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NYC economy takes $200M hit

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 01/31/2015 - 1:07am

New York

New York City lost about $200 million in economic activity in the fizzled snowstorm and decision to shut down the transit system, but it wasn't a crippling loss, according to a preliminary estimate from Moody's Analytics.

Consumers who would have otherwise bought cars or made other major purchases will likely do so a day or two later, Moody's economist Adam Kamins said. And he noted that many employees forced to stay home Tuesday were able to telecommute.

"For example, a holiday where people aren't working would have a greater impact on the economic output than this storm," Kamins said.

Evan Gold, senior vice president for Planalytics, a firm that advises companies on weather issues, estimated the economic losses for the total Northeast at $500 million.

"Now that does sound like a lot of money, but when you think about last year, where we had a polar vortex, several weeks of that, more population centers impacted as well as above-normal snowfall, last year's overall economic impact is pegged at anywhere from $15 billion to $50 billion," he said. "So in comparison, this is actually a relatively small event."

In New York, the biggest impact was on small businesses and hourly workers who rely on tips, such as taxi drivers and restaurant workers.

For them, the lost work time stung. Lenice Ferguson, a baker at Insomnia Cookies, said the shop is usually open until 3 a.m. making deliveries. The bakery closed at about 10 p.m. Monday.

"It's a big deal, because I only work three nights out of the week," the 26-year-old said. "My check is going to be short, and I have bills that I have to pay."

Subways, rail lines, bridges and tunnels were closed Monday night. Residents were told to stay off the streets after 11 p.m. or face fines. Transportation reopened Tuesday morning after it was clear the storm was a bust in New York City, with most areas getting about 8 inches instead of the predicted 2 feet.

Barber Fausto Cabrera opened for business Tuesday morning but wasn't expecting many customers.

His Upper West Side neighborhood was deserted the morning after city officials shut down public transportation and told people to keep off the roads. His store, Franklin's Barber Shop, had closed early Monday after a light day — only 12 haircuts — and he couldn't afford to stay closed again.

"There was nobody here yesterday and today, just look," he said, pointing to empty barber chairs. "All I can do is wait."

Mayor Bill de Blasio said economic loss was much less than it would have been had the storm hit in full force, and that taking precautions helped the city get back online faster.

He said city officials learned from the December 2010 storm when the city was paralyzed by 2 feet of snow. Roads went unplowed for days, ambulances got stuck and trash piled up in the wake of the snow. The blizzard cost the city more than $70 million, but the economic impact to retailers was considerably more.

"I will always err on the side of safety and caution," de Blasio said Tuesday. "We had consistently been getting reports talking about two feet or more of snow. To me it was a no-brainer, we had to take precautions to keep people safe. You can't be a Monday morning quarterback on something like the weather."

New York City's 24,000 restaurants lost millions in revenue, said Chris Hickey, regional director of New York City for the New York State Restaurant Association. Many closed early because of travel bans.

Categories: State/Local

Warm heart saves lost dog in snowstorm

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 01/31/2015 - 1:07am

New York

A whippet named Burt who vanished on the streets of New York City five months ago has finally made it home.

The Fire Department of New York said Burt's incredible journey came to end early Tuesday at the height of the winter storm when he was rescued at a training facility on Randall's Island.

"As soon as he saw his owner, the dog started wagging his tail, licking her," said David Kelly, a firefighter who reunited the pair.

In a statement, dog owner Lauren Piccolo thanked the FDNY, adding, "Burt is resting at home and is expected to make a full recovery."

According to a Facebook page, Burt left his Upper Manhattan home in August.

About a month ago, Kelly spotted a scraggly-looking dog — he first assumed it was a greyhound — while working an overnight shift at the firefighting facility on the island located in the East River. The island is generally accessible by car, though there's a pedestrian bridge connecting it to the Upper East Side that could have given a wayward canine access.

Kelly nicknamed the stray "The Rock" — the same one used for the facility. He also put out canned dog food for it in the same spot every night, but Burt was wary.

"Every time I'd go up to him, he'd run off," Kelly said.

Worried about the dog's safety in the approaching snowstorm, Kelly decided to set a trap by putting the food in a cage. The trap worked and, after scanning the Internet for missing whippets, Kelly came across the Facebook page titled "Bring Burt Home."

So he did.

Categories: State/Local

Boards: Cuomo trips budgeting

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 01/31/2015 - 1:07am

The lack of "school runs," or early estimates of how much state aid New York's nearly 700 school districts will receive this year, is throwing local budget plans into chaos, according to members of the education lobby.

"It is unprecedented for the state to withhold the release of executive budget aid runs," complained a letter sent by the Educational Conference Board to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday. "These aid runs are not simply a state budget 'tradition;' they are necessary and indeed critical to the local budget development process for hundreds of school districts across the state."

The Conference Board is made up of leading educational groups including New York State United Teachers union, the School Boards Association, the Council of Superintendents and others.

In releasing his 2015-16 budget proposal last week, Cuomo called for a number of education reforms including tougher tenure standards and a uniform means of evaluating teachers that relied on state exam results for half of its results.

These ideas have been resisted by the education establishment, and Cuomo has said he will tie much of the increased school funding to the reforms: If they're accepted by the Legislature, aid would increase school aid by $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent; without the reforms, he'll hold the increase to $377 million, or 1.7 percent.

With that in mind, Cuomo's budget division didn't put out the runs along with his budget bills.

School officials note that local boards of education are now in the process of developing budget proposals, which New Yorkers vote on during May 19 budget votes and school board elections.

Estimates of state aid play a role in those budgets, which are primarily based on local property taxes.

"(Districts) are starting to put together their budgets," Robert Reidy Jr., executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said of local boards. "We need these runs.''

State budget officials, though, noted that then-Budget Director Robert Megna had noted the entire state budget should be complete by April 1, which still leaves time for adjustments before the May 19 votes.

Additionally, districts by March 1 are supposed to calculate exceptions they have to the state's tax cap, which is 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower.

New York gives out more than $22 billion annually in local school aid.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

De Blasio Inequality Agenda Tackles Tax Credits, Filings for Low-Income New Yorkers

Gotham Gazette - Sat, 01/31/2015 - 12:00am

Mayor de Blasio makes calls during the EITC phone bank in BK (photo: @amyspitalnick)

BROOKLYN - 'Hi, this is Bill - Bill de Blasio - calling to see if you're planning to claim your Earned Income Tax Credit.'

On Saturday in Brooklyn, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, jumped into action at one of his administration's sites for its Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) phone bank. De Blasio joined other elected officials, Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Julie Menin, and what the City says were 2,000 volunteers across the city in making calls to low-income New Yorkers to make sure they are aware of the EITC, which can provide a significant financial relief to those often struggling to make ends meet.

According to a release from the mayor's office, it is "the largest public education and outreach tax credit campaign in the City's history."

Saturday's "Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) Awareness Day of Action" is the city's first, the administration said, putting the work into context as another part of the de Blasio attack on inequality. Not only are volunteers reminding low-income New Yorkers about the EITC, which has been claimed by far fewer than those eligible, but to also make sure people are aware of the free tax filing services that the City provides for those with income under $60,000 per year.

"The City will contact more than 270,000 New Yorkers through phone calls and automated calls," a press release reads. The City says that for the first time it is funding the free tax preparation services, available at about 200 locations, an increase of about 60 from last year. The City is investing $3.1 million for expanded services and also advertising, making a big push "to reach eligible New Yorkers, including the estimated one in five households who are eligible for EITC but don't claim it."

Like with pre-kindergarten, paid sick leave, and municipal identification cards, it is another example of the de Blasio administration's push to both increase support and services that aid low-income New Yorkers, but also ensure through aggressive marketing that those eligible are aware. The advertising component is being backed by $800,000 of city money, with notices being made on a variety of platforms and in a plethora of languages.

"The earned income tax credit is oftentimes the largest lump sum of money low-income New Yorkers will receive in the year, and it's a critical tool we can use to reduce inequality by directly putting back money in people's pockets," said Mayor de Blasio in a statement. "We can't afford to let tens of thousands of New Yorkers who are eligible for these valuable refunds not file."

Menin said that the money families get back can be the difference in being able to pay the bills or not. "We have committed a nearly 20-fold increase in funding to the tax credit campaign because we believe every working New Yorker deserves to get their hard-earned refund," she said.

