.

The board during the winter opened another bid for the Eastern Southern Tier region, at Gov. Andrew Cuomo's urging and amid complaints.

The complaints contend Lago, located in Tyre, northern Seneca County, isn't really in the Southern Tier, which runs along the Pennsylvania line.

The applications are due July 6.

Merola's firm, Hodgson Russ, represented Greenetrack, an Alabama company that was one of the competitors looking to build in Orange County.

But in making their recommendations in December, board members said they only wanted one casino in the Hudson Valley/Catskills region. More than that, they feared, could take business from other casinos or video lottery operations. • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

New York Times wine club members dry in New York state

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 04/24/2015 - 1:07am


Here is what we know for sure: The New York Times Wine Club's members in New York state are not getting their wine.

As to the reason why, there have been three explanations offered so far — two contradictory accounts from a club marketing official that were emailed four days apart to New York's disappointed oenophiles, and one from an attorney for the club's operator.

Attorney Joseph Ascoli, who represents the California-based importer Global Wine Co. Inc., said the suspension was due to the loss of the services of the club's in-state wholesaler and its retailer, who canceled their contracts in January because the State Liquor Authority had expressed concern about the club's compliance with state Alcoholic Beverage Control Law.

A very different explanation was zapped out to Wine Club members last Thursday from Dan Crouse, identified as its customer service manager.

"The state of New York has requested that Wine Clubs do not ship into the state until they resolve their process for Internet wine sales," Crouse wrote. "They have notified us that they anticipate a resolution in early July, and we hope to resume shipping shortly thereafter.

But the State Liquor Authority insisted the regulator had never told the club to cancel its shipments.

"It is our understanding the NYT Wine Club stopped shipping because the Club's New York retailer ceased doing business with them," SLA spokesman Bill Crowley said in an email. SLA's only communication with the club, he said, pertained to its desire to submit a new business plan that would allow the shipments to resume. The plan could be approved as soon as July.

The SLA is engaged in protracted but apparently unrelated legal combat with the Colonie retailer Empire Wine over its out-of-state shipments to consumers.

Ascoli, Global Wine's lawyer, confirmed the club's shipments ceased after its in-state retailer as well as its wholesaler canceled their contracts.

Global Wine — which also operates branded wine clubs for Williams-Sonoma, the Washington Post and Food & Wine magazine — received cease-and-desist letters from both New York businesses in January, Ascoli said.

He said Crouse had included "inaccuracies" in his email "in doing what he thought was a good deed."

SLA General Counsel Jacqueline Flug said Tuesday that while she couldn't talk about a pending investigation, Global had reached out to the regulator in January after receiving the cancellation letters and was being "extremely cooperative" as it attempts to get into compliance.

SLA has in recent years issued a number of declaratory rulings dealing with "third-party" wine sales, in which a club or other entity (such as a web-based business) facilitates transactions between licensed in-state sellers and consumers. These decisions have held that only state licensees can sell wine in New York state. Among other prohibitions, a third party can't be involved in the selection of the wines sold by the New York retailer or wholesaler, and can't take too large a cut of the profits from those sales.

On Monday afternoon, Crouse sent out a second email to club members.

"We would like to clarify any misunderstanding regarding the email you received last week," he wrote. "The New York State Liquor Authority has not directed or otherwise ordered The New York Times Wine Club to suspend its operation in New York. This was done voluntarily so that we at The New York Times Wine Club can review our method of operation to make sure we're in full compliance with state laws and regulations."

Asked if that statement was accurate, Ascoli argued that the wine club had indeed "voluntarily" ceased its shipments to New York after receiving the cease-and-desist letters.

He admitted that continuing such shipments would likely have violated state law.


Categories: State/Local

State plans park projects

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 04/24/2015 - 1:07am

ALBANY — The state plans 88 revitalization and rehabilitation projects, totaling $71.7 million, at 60 state parks and historic sites this year.

The announcement was time for Earth Week, which is this week, according to a news release from the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The Capital Region's state parks will split $3.6 million for eight projects.

They are:

• Cherry Plain, to replace a deteriorated picnic area comfort station, $600,000.

• Grafton Lakes, to rehabilitate a 1969 sewage treatment plant, $750,000.

• Grafton Lakes, to rehabilitate two picnic area comfort stations, $300,000.

• Moreau Lake, to build five rental cabins in the campground area, $700,000.

• Olana State Historic Site, $500,000

• Saratoga Spa, to install a parking lot at Roosevelt Baths, $55,000.

• Saratoga Spa, to install high-efficiency heating boilers, $400,000.

• Saratoga Spa, for ongoing rehabilitation of historic spa campus buildings and grounds, $300,000.

The projects are part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's NY Parks 2020 plan, a multiyear private and public funding plan to invest about $900 million in state parks from 2011-20.

—Staff report

Categories: State/Local

Teacher's walk a lesson in respectful discourse

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 04/24/2015 - 1:07am

ALBANY — Rain-soaked and speed walking — lest she cramp up — Maria DeAngelo strode into the state Capitol on Monday afternoon victoriously holding a hand over her head as a small group of followers cheered.