Although the EITC is a federal credit, New York State and even New York City offer their own versions of EITC. So for those who qualify, the benefits can reach up to $8,293 for a family with three children earning under about $52,000 a year and $670 for a single person without children earning under about $20,000. What's more, the EITC does not take away from other benefits such as the SNAP program (food stamps), Medicaid, or public housing assistance.

The campaign is being promoted on Twitter with #GotMyRefund. There was a phone-banking site in each borough. De Blasio participated in Brooklyn, where Menin was headquartered and other participating elected officials included Borough President Eric Adams and Rep. Nydia Velazquez.

Fitting into the De Blasio Agenda
Promoting awareness about EITC is in line with the mayor's push toward reducing the inequality gap in the city. In the latest Mayor's Management Report (MMR), the bi-annual assessment of individual city agencies, released in September last year, there was a specific requirement for agencies to report their efforts on promoting equity.

One of DCA's stated goals in the report was to empower low-income New Yorkers and promote their financial stability. As part of that effort, DCA reported that its OFE partnered with community organizers, non-profit groups, and private volunteers to directly aid residents through free and discounted tax preparation and filing. According to the MMR, the network of volunteers at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites helped 96,661 city residents file their tax returns in the 2014 fiscal year.

The City Council has also been attempting to increase EITC participation levels in the city. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, advocating for a more affordable city, wrote in the Huffington Post last month, "The Federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is an under-utilized lifeline for many eligible individuals facing financial hardship. The program would enable qualifying New Yorkers to keep more of their income and better contend with the looming cuts to section 8 vouchers."

Council Member Dan Garodnick introduced a resolution on the issue in June of last year that has not been voted on yet. It calls on Congress to pass legislation expanding EITC, and for the state Legislature to allow the City to increase its own EITC from 5% to 10% of the federal credit.

***
by Samark Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@SamarKhurshid

Categories: State/Local

New England takes blast

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 7:07am

Boston

Its winds howling at more than 70 mph, the Blizzard of 2015 slammed Boston and surrounding parts of New England on Tuesday with none of the mercy it unexpectedly showed New York City, piling up more than 2 feet of snow.

The storm punched out a 40- to 50-foot section of a seawall in Marshfield, Massachusetts, badly damaging a vacant home. In Newport, R.I., it toppled a 110-foot replica of a Revolutionary War sailing vessel in dry dock, breaking its mast and puncturing its hull.

The blizzard's force and relentlessness stunned even winter-hardened New Englanders.

"It's a wicked storm," Jeff Russell said as he fought a mounting snowdrift threatening to cover a window at his home in Scarborough, Maine.

The snow in New England began Monday evening, continued all day Tuesday and was not expected to ease until late evening. And the bitter cold could hang on: The low in Boston on Wednesday is expected to be 10 degrees, with wind chill minus 5, and forecasters said it will not get above freezing for the next week or so.

The Philadelphia-to-Boston corridor of more than 35 million people had braced for a paralyzing blast Monday evening and into Tuesday after forecasters warned of a storm of potentially historic proportions.

Around New England, snowplows struggled to keep up, and Boston police drove several dozen doctors and nurses to work at hospitals. Snow blanketed Boston Common, where the Redcoats drilled during the Revolution, and drifts piled up against Faneuil Hall, where Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty stoked the fires of rebellion.

Nearly 21 inches of snow coated Boston's Logan Airport by evening, while nearby Framingham had 2½ feet and Worcester 26 inches. Lunenburg reported 33 inches.

Providence, R.I., had well over a foot of snow. Sixteen inches had piled up in Portland, Maine, and 23 inches in Waterford, Conn. Montauk, on the eastern end of Long Island, got about 2 feet.

"It feels like a hurricane with snow," said Maureen Keller, who works at an oceanfront resort in Montauk.

At least 30,000 homes and businesses were without power in the Boston-Cape Cod area, including the entire island of Nantucket.

A 78 mph wind gust was reported on Nantucket, and a 72 mph one on Martha's Vineyard.

"It felt like sand hitting you in the face," Bob Paglia said after walking his dog in Whitman, a small town about 20 miles south of Boston.

While Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey had been warned they could get 1 to 2 feet of snow, New York City received just under 10 inches and Philadelphia a mere inch or so. New Jersey got up to 10 inches.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie defended his statewide ban on travel as "absolutely the right decision to make," given the dire forecast. Officials in cold-weather cities know the political costs of seeming unprepared or unresponsive in snowstorms.

Categories: State/Local

Conundrum at the Capitol

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

The fate of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver hung in the balance Monday evening as the members of his Democratic conference grimly departed a marathon closed-door meeting to resolve two questions: Should Silver stay, or should he go? And if it's the second option, who should take his place?

The conference meeting served as the agonizingly drawn-out climax to the most tumultuous day in the state Legislature since the June 2009 onset of the Senate coup, which heralded five weeks of dysfunction.

As they headed out of the nearly five-hour meeting, several Democrats said Silver would be asked to step down; they planned to meet again at noon Tuesday.

"I think it had been conveyed to him that many members of the conference believe that the appropriate thing for him to do is to resign his speakership," said Brian Kavanagh of Manhattan.

"The first thing that happens is that the representatives of the conference are going to convey the events of the evening to the speaker, and the speaker has a decision to make," Kavanagh said. "And, again, many of us feel that if the speaker does not make that decision that he should understand that he has lost the confidence of a majority of our conference."

Throughout the day, Silver and his allies worked to shore up support for his continued leadership of the 105-member Democratic conference. The speaker was arrested Thursday by federal authorities, who have accused him of using his vast political power to collect bribes and kickbacks in the form of bogus legal fees and of doling out political favors and public funds to those who benefit his lucrative legal practice.

The 70-year-old Manhattan lawmaker, who is slightly more than a year away from breaking the record as the Assembly's longest-serving speaker, has maintained his innocence. He has been speaker since 1994.

While leading Assembly Democrats initially reacted to the arrest with strong statements of support for Silver, their backing seemed to crumble over the weekend under a steady barrage of editorials and constituent outrage. In an attempt to hold back the avalanche, Silver on Sunday proposed temporarily stepping aside to address his legal woes while retaining his title and an annual leadership stipend of more than $40,000.

Under the proposal, Silver would have handed off the negotiation of the state budget — due by March 31 — to five senior members of his conference, all of whom are Silver loyalists: Majority Leader Joe Morelle of Rochester, Denny Farrell of Manhattan, Carl Heastie of the Bronx, Cathy Nolan of Queens and Joe Lentol of Brooklyn.

While each lawmaker has their own area of expertise, it was unclear how a quintet would perform in a negotiating process known as "Three Men in a Room" — a system that would be strained by the use of five revolving members, each with understandably distinct political agendas.

Instead of calming the unrest, the plan seemed to embolden a rebellion. As lawmakers arrived in Albany for a planned session Monday morning, it became apparent that Silver's partial withdrawal from his duties was opposed by numerous members. Assemblyman Keith Wright of Manhattan, one of several African-American lawmakers unhappy with the proposed five-leader formation, was the first senior member of Silver's conference to jump ship.

"This is not the time for committees of five to serve as the alternative speaker or the delegates of the speaker," said Wright, who called on Silver to resign immediately.

Wright, a Manhattan Democrat who served as Gov. Andrew Cuomo's handpicked co-chair of the State Democratic Committee, is one of several members — including Heastie and Morelle — whose names had been floated as possible replacements should Silver step down.

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin of Westchester spoke on behalf of a bloc of suburban Democrats who joined Wright in calling for Silver's exit. She said Silver's plan "would throw us into chaos. ... We have bill disputes; we have member disputes; we have organizational issue to resolve. Who do you go to?"

Like many members, Paulin was also upset that Silver's plan had been released to the media before being discussed with members.

Just after noon, Cuomo expressed grave misgivings about the proposal: "I can't negotiate with a committee," he said after a storm briefing from Manhattan.

While noting that the Assembly is a separately elected body, Cuomo said that the state needed its leadership to be stable.

"The government functioning is very important — we have to pass laws, we have to pass budgets," Cuomo said. " ... The distraction of what's going on with the speaker, it hurts the functioning of government. So to the extent that there's going to be a replacement that will run the Assembly, I think that's a good thing."

But the identity of that replacement remained elusive, a leadership void that appeared to benefit Silver's chances almost by default. It was clear that regional factions were forming, as downstate leaders objected to Morelle's primacy in any new leadership. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., a former assemblyman, said in a statement "the next speaker of the Assembly must be from New York City."