Exhausted but upbeat, the Saranac Lake sixth-grade teacher completed her three-and-a-half-day, 152-mile journey from the North Country village to Albany to make a statement about public education and the latest reforms that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pushed through the Legislature.

DeAngelo said she made the trek, which began Friday, to deliver a message about the need for a more respectful dialogue about what public education is and can be.

"The governor needs to respect all the stakeholders — teachers, parents, administrators, students," she said on the first floor of the Capitol before ascending a staircase to Cuomo's office on the second floor. "That's why I started walking. I figure when we teach our kids, we ask them to solve things with respect and compassion, and we ask them to walk in people's shoes. So that's where it came from.

"And I walk a lot anyway, so I decided to take a long walk," she quipped.

Watch video about DeAngelo's walk on the Capitol Confidential blog at

— Matthew Hamilton

Categories: State/Local

A look at other issues facing the Legislature

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 04/24/2015 - 1:07am


Rent control, a minimum wage hike, the Dream Act and mayoral control of schools aren't the only issues facing New York lawmakers when they return to Albany on Tuesday. Here's a look at some of the other items on the agenda:

— Tax cap: Senate Republicans want to make permanent a law that caps property tax increases in local governments.

• Campus sexual assault: Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to apply a new sexual assault policy in place at the state's public universities to private schools too. The measure includes training for staff, students and police, along with a new definition of sexual consent that requires a clear, affirmative agreement to engage in sexual activity.

• Toy safety: A bill to require manufacturers to phase out the use of certain chemicals considered toxic has passed the Assembly, but not the Senate.

• Mixed martial arts: Efforts to legalize professional mixed martial arts in New York have been blocked for years by Assembly Democrats. But with a new speaker in charge — Bronx Democrat Carl Heastie — supporters think this may be their year.

• GMO labeling: Legislation to require labels on food products containing ingredients from genetically modified plants will get another push.

• Ethics and campaign finance: Lawmakers approved Cuomo's proposal on disclosure of outside income, but some lawmakers want to go further by passing tougher campaign finance rules or even limiting how much money lawmakers can make from outside jobs.

• Juvenile justice: Cuomo and many Democrats want to end the state's practice of automatically prosecuting and incarcerating 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult system.

• Transgender discrimination: A measure to make it illegal to discriminate against a transgender person when it comes to jobs, apartments, schools and public accommodations, like hotels and restaurants, has passed the Assembly and has Cuomo's support but has not yet received a debate in the Senate.

Categories: State/Local

Lobbyist played no role in Skelos probe, friend says

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 04/24/2015 - 1:07am


Top Albany lobbyist Brian Meara is widely reported to have cooperated with U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's corruption case against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Now several of his firm's clients have surfaced in Bharara's inquiry into Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son.

Though Meara didn't respond to requests for comment, a friend authorized to speak on his behalf said he has nothing to do with the Skelos investigation.

The Skelos probe, described by the New York Times last week, has ties to three current or recent Meara lobbying clients, including a North Carolina subsidiary of a company called AbTech Holdings.

Investigators are reportedly looking into whether Skelos sought to exert influence in AbTech's pursuit of a $12 million stormwater management contract with Nassau County, Skelos' power base.

Senate Republicans are reportedly nervous because Meara is a business partner with fellow lobbyist Mike Avella, a former counsel to the Senate GOP and Skelos. The two are principals in the Albany-based firm Meara Avella Dickinson.

Avella did not return phone calls or an email seeking a direct comment, but the Meara spokesman also clarified Avella's history lobbying for one of the clients in question.

Records show Meara Avella Dickinson also recently represented Nassau County, as well as another business mentioned in the Times report: real estate developer Glenwood Management.

Run by the state's most generous political donor, Leonard Litwin, Glenwood was Meara's link to the Silver case: A longtime friend of Silver, Meara has reportedly received a non-prosecution agreement in exchange for helping prosecutors link payments made by the prominent Manhattan developer to the Assembly speaker, who was ousted from his leadership position in January following his arrest.

Meara Avella Dickinson, one of the state's most successful lobbying firms, has dozens of other clients. Though its employees didn't return phone calls, Mike McKeon of Mercury Public Affairs responded to the Times Union on behalf of his friend Meara.

McKeon said Meara had nothing to do with any part of the Skelos inquiry.

According to the Times reports, the federal inquiry into Skelos delves into AbTech's employment of the lawmaker's son, Adam, who introduced the firm's representatives to officials at the Nassau County Department of Public Works. Neither Dean nor Adam Skelos has been charged with any wrongdoing.

In an October 2013 news release, Abtech Holdings — the parent company of AbTech Industries — announced the $12 million contract to construct a stormwater management project for Nassau County. The release stated that another subsidiary of Abtech Holdings, the stormwater engineering company AEWS Engineering, would be involved in the project.

More than a year later, AEWS in November 2014 secured Meara Avella Dickinson for "infrastructure" lobbying, records show. The contract was signed by Avella.

But according to McKeon, that assignment came not through Glenwood but through another Albany lobbying firm, Capitol Group LLC, which had sought Avella's services. McKeon said the work only lasted two months.

Meara Avella Dickinson also has represented Nassau County: In April 2012, its Chief Deputy County Executive Rob Walker signed a $5,000-a-month lobbying contract with Meara to lobby state government on "issues pertaining to Nassau County." The lobbying firm had previously done other work for Nassau, records show.

The press office for Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano didn't return a request for comment about the scope of work performed as part of that lobbying contract. (The acting Nassau district attorney launched a probe into the county's process for awarding contracts.)

Meara "didn't represent AbTech and never did" in any aspect of the $12 million deal, McKeon said. "He had no involvement in the (stormwater) contract. He stopped representing Nassau County long before the contract was awarded."

Lobbying disclosures state Meara's firm was getting paid by Nassau though June 2013, but McKeon said his work on behalf of Nassau stopped in 2012.

Glenwood Management was also named in the Times report. The paper stated that two men close to the developer have signed public records filed by a company that invested in Abtech Holdings. One is Charles Dorego, a senior Glenwood executive who was a primary contact of Meara's at the real estate firm: Required lobbying filings contain several letters from Meara to Dorego specifying the terms of his work for Glenwood.

Although unnamed in the federal complaint against the longtime leader, Glenwood was quickly identified in subsequent reports as a client of Goldberg & Iryami, a law firm that had employed Silver. Half the indictment against the former Assembly speaker stems from his collection of referral fees from Litwin, whose businesses have had and continue to have matters before state government. Silver has maintained his innocence.

Meara was just one of the lobbyists representing Glenwood before the state in recent years: In 2014, it employed eight different lobbying firms at a total cost of $900,000.


Categories: State/Local

For 'A Better New York,' Activists Lobby Albany for Election Reform

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 04/24/2015 - 1:00am

Activists in Albany (photo: @NYCVotes)

On a crisp Wednesday morning, two buses pulled up outside the New York State Capitol in Albany. Their cargo: a delegation of about 100 students, volunteers, and good government activists who travelled from New York City to advocate for voting reform.

It was the second annual "Vote Better NY" Advocacy Day for Election Reform organized by NYC Votes, a non-partisan voter engagement initiative run by the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB) and its Voter Assistance Advisory Committee.

The delegation left the city at 6 a.m. with the carefully defined objective of pushing state Senators and Assembly members on three voting issues: online voter registration, better ballot design, and early voting.

Splitting into groups of five or six, activists worked the halls of the Capitol and the legislative office building, participating in back-to-back pre-arranged meetings with legislative staff or legislators themselves.

Preparing for its first meeting, one group circled around their leader Onida Coward Mayers, the director of voter assistance at the CFB. "We're not lobbyists," Mayers said in her short pep talk. "You are an individual, a member of the public, and we all want the same thing. We're thanking [our representatives] for their work, but they need to do more. We're holding their feet to the fire."

NYC Votes' advocacy day comes at a time when the Legislature is just getting back to work, filling the vacuum after the budget session. "Everything is budget here till April 1. The budget kinda sucked the oxygen out of the air," said Bryan Clenahan, counsel to Senator Diane Savino, as he addressed the Mayer-led group of activists, which included members of Dominicanos USA, the League of Women Voters, and the NAACP.

The Legislature is in session through mid-June, with lawmakers in Albany a few days most weeks until then. There are many issues on the table that were left out of the budget, including minimum wage, criminal justice reform, and mayoral control of schools, but advocates wanted to make sure that election reform is also part of the discussion.

Advocacy day was an opportunity for many of the advocates to meet their representatives and express their priorities directly. Rob Reynolds, 28, works in tax preparation in Brooklyn. He was one of many independent members of the public, not affiliated with any organization, who joined NYC Votes for Wednesday's trip. "The day was very productive," he said. "We met with a lot of legislators. We shared with them our thoughts and ideas for improving the electoral process in New York. A lot of them seemed very receptive and seemed supportive of our ideas."

Reynolds believes wholeheartedly that New York needs to improve its voter turnout, especially by taking lessons from other states that have a better record. For him, the day was an exciting opportunity to be heard. But it was not without its disappointments, particularly an Assembly member who Reynolds did not want to name publicly, but said was more interested in his own election efforts than expanding the democratic process. "There is an inherent problem when the people who we elect get to choose who elects them and it's not right," said Reynolds. "It's not morally fair - in a democracy that's not how it should work."

The numbers in yesterday's delegation are an indicator of an increasing consciousness among New Yorkers that reforming the voting process is necessary, particularly considering that New York hit the historically low point of 28.8 percent voter turnout in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

"Last year we brought 50 people, everyday average New Yorkers to talk about [voting reform]," said Matt Sollars, press secretary at CFB. "This year we brought 100 people and next year we'll bring 200 people, and we're gonna keep bringing more people up here to talk about this until we see real change and we see real modern elections in New York state."

The groups navigated the cavernous halls of the Capitol, even attending meetings with representatives of legislative leaders Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Senator Jeff Klein.

Through the day, the activists tried to get legislators on board with specific bills. One bill provides for online voter registration through the Board of Elections. Currently, New Yorkers can only register online through the Department of Motor Vehicles. The advocates also asked legislators to support the Voter Friendly Ballot Act, sponsored by Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, which improves ballot design.

Although there was no specific bill on the agenda for early voting, some of the activists were surprised to learn in a meeting with Senator Tony Avella that he had introduced a proposal for weekend voting.