Originally scheduled for 1:30 p.m., the Assembly Democratic conference's meeting was delayed to 3, then 4. As 5 p.m. approached, a group of more than a dozen Democrats — many of them, including Albany's Patricia Fahy and Carrie Woerner of Round Lake, recently elected and lacking strong ties of loyalty to Silver — planned a news conference on the Great Western Staircase, though it was never revealed what they had been planning to say.

Just before that planned announcement, Silver arrived on the third floor of the Capitol accompanied by Morelle, Nolan and Lentol.

Grim-faced, Silver went into the conference room only to emerge a short time later, prompting a stampede of reporters to the opposite side of the Capitol in case the speaker tried to leave the building. In fact, he had retired to his office at the back of the Assembly chamber to await his conference's verdict.

Categories: State/Local

Temporarily, Silver to cede power

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

When Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver comes to town, it normally isn't news.

On Monday, it will be.

The powerful Democrat, who was arrested Thursday on federal corruption charges, is scheduled to be at the Capitol for the session and for a meeting with the Democratic Conference behind closed doors. What will come of that meeting was the source of great speculation Sunday evening.

The New York Times reported late Sunday night that Silver will relinquish his duties on a temporary basis as he fights federal corruption charges, according to people briefed on the matter.

A Silver spokesman declined to discuss what the conference will go over in their meeting. Assemblyman John McDonald of Cohoes said he expects the meeting to be lengthy.

"This is uncharted territory," he said. "This is a unique situation. And I know that members such as myself want to just listen and have a lot of questions."

Regardless of what happens in the conference's meeting, it will be a high-drama day throughout the Capitol.

Monday will be the first day Silver has been back in Albany since his arrest on charges that he used his position to collect $4 million in bogus legal fees from two law firms in return for bending state policy to benefit real estate developers, and directing state funds to a New York City doctor who referred mesothelioma patients to the personal injury law firm at which the 70-year-old is of counsel.

While the conference meeting is set, whether the speaker will address the media wasn't clear, though a contingent of cameras and reporters will undoubtedly stake out the speaker's office and the conference meeting.

Session is scheduled to take place at 2 p.m. despite reports that a heavy snowstorm could bury the state. While Assembly members began returning Sunday night, snow days are not unusual at the Capitol, and whether members would still be in town for Tuesday's session seemed more up in the air.

What happens in that 2 p.m. session will be big news. If Silver emerges from the conference meeting still in power, Republicans could use legislative procedure to try to push him out. The New York Daily News reported Sunday the GOP would try to attach an amendment calling for Silver's resignation to a resolution honoring Martin Luther King Jr. An Assembly Republican spokesman said the conference does not publicly discuss its strategy.

Assembly Democrats have seemingly not swayed from their support of Silver since Thursday, when the conference announced it would stand behind the longtime leader. Even as more news about the speaker dripped out over the weekend, some were vehement in their support of the Manhattan Democrat.

"It's always interesting to see prosecutor leaks and trial by press before trial by jury," Assemblywoman Deborah Glick of Manhattan tweeted just after midnight Sunday.

Rumors about who could replace Silver should he leave his position were abundant throughout the weekend. Assemblyman Joe Lentol of Brooklyn told the New York Times that he would "step into the fray" if Silver resigned, but added that he wasn't campaigning for the speaker's chair. Other top names like Assembly members Carl Heastie of the Bronx, Keith Wright and Herman Farrell of Manhattan and Glick have made their way into reports, though conference members are remaining tight-lipped about whom they think a successor could be.

Regardless whether Silver stays or goes, the Assembly has work to do. Committee meetings are scheduled to begin Monday, which will get legislation flowing. The first joint legislative budget hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, kicking off an arduous budget season that is likely to be marred by questions about the Assembly's negotiating power.

"My interest is how we move forward and how we make sure we are in the best position as an Assembly and as a body and institution," Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy of Albany said.

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

Categories: State/Local

The Week Ahead

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 1:07am

What happens with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's return to Albany will be the big news of the week. Meanwhile, lawmakers are scheduled for less drama-filled work on Monday and Tuesday (though snow could derail those plans). Take a look:

MONDAY

Family Planning Advocates of New York State holds its annual Day of Action beginning at 11 a.m. in The Well of the Legislative Office Building in Albany.

Faith and labor leaders hold a Moral Mondays vigil to respond to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's legislative agenda at noon in the War Room of the state Capitol.

The state Assembly convenes at 2 p.m. in the Assembly chamber at the Capitol.

The state Senate convenes at 3 p.m. in the Senate chamber at the Capitol.

TUESDAY

The state Senate convenes at 11 a.m. in the Senate chamber in Albany.

The state Assembly convenes in the Assembly chamber in Albany.

The Assembly Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development Committee holds an oversight hearing on the 2014-2015 state budget at 9:30 a.m. in Roosevelt Hearing Room C on the second floor of the Legislative Office Building in Albany.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics meets at 10:30 a.m. at the commission's offices at 540 Broadway in Albany.

— Matthew Hamilton and NYSNYS.com

Categories: State/Local

Blizzard threatens Big Apple

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 1:07am

New York

Mayor Bill de Blasio warned New Yorkers on Sunday to prepare for what could be the biggest snowstorm in the city's history — with a potential accumulation of as much as 3 feet.

"This could be a storm the likes of which we have never seen before," the mayor told a news conference in a Manhattan sanitation garage while workers were preparing plows and salt for the massive cleanup.

They face a challenge: Snow on about 6,000 miles of city roadways — double the distance between New York and Los Angeles.

The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning Sunday for the New York and Boston areas starting Monday night and into Tuesday. Forecasters say the storm could drop 2 to 3 feet of snow from northern New Jersey to southern Connecticut, accompanied by up to 65-per-hour wind gusts and low visibility.

The mayor said that Monday morning should be fairly normal, and schools would be open, though after-school activities were scrapped.

He urged people to return home as early as possible in the afternoon — to ease what de Blasio called the "huge problem" anticipated for the evening rush as heavy snow starts falling, and to keep streets clear for emergency crews.

The work will be divided into 12-hour shifts, with 2,400 sanitation employees on each one. Nearly 500 salt spreaders will be out ahead of the snowfall, then 1,500 plows when 2 inches of snow is on the ground.

Major highways, hospitals, schools and hilly areas will be targeted first.

Alternate side parking has been suspended for Monday, as has garbage collection. Con Edison is at the ready to repair any power lines felled by the wind, resulting in blackouts.

Despite all the emergency measures, "assume conditions will be unsafe," the mayor said. "Yes, there will be delays in everything."

At New York's LaGuardia Airport, about 25 percent of Monday's departing flights were canceled already Sunday, and about 7 percent at Kennedy International Airport.

The mayor was joined by Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, and the chief of the Office of Emergency Management, Joseph Esposito.

De Blasio held up a piece of paper showing the city's 10 worst snowstorms and said this one could land at the top of a list that goes back to 1872, when 21 inches was recorded.

"My message to all New Yorkers is, prepare for something worse than we have seen before; now is the time to get ready for this extreme weather," he said, noting that it could surpass the 2006 storm when 26.9 inches of snow fell on New York City.

But at Manhattan's Penn Station, Cicero Goncalves was ready for the best: snowboarding in Vermont in mounds of fresh, soft white stuff.

First, he had to get there. And already on Sunday, travel from New York City was tricky.

Dressed for the storm in a fake grizzly-bear coat with a hood that looked like the animal's head, the 34-year-old flight attendant from Queens waited for an Amtrak train to Vermont because he expected the flight he and a friend had hoped to take would be canceled.

"We'll get there before it snows, and we're coming back when the storm is over, on Thursday," he said with a broad smile. "So we should be able to get some fresh snow, some good powder."

New Yorkers staying in the city also went into action, with preparations large and small.

A Manhattan Home Depot store sold about twice as many shovels over the weekend as it normally does.

Transit officials hoping to keep the subways running smoothly planned to use modified cars loaded with de-icing fluid to spray the third rail that powers trains.

Emergency crews were out Sunday filling more than 1,000 potholes to ease snow removal, Trottenberg said. Department of Transportation employees also will make sure bridges are passable.

City buses will be equipped with snow tires or chains if necessary.

And any homeless person who shows up at a shelter will automatically be welcomed. In addition, shelters will be opened to others who are left stranded.