"There was almost unanimous agreement among all the legislators that we met that voting was a top priority and that they were in favor of greater transparency and access to the voting process in principle, but they wanted to read the bills that were at issue," said Bridgette Ahn, president-elect of the Korean American Lawyers Association. "I think an important component of this is establishing a relationship, raising awareness, bringing the information to key decision-makers, following up with them, and continuing on the advocacy front."

At the end of the day, NYC Votes had made its mark. The delegation was recognized both in the Assembly and Senate sessions for its work in promoting voting reform. "We do know the politics still plays after we leave their four walls," Onida Coward Mayers said with cautious optimism. "I'm very proud of the message that we sent that we will be heard," she said. "There needs to be election reform, citizens matter and citizens want change. [New Yorkers] want an easier, friendly, 21st century democracy." 

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

Categories: State/Local

With Another LLC Loophole Vote Coming, Dwindling Optimism About Any Campaign Finance Reform

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 04/24/2015 - 1:00am

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)

The State Senate Elections Committee is expected to vote Monday whether to advance a bill that would close a controversial loophole in state election law that allows wealthy donors to pour unlimited cash into campaign coffers through the use of multiple limited liability corporations, or LLCs.

Sen. Daniel Squadron, a New York City Democrat and the bill's sponsor, has maneuvered the bill to a committee vote despite major opposition from the Republican majority conference. Monday's vote will come after reform groups and some legislators failed in an attempt to get the State Board of Elections to reverse its 1996 interpretation of state law that created the loophole. Senate Republicans have bristled at using the term "loophole" to describe the BOE interpretation.

"As the focus continues on this critical ethics reform, it will be disappointing if Monday's Elections Committee vote breaks down along the same partisan lines that the recent budget and Board of Elections votes did," said Squadron. "In light of the BOE's professed arguments, I'm hopeful that the Elections Committee will take a serious look at this issue to prevent unlimited sums of anonymous dollars from perverting our state government and the entire political process."

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, also a New York City Democrat, sponsors the same bill in the Assembly. Kavanagh told Gotham Gazette he believes his conference is also ready to move on the bill and that he thinks Senate Republicans should be too. "The Republican BOE chair said that he thought the Legislature was the appropriate place to address this. And I know he isn't the only one who believes that."

The LLC loophole has become a major flashpoint in the battle for campaign finance reform because other efforts at reform failed in this year's budget negotiations and a pilot public financing program for last year's comptroller race never got off the ground.

Advocates acknowledge that while having a committee vote on the issue is a victory in itself it isn't exactly likely that the bill passes the Senate given that Republicans currently enjoy a narrow majority that could fall apart at any time due to indictment, illness, or retirement. Their candidates are often bolstered by large donations from single individuals or industries that use the LLC loophole to their advantage.

Advocates admit that the vote may be the last gasp for campaign finance efforts this year. "I think the real chance for reform this year is on the LLC loophole because there is more clear agreement on that," said Rachael Fauss of good government group Citizens Union. "I think we will have to wait for another major push until the budget next year."

Kavanagh said he expects the LLC loophole to remain a major focus for the rest of the year with perhaps some room between the Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats to negotiate further contribution disclosure rules, including, perhaps, requiring donors to list their employers. Conversation and movement during this year's budget negotiations mostly revolved around legislators' outside income.

The last two years have been a roller coaster ride for campaign finance reform advocates. Last March advocates were in a place they had never been before: Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget proposal included a system for publicly funded campaigns and the Moreland Commission on Public Integrity was digging deep into just how weak and ineffective the state's Board of Electionss is at enforcing New York's already lax campaign finance rules. "It felt like we had so much momentum," said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters, who also served as an advisor to the Moreland Commission.

Over a year later things have changed drastically: Cuomo abruptly killed Moreland in exchange for some limited campaign finance reforms, and despite massive scandals the Legislature has remained obstinant, refusing to make major reforms. If last March was the high of highs, this April has been the low of lows as campaign finance reform appears all but dead for the foreseeable future.

Reformers' best chance at change - having the BOE reinterpret its opinion regarding LLCs - failed and Senate Republicans stand even more steadfast against reform. It isn't surprising that the Legislature has failed to act on campaign finance reform despite the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the investigation into Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos because, as Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters told Gotham Gazette, nothing in Albany is surprising anymore.

"Scandal does not seem to deter the Legislature in its appetite to avoid dealing with the issue," said Bartoletti. In fact, Bartoletti said that scandal appears to have increased the Senate Republicans' affection for the current system. "The Senate Republicans hold such a tenuous grasp on the majority that they are loathe to change the system that gets them elected," said Bartoletti.

Republican Senators do tend to benefit more from the largesse of the real estate industry and corporations that use the LLC loophole to subvert the state's donation limits. Republicans counter that Democrats benefit from massive union donations.

"As soon as the so-called good government groups have anything to say about the unlimited money that unions pump into the coffers of Democrats or the dollars that Mayor de Blasio funnels to Upstate County Democrat Party Committees, we may start taking them seriously," Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Republicans, said in a statement. "Until then, they should get a life."

Advocates don't put responsibility entirely on Senate Republicans. They look at the governor, saying Cuomo has failed to capitalize on major public outcry over scandal and not used his bully pulpit to push reform. They point to budget negotiations last year when most thought Cuomo was in a position thanks to Moreland and continuing pressure from the US Attorney to truly campaign for public financing of elections.

Instead Cuomo abruptly shuttered Moreland for what advocates call "meager" ethics tweaks and minimal campaign finance measures. The two measures - a pilot program for public financing exclusively in the 2014 comptroller's race and a new enforcement office in the BOE - have not delivered.

Incumbent Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, an advocate of public financing of campaigns, declined to participate in the system because it was so hastily arranged and his Republican opponent failed to raise enough money to participate. The program, meant to perhaps initiate a much larger system, is now defunct.

Meanwhile, little has been heard from the BOE's enforcement unit headed by Cuomo appointee Risa Sugarman.

Moreland dedicated an entire hearing to attacking the BOE's paltry enforcement mechanisms. As part of the deal to kill the commission Cuomo and the Legislature installed Sugarman as the head of an office charged with finding violations of campaign finance law and bringing cases against violators.

Good government groups and election board members alike say that so far Sugarman's appointment has only caused a regression in the board's enforcement actions.

"The independent enforcement counsell is taking a very different approach to enforcement and has given much less focus to the routine enforcement work that was done before the independent office was created," Democratic Board Chair Douglas Kellner told Gotham Gazette.

Kellerman says that Sugarman has failed to collect fines from those who were found delinquent before she took office in 2014 and has not issued notices to campaign committees that had not filed since the July filing deadline last year. As of January Sugarman had also not begun assembling a report on the biggest violators of campaign contribution limits the board has traditionally issued.

Sugarman did not respond to a request for an interview but she confirmed publically in board meetings with Kellerman that she had not sent the notices.

At a board meeting in January Sugarman argued she had found a number of bad addresses for previous filings. She also said she was waiting for hearing officers to be hired. Hearing officers were the Legislature's contribution to the enforcement unit and are seen by good government groups as an uncesscary hoop to jump through because cases against violators must also be presented in State Supreme Court. Other commissioners pushed Sugarman to act because such a large backlog had been created.

"I guess my overall concern is that there were certainly lots of problems with the old enforcement unit," Kellner said to Sugarman at the January meeting, "but there were lots of things that were getting done with the old enforcement unit that I'm concerned have now gone by the wayside with the transition and I hate to see us have a step backwards as opposed to forward on this. The over-contribution report was one of those things."

BOE staffers and chairs have expressed frustration that Sugarman doesn't update them on her activities. She has stressed her independence and ability to work on investigations with complete secrecy but some BOE members think the office is directionless and is looking to land big cases at the cost of basic enforcement.

Advocates share a lot of those concerns. "It seems they are missing basic procedure, missing basic compliance that the board used to do such as filing reports and audits," said Fauss of Citizens Union. "It is unfortunate that the board is not in a better position. It is a shame that we don't even see enforcement of basic compliance."

Assembly Member Kavanagh said that he believes Sugarman's office has already accomplished a great deal: "We never had someone looking at filings beyond whether they were on time or not. Without that it is hard to see how real enforcement happens. Now we actually have someone scrutinizing them and I think that will have a great impact."

Bartoletti said she hopes to see increased action from the enforcement unit over the next few months, but is concerned that precious time has already been lost. "We will be watching closely for the rest of the calendar year. We may will be looking carefully at who they hire and how independent they are. I would hope they will be a fully-staffed, functioning enforcement unit by 2016 because without enforcement nobody cares what the laws are," Bartoletti told Gotham Gazette.

Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette: "The administration included additional funds in the budget last year to create and support the BOE enforcement unit. The unit is fully staffed and effectively operating at capacity."

Asked whether Cuomo plans to continue to push for campaign finance reform during the rest of session Lever said: "Yes, the Governor has been and remains committed to campaign finance reform."

Right now Bartoletti said she only has faith in one man to do campaign finance enforcement and it isn't technically his job. "The only one doing campaign finance enforcement at the moment is Preet Bharara," she said.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Categories: State/Local

Trade pitch taking flight

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 04/23/2015 - 2:07pm


When the charter flight shuttling Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a delegation of about 20 politicians and business leaders touches down Monday in Cuba, expect the opposite of a mini-vacation in the Caribbean.

Cuomo's trip, which will be the first by any governor since the United States and Cuba began to normalize relations in December, will be a whirlwind roughly 24-hour trade mission billed as being about the economic potential between the fourth most-populous state and the island nation.

Its critics say timing may diminish its economic value. Supporters say being first in line is key, as is planting the seeds of a relationship with the country.

On Sunday, the governor's office officially announced a full slate of delegates that ranges from the state's top political figures to a major airline CEO and a yogurt company founder. He'll also bring the State University System's top official, the North Country Chamber of Commerce president and representatives from major pharmaceutical companies, among others.

In a statement, Cuomo said he wants New York to be "first out of the gate when it comes to building trade partnerships and establishing a strong position in this new market."

That fits with the mission of Cuomo's Global NY Initiative, a second-term plan to visit key trade partners (China, Mexico and the like). He has been adamant since news of his Cuban expedition came out in January that the trip is about opening New York up to global business. That means subjects like human rights aren't expected to be topics of discussion between the governor and the Cuban officials he meets with. (Asked in January why he wouldn't talk about human rights in Cuba when he did during a trip to Israel last year, he responded: "I didn't say I won't discuss it. It's not the purpose of the trip. It's not my portfolio.")