Categories: State/Local

Dialing for Dollars: City to Phonebank Tax Refund Awareness

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 12:00am

DCA EITC subway advertising (photo: @carmeneboon)

In life, they say, only two things are certain: death and taxes. Fortunately for low-income New Yorkers, the latter comes with federal refunds. And the de Blasio administration is making a major push to ensure that more of those eligible cash in.

In preparation for tax season, the City's Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) will launch its annual campaign tomorrow to inform taxpayers about credits, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and the NYC Child Care Tax Credit. According to a press release from DCA, more than 2,000 volunteers will staff phone banks across the five boroughs for the first-ever tax credit awareness phone-a-thon organized by the City, reaching out to residents in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

The initiative, being run by de Blasio's DCA Commissioner Julie Menin, is part of the administration's aggressive efforts to help improve quality of life for those on the margins.

Since 2002, the City has organized a Tax Credit Campaign every year, handled by the DCA's Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE), to help residents not miss out on vital benefits in the tax system. In what is a new initiative, though, thousands of calls will be made on Saturday to refund-eligible New Yorkers.

One of the main credits that often goes unavailed is the EITC. For qualifying families, EITC can go a long way. One in five low-income New Yorkers are either unaware of this tax credit or unwilling to go through what they perceive as a tedious process. In effect, they are leaving money on the table, particularly since it is a refundable credit. It can lower taxes, and even be paid out if they owe no taxes, but only if it is filed. Last year, 1.8 million EITC claims were filed in New York State, totaling $4.1 billion in credits. The average credit amount was $2,309 - an amount that can make a major difference for individuals or families struggling to get by, especially in a high cost of living city like New York.

Commissioner Menin will lead the six-hour long phone-a-thon on Saturday at the Downtown Brooklyn location, with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, State Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon, and City Council Member Rafael Espinal all set to participate. Mayor Bill de Blasio is also expected to visit, and make remarks and a few phone calls.

The phone-a-thon, just one day after Friday's Internal Revenue Service annual EITC Awareness Day, aims to increase filings in New York City by at least 50 percent. The value of refunds, according to official expectations, will be nearly $90 million and will put $135 million into the local economy. Families could receive as much as $10,000. New Yorkers will also be told of 200 tax preparation sites across the city which will help process tax filings free of cost.

In October last year, the IRS announced that the federal credit in 2015 would be adjusted for inflation, increasing the maximum amount by around $100 (to $6,242 from $6,143) for a joint family with three children or more.

Although the EITC is a federal credit, New York State and even New York City offer their own versions of EITC. So for those who qualify, the benefits can reach up to $8,293 for a family with three children earning under about $52,000 a year and $670 for a single person without children earning under about $20,000. What's more, the EITC does not take away from other benefits such as the SNAP program (food stamps), Medicaid, or public housing assistance.

The campaign is being promoted on Twitter with #GotMyRefund. Many city officials are promoting the event in their feeds and some, like Public Advocate Letitia James, have been sending e-mail blasts to their subscribers.

Fitting into the De Blasio Agenda
Promoting awareness about EITC is in line with the mayor's push toward reducing the inequality gap in the city. In the latest Mayor's Management Report (MMR), the bi-annual assessment of individual city agencies, released in September last year, there was a specific requirement for agencies to report their efforts on promoting equity.

One of DCA's stated goals in the report was to empower low-income New Yorkers and promote their financial stability. As part of that effort, DCA reported that its OFE partnered with community organizers, non-profit groups, and private volunteers to directly aid residents through free and discounted tax preparation and filing. According to the MMR, the network of volunteers at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites helped 96,661 city residents file their tax returns in the 2014 fiscal year.

The City Council has also been attempting to increase EITC participation levels in the city. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, advocating for a more affordable city, wrote in the Huffington Post last month, "The Federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is an under-utilized lifeline for many eligible individuals facing financial hardship. The program would enable qualifying New Yorkers to keep more of their income and better contend with the looming cuts to section 8 vouchers."

Council Member Dan Garodnick introduced a resolution on the issue in June of last year that has not been voted on yet. It calls on Congress to pass legislation expanding EITC, and for the state Legislature to allow the City to increase its own EITC from 5% to 10% of the federal credit.

***
by Samark Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@SamarKhurshid

Note: this article has been updated.

Categories: State/Local

Is Heastie, Assembly Speaker Favorite, Ready to Hold the New York City Mantle?

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 12:00am

Heastie, second from left, at a Thursday rally in the Bronx (photo: @RandiMartos)

The race to replace Sheldon Silver as Assembly Speaker appears to be narrowing to two main candidates. One is from New York City and one is from upstate New York. Assembly Member Carl Heastie, who serves as the Bronx County Democratic Committee Chair, has the backing of Mayor Bill de Blasio. Assembly Member Joseph Morelle of Rochester, who serves as Assembly Majority Leader, has the backing of Gov. Andrew Cuomo - and is set to take over as interm speaker on Monday.

Heastie has quickly wrapped up support from former speaker candidates Assembly Members Keith Wright of Manhattan and Joe Lentol of Brooklyn, who have in turn asked their supporters to back Heastie. Assembly Member Catherine Nolan from Queens, also still in the running for speaker, appears to be losing the support of her borough's Democratic establishment.

But even as Democratic Party leaders coalesce behind him, not everyone from the city is sure Heastie is the right choice. Heastie carries baggage from his work as Bronx County Chair, wherein he has backed a number of ethically-challenged candidates. Heastie stayed neutral in the race between now-convicted State Sen. Pedro Espada and the man who replaced him, Sen. Gustavo Rivera.

Heastie is known as a consensus builder and has worked with those who beat his incumbents or preferred candidates. However, many advocates and legislators are worried that Heastie is concerned not with reform, but with consolidating power. Watching the party bosses rally support behind one of their own has many questioning how much of an improvement Heastie would be over Silver in terms of transparency and member empowerment. A number of Bronx legislators claim that Heastie and long-time ally Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. have designs on Heastie becoming speaker and Diaz Jr. running for mayor. Diaz Jr. is a vocal supporter of Heastie for speaker.

Perhaps alarming to many Democrats, especially reform-minded progressives, Heastie has also made public statements seemingly supporting the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision - he has insisted that campaign donations do not influence politicians. Heastie also voted against marriage equality in 2007, but did vote for it subsequently.

The election of a new speaker will have untold impact on city issues this year and beyond as Mayor de Blasio finds himself in a particularly tough spot in Albany. De Blasio needs an ally in the speaker's office, and seems willing to go with Heastie even if he may not perfectly line up ideologically.

2015 was already going to be a tough year in the capital for de Blasio and his agenda. And then his closest ally, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, was arrested on federal corruption charges.

Now, with Silver on the way out from the position and his replacement unclear, de Blasio's agenda could be in even further jeopardy. With the race in full sprint and a vote set for Feb. 10, a great deal is at stake for the mayor and the city as jockeying intensifies. It may be difficult to overstate how important it is to de Blasio that he has a close ally running the Assembly, which is part of why he appears staunchly behind Heastie, though without saying so publicly.

De Blasio bet big when he decided to openly challenge Republican control of the State Senate during last year's elections. He wanted the city to be able to decide its own minimum wage, take back rent control from the State, and more - all with the impending sunset of both mayoral control of schools and key rent laws.

He bet big and he lost - leaving scorned Senate Republicans more eager than ever to block his proposals and Gov. Andrew Cuomo emboldened, co-opting de Blasio's progressive rhetoric and pairing it with more moderate and conservative proposals.

Silver's demise is trouble for de Blasio and many in New York City as the long-time speaker was set to fight Cuomo's education reform agenda, push for a higher minimum wage, and act as the counterweight to Senate Republicans in negotiations over rent control. Whoever replaces Silver, the popular wisdom goes, will be significantly weaker in budget negotiations with Cuomo and Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos. Nevertheless, how de Blasio- or New York City-friendly the next speaker is will be immensely important and there are major differences among the candidates for speaker in this regard, and others.

The mayor's office did not respond to request for comment about de Blasio's priorities and the Albany landscape, though de Blasio has told reporters this week that he is not personally in contact with candidates. De Blasio appears invested in Heastie despite some issues in the Assembly member's profile and ways in which the two may not see eye to eye.

Heastie, the 47-year-old Bronx County Democratic Party Chair, has a reputation for being flexible. Under Heastie's leadership the Bronx Party has generally backed its own establishment candidates - even when they face legal trouble or corruption charges - but welcomed newcomers into the fold. Heastie has insisted in interviews on the TV program BronxTalk that he doesn't choose which candidates to back on his own but goes with the consensus of other Bronx politicians.