A Cuomo aide said an itinerary was not publicly available Sunday.

Those who view the trip with a critical eye wonder if his timing is ideal for a trade mission of this significance, though. The Obama administration announced just last week that it would remove Cuba from the list of nations that sponsor terrorism, but that is yet to happen.

To be clear, the Cuomo administration has planned the trip for months and announced an April 20 visit in February.

"Much of this visit seems to be more focused on optics than transactions," said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. "It would be, if I use the governor's own words, the first governor to go since before President Obama's announcement (that the U.S. will normalize relations with Cuba). If that's your goal, wouldn't there be much greater value in being the first governor to walk into a re-established U.S. embassy in Havana?"

Politically, perhaps not.

"He's always been lefty on social and symbolic issues like immigration and gay marriage and things like that," said former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a senior fellow at the Demos think tank in New York City, who added that there isn't much deep voter interest on the U.S.-Cuban relation issue. "His problem is he's been right-leaning on economic issues. This doesn't break any new ground. It's a good thing, but it has almost no political significance."

So if business truly is the endgame, could the trip be seen as a success when it ends Tuesday?

In a Sunday phone interview, Kavulich seemed positive about some of the trip's business delegates, whose trips won't be taxpayer-funded. Kavulich's sentiment was reflected in a memo from the trade and economic council. The memo outlined how companies like Cayuga Milk Ingredients and JetBlue and entities like the Plattsburgh International Airport can export or provide services immediately.

The dairy industry, for example, exported to Cuba more than $81 million worth of powdered milk from 2004 to 2008 (it has not imported any since), according to the memo. On the airline side, JetBlue has been operating charter flights to Cuba since 2011, and Plattsburgh (a majority of that airport's passengers are Canadians who already can travel to Cuba from Montreal, roughly an hour away) could bid for nonstop regularly scheduled flights to Cuba, according to the council.

While the trip's schedule doesn't leave much time to fully cement relationships between Cuba and those companies and, more broadly, Cuba and New York, it's at least a start.

"This is developmental," said Antonio C. Martinez II, head of the Cuba-Latin America Trade Group at Gotham Government Relations. "I don't think it's going to be necessarily definitive because Cuba is a place that carefully selects who it does business with. So you have to build a relationship, and you have to be in it for the long term. Cuba is not a place where they're looking for one-shot deals." • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

For Clinton, a campaign grows in Brooklyn

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 04/23/2015 - 12:07am

New York

The 19-story office building rises amid downtown Brooklyn, its upper floors offering sweeping views of the bustling streets below, the iconic nearby Manhattan skyline and the famed bridges that span the East River.

Inside is an outpost of Morgan Stanley, a busy pediatrician's office, an annex of the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York's office — and the new headquarters of what could arguably be the most scrutinized campaign in United States history: Hillary Rodham Clinton's second bid for the White House.

Her staff has barely moved in — and there has been no sign of the candidate herself — but her presence has already been felt.

TV news trucks have become a common sight, a series of protests have already been staged in front of the lobby and mysterious black-and-white artwork depicting the candidate's face with the slogans "Don't Say Secretive," "Don't Say Ambitious" and "Don't Say Entitled" were hung on light poles nearby.

The choice to base her campaign in Brooklyn — which, intentional or not, creates an association with its urban grit and liberal cool — has largely been well-received by those who live and work in the borough that has at last emerged from the shadow of its glamorous neighbor, Manhattan.

"There is no better backdrop for Hillary's historic run than a place like Brooklyn," said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who once represented Brooklyn in Congress. "It is a melting pot of middle-class families — and those striving to get there — that is bustling with countless striving families, seniors and creative young people who are making and remaking the American Dream every day."

Brooklyn almost appeared destined to play one role or another in Clinton's campaign.

The deep blue borough was one of three finalists for the 2016 Democratic national convention and its bid was championed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, a close Clinton ally who managed her successful 2000 U.S. Senate bid. But it lost to Philadelphia, a fate that seemed likely as rumors began swirling that Clinton was eyeing Brooklyn for her campaign headquarters.

Other possible locations — including Queens and White Plains, in Westchester County near Clinton's Chappaqua home — were considered but ruled out and the campaign signed a lease at the beginning of this month to take over two floors totaling 80,000 square feet in One Pierrepont Plaza.

The building — which, amusingly, sits around the corner from Clinton Street — is owned by Forest City Ratner, a major New York development firm run by Bruce Ratner, a minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets who has contributed more than $400,000 to Democrats.

The campaign has not revealed what it paid for the space in the building, which advertises itself as "Modern Offices. Brooklyn Cool." on its website.

Campaign officials have told The Associated Press that the site was chosen because of its affordable rate and convenience for many members of the staff, who already called New York home.

Located near 12 subway lines, the building is a very short train ride or drive into Manhattan — and the Clinton Foundation's Midtown base — and its neighborhood, just steps from Brooklyn's civic center, offers plenty of dining options for a weary campaign staff.