In a statement declaring his candidacy, Heastie insisted that he is interested in reform and transparency: "Voters deserve an Assembly that will not only fight for all New Yorkers, but will enact the type of lasting reforms that will increase accountability and transparency in our state government."

But Heastie faces skepticism from the Assembly's burgeoning reform caucus, which is calling on speaker candidates to answer some very pointed questions about democratizing the body and improving transparency. "I don't know what Carl believes," one member told Gotham Gazette. Another Bronx member admitted that they aren't "particularly fond" of Heastie or "what he stands for," but said that those sentiments are outweighed by the fact that if Heastie takes the reigns, "guys from the Bronx won't have to beg and scrape to explain what our districts need."

The establishment groundswell around him is also being questioned by The Daily News Editorial Board, among others.

Good government groups are calling for an open, public hearing wherein the speaker candidates are vetted, going on the record on reforms of the body and the role of the speaker.

Heastie is known for being particularly close-lipped with the Albany press corp, relying on his spokesperson to get his message out. On Tuesday he told reporters while leaving the Assembly conference, "You all know my favorite term: No comment."

Gary Axelbank, host of BronxTalk, said that isn't the Heastie he knows. "He has been on the show nine times starting in 2000," Axelbank said. "I've enjoyed a long relationship with him from the start of his public service. He has always been an excellent guest and he has never said 'I don't want to talk about someone who has been indicted or why the county backed an indicted official.' I really see him as a stand-up guy willing to represent what he does."

Heastie has cosponsored legislation on housing, immigration, corrections, education, and discrimination, but his largest focus has been stopping wage theft.

But, Heastie drew outrage when he sponsored legislation that allowed pay-day loan lenders to charge up to 200 percent interest. Advocates said the loans take advantage of Heastie's most vulnerable constituents. The Daily News reported that Heastie's Bronx Committee received a $10,000 donation from the check-cashing industry. Heastie countered in later interviews that the donation was only for the committee dinner.

His campaign finance reports show that he takes in significant cash from the medical industry. City & State reported last year that Heastie's campaign accounts were examined by The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption because he had over $25,000 in unitemized expenses. "I've heard nothing from them. I'm not concerned whatsoever. You're not required to itemize expenses under 50 bucks," Heastie told City & State.

Heastie's take on campaign finance also appears to be at odds with the Democratic Majority in the Assembly (and a good many Democrats everywhere). During a 2013 interview on BronxTalk, Heastie argued that political contributions do not influence elected officials.

Axelbank first asked if it hurts democracy to have some candidates running with the support of outside PACS. Heastie responded, "I guess thats a better question to ask the Supreme Court 'cause they're ones that ruled we can have these independent expenditure. It's difficult to say that people that want to express an opinion in an election should not be heard."

Axelbank went on to ask whether money makes a candidate more likely to support a donor.

"No, that's another one of problems I have. The press seems to do - and people running against elected officials say - they believe that because someone supports you or contributes to your campaign someone owns you or you've taken a bribe. I've received contributions from someone I disagreed with. Gotta start looking at individuals."

An astonished Axelbank replied, "Certainly money to campaigns buys influence. Who could deny it?"

To which Heastie replied "I'm never gonna admit to that."

Axelbank pushed further on Heastie's support of pay-day loan vendors. Heastie responded that the press writes to fit its agenda.

On key issues to Mayor de Blasio and many New York City Democrats and residents, Heastie, Morelle, and Nolan offer a mixed bag:

Housing
Michael McKee, of Tenants PAC, expressed a sentiment that defies conventional wisdom. "I think in a crazy way this is good for us," said McKee of Silver's impending replacement. "What would we expect from Shelly Silver? A half-baked compromise. Frankly we are happy that the focus is now on reform and making the process more Democratic."

Furthermore, McKee isn't sure that a speaker from upstate wouldn't be especially helpful to New York City and its many tenant-friendly Assembly members.

"Even a speaker from upstate will need votes from city members. It's just how the math works. It is ironic in a way that a speaker from upstate would have to deliver more for the city because they can't just say 'Of course I support New York City, I live there.'" McKee declined to voice a preference in candidates.

Conventional wisdom would say that Heastie would be the better ally (over Morelle) of de Blasio when it comes to a push on rent regulations.

McKee is urging tenants to contact their legislators, "to let them know the new leader has to stop the phaseout of the rent laws or there will be no affordable housing left in New York City because the Senate is owned lock and stock by the real estate lobby."

McKee and other tenant advocates are concerned that de Blasio will significantly curtail his demands on the rent laws in Albany in an effort to focus on other areas. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose own agenda also hangs in the balance of the speaker turnover and who is also surely looking to influence who takes the Assembly reins, didn't even mention the expiration of the rent laws in his State of the State address this year - which didn't go unnoticed by advocates. Cuomo is said to favor Morelle for speaker.

When asked by Gotham Gazette about Cuomo's omission de Blasio's response was cautious.

"I think [rent regulations have] been one of the things that has preserved what affordability we do have in New York City – and we have an affordability crisis in New York City – it's a lot of what we talked about in the last year – it's a lot of why we have the most expansive affordable housing plan in the history of this country – to build or preserve 200,000 units of housing – because we have a profound affordability crisis in New York City," de Blasio said immediately following Cuomo's speech. "And you can't address income inequality without addressing the affordability of housing, which is the number one expense. So, I'm going to work to protect rent regulation. I'm going to look for ways that we can expand upon it and strengthen it. We've had a huge number of units lost from rent regulation or from other programs that protected affordability, and we have to address that – and I'm hopeful that we can get something done."

Education and Women's Rights
When it comes to education policy, union members and liberal advocacy groups tend to favor Nolan who serves as the Assembly education committee chair. Nolan has criticized Cuomo's plan to revamp the teacher evaluation system and make it easier to fire failing teachers. Nolan has lead Assembly members in challenging Cuomo's cuts to education funding over the past years. Of course, Nolan's chances are looking slimmer by the day, though she has said she's staying in the race.

Morelle and Heastie are thought to be closer to Cuomo on education but not so much that they would accept his reform plan. Even Morelle, who would be much more likely to align with Cuomo and Skelos on education, would have to answer to Assembly members who are largely tied to the teachers unions. There is little doubt, though, that Cuomo could very well get more of what he wants on education with Silver out of the picture - how much more remains to be seen.

Nolan has also asserted that she would be better for the Assembly on women's issues. De Blasio has pushed for the legislature to pass the stalled Women's Equality Act.

Nolan stressed in her announcement of her speaker candidacy that electing her could help alleviate the Assembly's sexual harassment issue. "Lost in the names that have been mentioned as potential candidates for Speaker is that of a woman," Nolan's announcement reads. "A woman has never served as Speaker of the Assembly. The press has written extensively and derisively about the sexual harassment cases that have occurred in the legislature over the last few years. It is past time for that 'culture' to end once and for all. I am committed to doing just that."

Whether Nolan is still being seen as a viable candidate and how much support she has is unclear. Meanwhile, there has been a public outpouring for Heastie.

Economics
As for de Blasio's minimum wage push, the governor has already thrown him a major bone by calling for an advanced scale even beyond the one currently phasing in over time. The governor did not match the mayor's requests in his proposal, but did call for a statewide $10.50 minimum wage and an $11.50 minimum in New York City within a couple of years.

Nolan and Heastie being the remaining city-based candidates are likely to be on board with Cuomo's plan, or even a push beyond if de Blasio even seeks one. It would appear that de Blasio may be wise to drop his call for local control of the minimum wage. Nolan and Heastie have both advocated increasing the wage in the past. Morelle is considered to be more concerned about the business-side of policy, where opposition to minimum wage increases has been prevalent, but he has backed previous wage increases.

Independence
Morelle, of Rochester, may be the most removed from city issues, but according to McKee's logic he might have to deliver in ways city-based legislators wouldn't if he's elected and wants to maintain support. Morelle is scheduled to take over from Silver on an interim basis starting Monday, Feb 2. He is considered business-friendly and moderate compared to his more liberal city-based competitors. He enjoys strong ties to Cuomo, another more moderate Democrat, which concerns many in the city, and many legislators believe it is the Assembly's duty to combat the suburban and upstate-focused Senate. Historically, Assembly speakers have been virtually exclusively from New York City - and today 63 of the 150 members hail from the five boroughs.

A number of reform-minded Assembly members have expressed concern that all three of the remaining candidates are Silver loyalists. None of them called for his resignation in public and they all have been relatively close to him.

With good government groups weighing in that they want a transparent process and the new Assembly reform caucus looking for reforms that allow individual legislators more freedom to bring their bills to the floor and increased input in the budget process, it is possible that reformers will be looking for a strong sign of independence.

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Categories: State/Local

The Climate Justice Mayor: How De Blasio Can Reduce Emissions and Create Good Jobs

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 12:00am

The People's Climate March (photo: @NYCEJAlliance)

After last year's historic People's Climate March, many people have asked: what comes next? Environmental justice advocates, labor unions, working people, and community leaders are answering with a major new campaign called Climate Works for All.

The core platform is simple and already has broad support: let's ensure that efforts to address climate change create good jobs in communities most vulnerable to harm and disaster. Indeed, if Mayor de Blasio goes bigger and bolder on addressing climate change, he can create nearly 40,000 good jobs a year, and transform the future of New York City for the better.

That is the major finding of an eye-opening new report, Climate Works for All: A Platform for Reducing Emissions, Protecting Our Communities, and Creating Good Jobs for New Yorkers released by ALIGN and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, along with the National AFL-CIO, the New York City Central Labor Council, and the BlueGreen Alliance.

Mayor de Blasio has set a bold goal of reducing New York City's greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. The Climate Works for All agenda is a concrete and specific roadmap for reaching the 80x50 goal while creating a more equitable economy and a massive number of new employment opportunities for struggling families, especially in low-income communities and communities of color where income inequality and climate change are most deeply felt.

The de Blasio administration should pursue policies that will have the biggest impact on making vulnerable communities more resilient—both environmentally and economically. One key proposal that should move forward quickly is mandating energy efficiency retrofits on New York City's largest buildings, which are responsible for the majority of the city's greenhouse gas emissions. These retrofits alone would create many thousands of jobs a year; and labor unions, community groups and businesses are ready to help ensure that the jobs have strong safety protections, good wages and benefits, and provide career opportunities to unemployed and underemployed local residents.

Building owners and real estate developers can't be expected to do these retrofits voluntarily. The only way to meet the climate crisis head on—and our 80x50 goal—is to enact a smart city-wide policy that includes mandates.

Other key proposals include installing solar energy on the rooftops of NYC's 100 largest schools, and increasing recycling rates and efficiency in commercial waste hauling.

By enacting these proposals, Mayor de Blasio can create clean air and new careers for New Yorkers who are facing the greatest hazards of climate change and economic unfairness. New York City can elevate the voices of residents and communities on the frontlines of a growing movement for climate justice, and in the process, become the national leader on climate jobs and resiliency.

We have an unprecedented chance to strengthen workers and communities most exposed to the harmful effects of climate change by building better and more sustainable infrastructure. It is crucial that climate protection and good, union jobs are brought together within the same overall planning process and policy framework for a more livable and inclusive New York City.

The expiration of Bloomberg's PlaNYC is in April. In the months ahead, de Blasio should show that he will make climate justice a top priority and legacy-defining focus of his administration. He should use his power to help create a climate that truly works for all of us.

***
Matt Ryan is Executive Director of ALIGN & Eddie Bautista is Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

Store worker kills supervisor, self

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 01/29/2015 - 5:07pm

An armed employee walked into a Manhattan Home Depot on Sunday and fatally shot his manager before killing himself amid scores of horrified colleagues and shoppers, authorities said.

Gunfire erupted about 2:45 p.m., police officials said, sending workers and shoppers streaming out of exits and into the street. The manager, 38, was shot at least three times and he died at Bellevue Hospital Center.

After shooting the manager, the gunman, 31, shot himself in the head, police said. Two hours after the shooting, his body was still at the scene.

— New York Times

Categories: State/Local

Poor timing for RSVPs

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 01/29/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

In politics and the rest of life, timing is everything.

Consider the unfortunate timing of the invitations to a pricey Feb. 9 fundraiser for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver that arrived in some local mailboxes on Friday, the day after the Democrat was arrested on federal corruption charges.

The invitation to the Friends of Silver event at the Hilton Albany said support can be expressed at the $4,100 "benefactor" level, or the $1,000 "sponsor" price.

A source close to Silver says the fundraiser is still on despite the speaker's arrest Thursday. Many of the invitations had gone out before the FBI took him into custody, the source noted.

The phone number for RSVPs belongs to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, chaired by Majority Leader Joe Morelle of Rochester. Just hours after Silver's arrest, Morelle led a news conference in which more than a dozen members of the Democratic conference expressed support for the speaker.

"There is a presumption of innocence, and we have every confidence that the speaker is going to continue to fill his role with distinction," Morelle told reporters.

The chamber's Democratic leader for more than two decades, Silver is alleged by federal investigators to have taken $4 million in bribes and kickbacks disguised as legal fees, and using his considerable powers as speaker to bend legislation and dispense favors to those who benefited his private legal practice.

Silver said Thursday that he will be vindicated in court.

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

Empire fights SLA on shipments

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 01/29/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

As in the production of a fine pinot noir, the case against Empire Wine could take some time.

The Colonie retailer began its long-delayed hearing before the State Liquor Authority on Friday, in an administrative proceeding that could potentially result in its shutdown.

Held in a small conference room on the ninth floor of the Alfred E. Smith Building, the hearing came five months after the SLA cited the store for shipping wine to customers in states that bar direct sales to consumers, or require out-of-state retailers to obtain permits for that privilege. The SLA pointed to regulatory language that allows the state entity to revoke, cancel or suspend a liquor license due to "improper conduct."

Empire filed a lawsuit against the SLA in September, contending that the law cited by the regulator is unconstitutionally vague, and that the office lacks the power to enforce the liquor laws of other states under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives the federal government and not individual states the power to regulate interstate trade.

The case has generated national attention within the liquor industry. Daniel Posner, a White Plains retailer, observed the proceedings for the National Association of Wine Retailers.

SLA Chairman Dennis Rosen — soon to depart to head the state's Office of Medicaid Inspector General — has forcefully defended the office's action against Empire, while insisting the authority won't be going after every New York retailer that's shipping wine to buyers in the 38 states that are currently off-limits. Many retailers ship out of state, though there is little uniformity in their policies.

Empire's lawsuit was put on hold in November, when a state Supreme Court justice ruled the store's owners would have to complete SLA's administrative process before seeking redress through its civil action. The same decision suggested the store would have a heavy burden if it intended to show that the SLA was operating beyond its powers.

Even so, a possible return to a larger courtroom appeared to be much on the mind of Empire's attorneys, who contested many of the documents entered into evidence by SLA counsel Margarita Marsico.

"This is ridiculous," said Empire attorney William Nolan as Marsico submitted a series of letters from liquor authorities in other states that described the laws governing out-of-state shipments. Nolan said Empire should have the right to cross-examine the correspondents, and said that he would seek to question Marsico, who requested the information from the out-of-state entities.

Time and again, administrative law judge Nancy Butler overruled him, at times noting that the hearing wasn't required to follow the same rules of evidence that would govern a civil or criminal procedure.

The hearing veered close to farce when Marsico requested that the public and media should be barred from hearing the testimony of Ethan Manning, an SLA investigator who sometimes joins undercover operations.

Nolan noted that his name had just been spoken on the record in the presence of several reporters; the lawyer quickly did a Google search of Manning's name that turned up photos of the investigator and a LinkedIn page listing his work at the SLA.

In the end, the media was allowed to remain in the room as Manning described SLA's investigation, which he said emerged from a complaint; he said he did not know where it had come from.

Under questioning from Nolan, Manning said SLA's interest in Empire began with a look at its computer inventory system.

"It concerned us that there might not be enough separation between the wholesaler and the retailer," Manning said of the store's online portal, which allows wholesale representatives to post information about available merchandise and suggest prices.

At times, Butler seemed exasperated by the slow pace of the proceedings. "If we keep getting off on tangents, we'll be doing this for the next two weeks," she said.

As the four-hour hearing wrapped up, the parties agreed to hold a phone conference next month to resolve Empire's request to hear testimony from as many as a half-dozen other SLA staffers.

"Let's seriously make an effort" to resolve the procedural issues, Butler said.

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

Silver's arrest prompts calls for ethics overhaul

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 01/29/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

There was the assemblyman who took a bribe from a carnival promoter. The former Senate leader accused of using envelopes stuffed with cash to grease his bid for New York City mayor. Or the one who went to prison for looting his own taxpayer-subsidized health clinics.