"A lot of my customers come up and say 'Did you hear? Hillary's coming!'" said Khamis Elsayed, 53, who parks his coffee cart just outside One Pierrepont Plaza. "People are excited. This is good for the neighborhood, this is good for Brooklyn, this is good A to Z."

The location will still inevitably be linked to the "Brooklyn brand" that has become synonymous with hipster culture, youthful energy and lefty politics. The benefit for Clinton, like it would have been had the convention been placed in Brooklyn, is an association with the uber-liberal politics — personified by de Blasio, a Brooklyn resident, though he has not yet offered an endorsement— that could offer a defense on the left, where she was vulnerable in 2008.

Conversely, being in New York just mere miles from Wall Street, could raise uncomfortable questions from the left about the Clinton's at-times cozy relationship with the masters of the financial universe. Or, according to some pundits, beyond perhaps affecting the staff's morale and some campaign imagery, it won't matter at all.

"For 99.9 percent of voters, they will have no idea where a candidate has set up an office and even those who do know won't care," said Tobe Berkovitz, communications professor at Boston University.

"And for some target voter in Missouri, Brooklyn doesn't mean anything at all."

Categories: State/Local

Forestry tax breaks may be cut

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 04/23/2015 - 12:07am

Lake George

Thousands of landowners could lose tax breaks as New York regulators consider changes to a program that rewards property owners for good forestry practices.

Charles Stackhouse, president of the New York Forest Owners Association, said numerous landowner groups are opposing the Department of Environmental Conservation's proposed changes to the "480-a" forest tax law and have reached out to legislators about it, the Glens Falls Post-Star reported.

Some of the changes would increase expenses for landowners, who would face more red tape and high fees to have their management plans certified, Stackhouse said.

One of the proposed changes would squeeze out those who own less than 1,000 acres. The current minimum is 50 acres. Another proposed change would limit the maximum assessment reduction to 40 percent. Chris Gearwar, owner of Lake George Forestry, said he knows of some local woodland owners who qualify for breaks of up to 80 percent now.

There could also be changes in the types of land eligible.

The agency says part of the rationale is to protect the interest of taxpayers who absorb the tax shift that results from assessment reductions to others. DEC said the agency has discussed "conceptual reforms" and is considering feedback before deciding how to proceed.

New York state is 63 percent forested, with 74 percent of the state's 19 million acres of forest privately owned, according to DEC.

The state enacted the 480-a tax law in 1974 to encourage the long-term management of productive woodlands where timber is harvested according to a plan prepared by a professional forester.

Categories: State/Local

Hacked emails between Sony, Cuomo administration

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 04/23/2015 - 12:07am


A trove of purloined emails detailing how Sony Pictures Entertainment executives poured money into Gov. Andrew Cuomo's campaign coffers after the state acted on a $26 million payout to the company has reignited criticism of New York's Film Tax Credit Program.

Opponents say the program, which costs $420 million annually, is wasteful and nourishes pay-to-play culture at the state Capitol.

The emails were part of a huge batch of communications and internal documents hacked from Sony last fall. The U.S. has accused North Korea of taking part as retribution for the studio's decision to greenlight "The Interview," a satire about an assassination plot against the nation's leader, Kim Jong Un.

The release of the private emails caused a media sensation that revealed the salaries of Hollywood executives and gossip about stars including Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio.

On Thursday, the digital guerrilla organization WikiLeaks posted the cache of 173,132 emails in indexed and searchable form. A search for "Cuomo" turned up discussions of the tax credit as well as plans by Sony executives to raise money for the governor — a "strong protector'' of the tax credit, one executive said.

In a string of emails from December 2013, Keith Weaver, executive vice president of Sony, wrote to Rhoda Glickman, an official with the state's Empire State Development Corp., which administers the film tax credit program. The exchange was reported on Friday by Capital New York.

"I need your help, as we need to resolve a number of pending production tax credits by 1/15/14 in order to realize the benefit this year," Weaver wrote to Glickman. " ... We have approximately $26M in tax credits outstanding."

Glickman wrote back the same day: "Send me everything you need to get resolved."

Weaver later wrote to fellow Sony executives that the tax credits have been pushed through, adding "Happy Holidays."

On Friday, ESDC said there was nothing inappropriate about the exchange.

"The credits in question, which were for already completed productions that had spent tens of millions of dollars in the state, were not fast-tracked," said spokesman Jason Conwall in an email. "They were processed and paid out once mandatory auditing and verifications were completed on a schedule that was in line with every other application."

Several days after his back-and-forth with Glickman, Weaver wrote to Sony CEO Michael Lynton about an upcoming Cuomo fundraiser hosted by a film executive in California.

"Cuomo's people would like us to support in the following ways:

1) You lending your name to the invite host committee

2) We commit to raise $50K by July of this year."

Weaver acknowledged that $50,000 was "a heavy lift since most of it needs to come from individual contributions (only $5k can come from corp.), but I recommend we do it. Cuomo has been a strong protector of the film incentive — even amidst recent criticisms of the program."

The fundraiser later that month reaped roughly $500,000 for Cuomo's re-election efforts.