Now add Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to the list of state legislators facing criminal charges. The Manhattan Democrat who has reigned over the backrooms of Albany for more than 20 years is the sixth legislative leader to face criminal charges in the past six years.

Despite years of scandals, Albany has been slow to clean up its act. Government overhaul advocates say Silver's arrest shows why Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other leaders must do more to tighten loose ethics rules and rein in the influence of money in politics.

Since 2000, 28 state lawmakers have left office because of criminal or ethical issues, according to an analysis by Citizens Union. Silver and three others remain in office while they fight criminal charges.

"The men and women of the FBI and of my office still subscribe to the quaint view that no one is above the law — no matter who you are, who you know, or how much money you have," said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in announcing the charges against the 70-year-old legislative leader. "And so, our unfinished fight against public corruption continues. Stay tuned."

Cuomo has long talked about the need to "clean up the legislative corruption in Albany," as he said in a 2013 campaign commercial touting his creation of a commission to root out corrupt lawmakers.

A year later, Cuomo shuttered the commission in a deal brokered with Silver and Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos. Cuomo shared a stage with both men Wednesday at his State of the State address, in which he referred to the three top leaders as the "three amigos."

On Thursday, Cuomo told the editorial board of the Daily News that Silver's arrest is a "bad reflection" on state government. "And it adds to the cynicism and it adds to the 'they're all the same.'"

Two of Cuomo's former election opponents — Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and Democratic law professor Zephyr Teachout — have questioned whether the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption investigated Silver's outside income before it was shut down by Cuomo.

According to the criminal complaint, the Moreland Commission requested information about Silver's outside employment — and subpoenaed his law firm. Silver fought the subpoena in court, using taxpayer money. His motion was pending when Cuomo agreed to disband the commission.

Bharara has said he's looking into whether anyone tried to interfere with the commission, and Cuomo's campaign filings show he spent $100,000 on a criminal defense attorney representing him in the matter.

Categories: State/Local

Prosecutor says '3-men-in-room' concept 'weird'

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 01/29/2015 - 1:07am

New York

A federal prosecutor who charged New York's Assembly speaker with multiple felonies called on Friday for an end to the state's "three-men-in-a-room" method of governing, saying people should get angry because sometimes it seems as if Albany is a "cauldron of corruption."

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, saying he was speaking more as a citizen than a prosecutor, told a New York Law School audience that he believes power in the state is "unduly concentrated in the hands of just a few men" — the governor, the Assembly speaker and the Senate president.

"But I think it wouldn't just be me, but lots of people would have questions about three men in a room, like why three men? Can it be a woman? Do they always have to be white?" he asked. "The concept of three men in a room seems to have disappointingly taken root as opposed to being questioned. It's almost become like part of the furniture, the political furniture."

Bharara's comments came a day after state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested on charges that he collected nearly $4 million in bribes and kickbacks since 2002 and disguised it as legitimate income. Released on bail Thursday, Silver said he was confident he would be vindicated.

The prosecutor questioned whether it was sensible to put power in the hands of so few people in a state of nearly 20 million. Bharara quipped that there were more than three men in a room in his office when it was decided to charge Silver.

"And it's weird to me a little bit that officials and writers joke about it, good naturedly, as if they're talking nostalgically about an old sitcom coming up after 'Happy Days.' It's 'Three Men in a Room,'" Bharara said in a speech laced with humor.

He said putting power in the hands of so few may discourage some people from running for public office.

"Why would you bother to run for the Legislature in the first place? Real people don't waste their time that way," he said.

Categories: State/Local

First Steps Taken to Convert Closed Bronx Prison to Re-entry Hub

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 01/29/2015 - 12:00am

Fulton Correctional Facility (photo via the Osborne Association)

Earlier today New York State handed over the keys for the shuttered Fulton Correctional Facility in the Bronx to The Osborne Association - a group tasked with providing services to the formerly incarcerated, easy re-entry, and reduce recidivism.

For many politicians and advocates, from the Bronx and elsewhere, the handover is an example of how New York State is changing course from jailing as many small-time offenders as possible to focusing on how prison time can disrupt and damage communities.

With the shift, Osborne now has to focus on using the State's $6 million grant to convert the facility, and on finding partners to run the ambitious range of services it plans to provide, local businesses that would like to locate in the new facility, and a reliable funding stream to support them.

The seven-story structure has served many purposes over the years: church, synagogue, nursing home, drug rehab facility, YMCA, and work-release facility. The plan now, according to Elizabeth Gaynes, executive director of The Osborne Association, is to provide ex-cons a one-stop shop to help them return to society smoothly.

"While the crime rate has certainly decreased and the prison population has declined in New York State and New York City, there are still a great number of people across the state under correctional supervision," said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. "I believe that transforming this structure into a re-entry facility will provide individuals who are transitioning back into society from prison an amazing resource, one that provides them with the necessary tools and resources to succeed upon release and become proactive members of our community."

Over 60 percent of the state's prison population hails from the five boroughs and city data released in 2013 shows that the South Bronx is one of the top five communities where NYC-based inmates list their home address.

However, the state's prison population in general is in decline - it is currently lower than it has been in two decades. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has closed 13 prisons since taking office and famously declared in his 2011 State of the State address that "an incarceration program is not an employment program."

Many advocates hoped at the time that Cuomo would target upstate prisons because the majority of the state's prison population hails from New York City and housing them upstate separates them from the family and community advocates argue help in rehabilitation. But Cuomo didn't limit the closures to upstate. He closed both Fulton in the Bronx and Arthur Kill Correctional Facility on Staten Island. Advocates were particularly stung by Fulton's closure because it was a work release facility. Converting Fulton Correctional is intended to give ex-cons a one-stop shop for all their needs close to their home communities.

Gaynes says her group plans to use all seven floors of the facility to provide a myriad of services to ex-convicts including temporary housing, job training and health care. It will also provide job opportunities in a full-scale kitchen with catering service and a green businesses incubator. The roof is expected to host beehives. Two of the floors will focus on temporary housing and another floor will be dedicated to more long-term housing for elderly former inmates.

Gaynes had to convince state officials that they would be better off providing these services and reducing recidivism rates rather than selling the property to a developer. Her pitch worked.

The Empire State Development Corporation granted Osborne $6.5 million for the project. Diaz Jr.'s office helped Osborne secure a $650,000 grant from the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services; the Bronx Delegation of the City Council allocated $50,000, and Councilmember Vanessa Gibson delivered $10,000 in city funding. The entire renovation is expected to cost $9.5 million, fundraising is ongoing.

"The next step is to hire an architect," said Gaynes. "Unfortunately we can't wait to build until we know exactly what is going to be here, but because it was a church, a synagogue, and YMCA before it was a work release center, we think it will fit our needs. I think we will end up with really something that is beautiful."

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera is particularly proud of the plan as he took it up as one of his first projects after being elected in 2011. He said he was quickly impressed by Oborne's proposal and thought it would be important for his district. "It will be great to be there and know I was involved from the start," Rivera said prior to Thursday's handover.

However, Rivera notes that there is still a lot of work ahead. He attended one of the community meetings hosted by Osborne and got a taste of just how involved the group wants Bronx residents to be. "We discussed the needs of the community. Housing. OK. Well what kind of housing? Classes? Well, what kind?" he recounted.

Perhaps most impressive, Rivera said, was that Osborne provided layouts of the building with movable labels to indicate where services could be provided.

Gaynes said she is a little concerned that she might not be able to meet all of the community expectations which have grown to include a pool. Swimming facilities or not, it is an ambitious project to be sure.

Even with the handover accomplished and plans for the facility underway Osborne hopes to find partners to actually run the supportive housing and other services.

Rivera said he hopes the State will continue to stay involved and support the project. "We will need to get the message out, work on funding for all these programs they want to offer. We aren't walking away from this now."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Categories: State/Local

Ten Key Takeaways from Governor Cuomo's Executive Budget

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 01/29/2015 - 12:00am

Governor Cuomo outlining part of his 2015 agenda (@NYGovCoumo)

Last week, Citizens Budget Commission listed the Top Ten Things to Look for in the NYS 2016 Budget. Here is how they fared in the Executive Budget Proposal outlined by Governor Cuomo on January 21:

1. Windfall Settlement: Will these funds ultimately be spent prudently, with returns on investment?

The FY2016 Executive Budget uses $5.7 billion in bank settlement proceeds for one-time expenditures and investments. Although one-time uses are appropriate, the merits of specific proposals vary. The value of using $1.5 billion for an Upstate Revitalization fund to award $500 million apiece to three upstate Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs) is speculative at best. But the proposed allocation of $1.7 billion to the Thruway Authority and the MTA is likely to pay off, especially if viable capital plans are developed for each. $850 million set aside to settle federal Medicaid liabilities is sensible.