"There's a clear recognition on the part of folks who want favors from government that cash donations can help pave the way, and the bigger the donation the smoother the pavement," said Michael Kink, director of Strong Economy for All, a union-backed group pushing for a higher minimum wage, fewer corporate tax breaks and more robust campaign finance overhaul.

"If you want to take special interest, political rent-seeking out of government, you've got to eradicate tax loopholes and preferences like this," said E.J. McMahon, president of the fiscally conservative Empire Center.

Others were even more blunt. "This is just dripping with corruption," said Rensselaer County GOP Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, a frequent Cuomo critic. " ... We should be holding hearings."

McMahon said many industries give donations to politicians who are helpful. But others said the emails offered another reminder of the transactional nature of Albany policy and politics.

"This is giving the public a look at the unseemly sausage-making process," said Blair Horner, legislative director of New York Public Interest Research Group.

New York's Film Tax Credit is considered the most generous of any state effort when it comes to giving breaks to film production companies that shoot and perform other functions here.

The credit has been criticized by organizations including the state Business Council, which has said the beneficiaries are frequently out-of-state companies that set up shop temporarily in New York. On Friday, the council declined to comment on the Sony emails.

Conwall of ESDC said the credit "was responsible for more than 60,000 jobs and $9.8 billion in spending over the last two years alone. This program has been working as intended — to draw more film production to New York along with the jobs and economic activity that go with it."

A 2013 study from one of Cuomo's handpicked commissions found that the Film Tax Credit "does not appear to pay for itself," and recommended scaling it back by $50 million. The suggestion was ignored.

Despite the criticism, the film tax credit isn't likely to go away any time soon. It was extended in the budget through the 2018-19 fiscal year.

"It's not like they're going to revisit it now," McMahon said.


Categories: State/Local

Xerox wins $565 million Medicaid contract

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 04/23/2015 - 12:07am


Almost a year after the contract was awarded by the Department of Health, New York State has finalized a five-year, $565 million deal with Xerox Corp. to redesign and operate the information system for the state's $50 billion-plus Medicaid program.

Two other companies, Computer Sciences Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., had protested the contract, which prompted a lengthy review by the office of Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

Among the concerns raised by the competitors were what they believed were short timeframes for getting the new system up and running.

In the award letter, DiNapoli's office said safeguards address some of those concerns, and the Health Department has taken ''proactive steps'' to make sure milestones in the project are met.The contract is scheduled to take effect 14 days after the decision.

— Rick Karlin

Categories: State/Local

State's senators support rail bill

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 04/23/2015 - 12:07am


U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand on Friday aligned themselves with legislation introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., that would speed up Positive Train Control on passenger rail lines and tracks traveled by trains carrying crude oil or ethanol.

Positive Train Control, mandated by Congress in 2008, is the railroad world's equivalent of an air-traffic-control system. It monitors train speeds, track conditions and whether trains are on the same track and about to collide with each other.

PTC would have prevented the 2013 Metro North derailment around a sharp curve at Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx, Schumer said. The accident killed four and injured 63.

The legislation introduced Friday "makes sure railroads are transparent about their efforts" to install PTC, Schumer said. "Congress must pass this legislation so that railroads speed up implementation of this important new technology that will help slow down trains in event of an emergency."

The Blumenthal bill, the Positive Train Control Safety Act, co-authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is aimed at countering bipartisan legislation introduced last month by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would delay the December 31, 2015, deadline for PTC installation until 2020.

The Blumenthal proposal would allow the Federal Railroad Administration to grant one-year deadline extensions to railroad lines on a case-by-case basis until 2018. It would also require PTC on any rail line used by tanker cars carrying oil such as Bakken crude from North Dakota or ethanol.

Rail transport of crude oil has been a growing concern in the Capital Region, with trains lumbering close to populated neighborhoods and many residents fearing they are accidents waiting to happen.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has urged stricter federal oversight of oil trains, and has had the state Department of Transportation up its inspections of trains, tracks and railroad infrastructure.

But he has resisted calls to bar the trains outright, saying the issue falls under federal jurisdiction.

The Department of Transportation on Friday issued an emergency order requiring trains hauling crude oil and other flammable liquids to slow down as they pass through urban areas.

The Blumenthal bill also would beef up protections for rail employees in work zones along tracks and require commuter railroad employees to inspect tracks and sidings at various intervals.

Two Metro North employees have been killed in recent years when trains struck them while working on tracks. Robert Luden died in West Haven, Conn., in 2013 and James Romansoff was killed last year in East Harlem.

The legislation would also direct the Department of Transportation to study ways to use PTC and other technologies to reduce hazards at roadway rail crossings, a reaction to the accident in Valhalla.

The rail industry's main trade group, the Association of American Railroads, called the 2015 PTC deadline "not possible'' to achieve and lobbied for an extension.

"Unmanageable deadlines could result in higher costs and a disruption of service," Blunt said in a statement. "This bipartisan bill will help ease the Positive Train Control deadline to give railroads nationwide enough time to fully and safely implement this new technology.'' Joining Blunt were Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., as well as Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

Blumenthal accused the rail industry of delaying tactics to avoid the cost of installing PTC.

"The main obstacle to progress has been resistance from some of the railroads," he said. But AAR spokesman Ed Greenberg said railroads are "fully committed" to PTC.

Categories: State/Local
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