2. School Aid: Will education reforms include a plan to fix broken school aid formulas?

A series of dramatic school reforms – including modifications to teacher evaluations, teacher tenure, and others are proposed along with a super-size school aid increase of 4.8 percent, or $1.1 billion, contingent on their adoption. Missing from the proposal is any discussion of school finance reform, an unfortunate omission. It is time to overhaul antiquated and byzantine school aid formulas to ensure funding flows according to need and district ability to pay.

3. Medicaid: Will spending stay under the cap of 3.6%? Will the cost of newly eligible immigrants be affordable?

The FY2016 Executive Budget grows Medicaid by 3.6 percent to comply with the "global cap," set at the 10-year average of the health inflation index. Both the global cap and Commissioner of Health's special authority to unilaterally reduce spending would be made permanent. To afford the cost of covering newly-eligible immigrants the Executive Budget establishes a Basic Health Plan which entitles the State to additional federal aid to offset costs.

4. Budget Growth: To meet 2% growth assumption, what spending will be reduced to make a surplus a reality?

Last year the State's financial plan began to show placeholder savings from limiting spending growth to 2 percent in future years. The presentation masked a true baseline gap of $1.8 billion in FY2016. To close the gap to meet the 2 percent growth target, state agency spending is held flat for savings of $92 million, and $1.4 billion is subtracted from planned spending in local government assistance. These reductions net against $176 million in new initiatives. Additional resources come from the upward revision of receipts and use of prior year surplus ($373 million), and capital and debt management initiatives ($121 million).

5. Tax Credits: Will expansion in programs continue without clear benefits documented?

The expansion of tax credit and other economic development programs continues. In addition to investing $1.5 billion through upstate REDCs, the FY2016 Executive Budget proposes a fifth round of $150 million in capital grants, a $50 million expansion of the State's venture capital fund, and $110 million to SUNY and CUNY for 2020 challenge grants. Excelsior tax credits also cover entertainment companies retroactively, entitling The Late Show to $11 million.

6. Design-Build: Proven tool in reducing construction costs has expired. Will the Governor continue to champion the cause, propose extension or PPPs?

With design-build, one contract is issued for the design and building of a capital project, allowing for better-designed, lower-cost projects. New York's three-year authorization saved 27 percent on Department of Transportation projects but expired as 2014 ended. The FY2016 Executive Budget makes design-build permanent and expands it to all State agencies.

7. Personal Income Tax: Lower tax rates for middle income brackets expire in 2017. Will the Governor propose an extension and how will he pay for it?

The FY2016 Executive Budget does not extend lower personal income brackets for middle-income earners or higher brackets for high-income earners. The plan assumes these tax policies expire on December 31, 2017. If the current middle-income brackets are extended without extending the higher-income brackets, future year budget gaps will grow.

8. State Agencies: Will this be the 5th year of frozen agency spending? Are there specific plans to realize greater efficiencies or just "do more with less"?

Agency budgets are held flat. Spending discipline has reduced the Executive-controlled workforce from 131,741 in FY2010 to a projected 119,160 in FY2016, a reduction of 12,581 positions, or 9.5 percent. The Governor committed to unveiling the NY Performs platform, recommended by the 2012 Spending and Government Efficiency or SAGE Commission. NY Performs has the potential to improve agency productivity if unit costs are paired with effectiveness measures.

9. Brownfields Tax Credits: Laudable veto of attempted extension by the Governor. Will sensible reforms follow?

In December the Governor vetoed the two-year extension of the Brownfield Tax Credit program. The FY2016 Executive Budget modifies the $500 million per year program by limiting eligibility to economically disadvantaged sites. Credits are limited to remediation costs, prohibiting developers from claiming them for building development costs.

10. Transportation: Clues to how the gigantic holes in the MTA and Thruway Authority capital plans will be filled? Tappan Zee financing plan?

The FY2016 Executive Budget proposes $1.3 billion from bank settlements for the Thruway Authority for the new Tappan Zee Bridge and other needs. The MTA would get $400 million for Penn Station Access and parking and development at suburban stations. Apart from the settlement funds, the State's five-year capital plan adds $750 million in capital appropriations for the MTA for FY2018 to FY2020. Although these investments are prudent, they constitute a proverbial "drop in the bucket" when compared to need. Viable financing plans are imperative for both entities.

***
Elizabeth Lynam is Vice President & Director of State Studies for the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog organization dedicated to improving the fiscal condition and services of New York State and City governments.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

Support Grows for New Veterans Department, Mayor Must Be Convinced

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 01/29/2015 - 12:00am

Mayor de Blasio and MOVA Commissioner Sutton (photo: Mayor's Office)

A little over a month after Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton as the new Commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA), she was called before the City Council to testify. In late September of last year, the committee was hearing a much-anticipated bill, Intro. 314, that would turn MOVA into its own department instead of a poorly-funded office under the mayor.

It is a plan advocates had been pushing for a while and they were eager to hear what the new commissioner would say regarding the legislation. But they didn't get much from Sutton that day - in her short testimony, she declined to take a position on the bill.

"Introduction 314 deserves all due consideration as we dedicate ourselves to the historic journey that lies ahead," Sutton said during her testimony on Sept. 29, 2014. "After completing my assessment and sharing my findings with Mayor de Blasio, I look forward to following up with the New York City Council Committee on Veterans to discuss this important proposal in further detail."

Sutton set out on a 90-day review of her department and several pieces of relevant legislation introduced by the Council, including Intro. 314; while also learning about the veterans community in New York City. Following the 90 days, which expired on Dec. 1, Sutton was to submit a report to de Blasio with recommendations. When asked by Gotham Gazette earlier this week, de Blasio said the report had been submitted, but he had not yet reviewed it.

Sutton's report has not been made public, so it is unclear if the commissioner recommended to back the bill. De Blasio said he thinks the intention behind the legislation is a good one, but still appears cool to the idea.

"I have never been convinced that turning an office into a department in any subject matter is really the way to get things done best," de Blasio said during a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. "I am certainly going to look at it. But my central question, which I will wait for more guidance from General Sutton on, is what is the best way to serve veterans?"

De Blasio may be lukewarm on the legislation, but nearly 30 council members feel Intro. 314 is the best way to serve veterans. It would allow the Council to hold preliminary and executive budget hearings on veterans issues and services, a move many feel could lead to more funding, as well as contracts being awarded to veteran service providers directly instead of through other city agencies unfamiliar with veterans groups.

"This bill will fundamentally change the city's capacity to meet the demand of a growing and diverse veterans' community," Council Member Eric Ulrich, chair of the Council's Veterans Committee said by email Wednesday. "Aside from the symbolic significance, it will allow for more funding to support VSOs and direct providers who serve veterans and their families."

The bill has been quietly gaining steam in the last several weeks and as of Tuesday Intro. 314 had 27 sponsors. That's enough to get it passed by the City Council and close to the magic number of 34 votes needed for a veto-proof majority of the Council's 51 members.

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who actively supports veterans and veterans issues, has not added her name to the bill yet, but she is considering it.

"Anything we can do to really bolster that office to do its function and serve on behalf of our veterans is something I would seriously consider," Mark-Viverito said at a recent press conference. "We want to continue to help that agency, that division, to help function as strongly as it can. We will look at it aggressively and see if we can move forward."

The time for consideration, however, is becoming thin. The mayor must submit a preliminary budget by February 24 and a final Fiscal Year 2016 city budget must be passed by June 30. Funding for the new department would need to be included in the budget to avoid delays in setting up the department until the following budget cycle.

The Veterans Committee will next meet on February 10 to hear legislation that will reform the Veterans Advisory Board. While all five members of the committee are sponsors on Intro. 314, there is no scheduled vote for the bill.

With the backing of the majority of his fellow council members, Ulrich will continue to push for Intro. 314.

"It is something that should have been done years ago and it will be a game changer in how we help local vets and transitioning service members," Ulrich said.

***
by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette
@MeriwetherK

Categories: State/Local
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