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Door stays shut on donors' names

Albany Times/Union - 7 hours 51 min ago


Four New York advocacy groups won't have to reveal the identities of contributors to their political activities.

A judicial hearing officer has determined that the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics acted incorrectly when it rejected donor-disclosure exemptions requested by the progressive organizations Family Planning Advocates, the Women's Equality Coalition and the New York Civil Liberties Union, as well as the conservative group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms.

The decision was made July 11 by Judicial Hearing Officer George C. Pratt, whose decision called JCOPE's rejection "clearly erroneous" and contrary to the legislative intent of the 2011 law allowing for the exemptions. That measure — which also created JCOPE — says disclosure exemptions can be given if donors might suffer "harm, threats, harassment or reprisals" from public knowledge of their support to specific entities.

It's the first time a JCOPE determination has been overturned on appeal in the watchdog panel's two-and-a-half-year history, according to JCOPE spokesman John Milgrim.

He noted that no material would have to be blocked or expunged from the JCOPE database: During the application and appeal process, groups were entitled to withhold their records.

The controversy over the exemptions began last summer, when it was revealed that the state arm of the abortion rights group NARAL had been granted an exemption — prompting Republicans, including state Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos, to complain that the watchdog panel had created a disclosure-free avenue for political giving.

In January, JCOPE said it had rejected the four applications and would require NARAL to re-reapply for its exemption this summer as opposed to the original expiration date of 2016. NARAL's Tara Sweeney said Friday the group had not been informed in any change in its status; it had previously required an extension of JCOPE's demand that it re-apply by the end of July.

Milgrim said NARAL's deadline wasn't affected by Pratt's decision.


Categories: State/Local

Providers still have questions

Albany Times/Union - 7 hours 51 min ago


The five-year, $42.8 million contract between the state Health Department and the company hired to administer the state's Early Intervention Program to help young children avoid disabilities in their later years runs more than 100 pages.

But one of the key portions, which describes Public Consulting Group's "management objectives," is blacked out.

Also covered up is a section that addresses "techniques and tools" for what the company does and the precise percentage it receives for bringing in more payments from private insurers. Much of the program is funded by Medicaid because billers look to that the state-federal health care program for the poor if private insurance won't pay for the services.

The secrecy is allowed by state laws that let government officials redact information made public that is deemed to be proprietary or that would put a private company at a competitive disadvantage if it were revealed.

"Some documents have been redacted ... to prevent an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy ... and if disclosed would cause substantial injury to the competitive position of the subject enterprise,'' Health Department records officer Elizabeth Sullivan said in an email that came with release of the contract under a state Freedom of Information Law request.

For the Early Intervention Program, health professionals such as speech and physical therapists go to the homes of young children who show signs of developmental delays. They work with the youngsters to try to get them up to speed for their age group.

Historically, each county paid participating therapists; counties would then tap Medicaid and other funds.

Last year, responsibility for administering the program was shifted to Public Consulting Group, with the intent of lifting a burden from county governments.

Providers now bill PCG for each patient rather than sending a monthly bill. That means providers, from solo practitioners to large group practices, have more paperwork.

Long Island-based physical therapist John Hofmayer said the payment process is a "bureaucracy within a bureaucracy."

"We're continuing to see agencies close," said Leslie Gruber of Queens, a speech and language pathologist and director of United New York Early Intervention Providers With Parents as Partners, which has followed the PCG contract issue.

Providers are also wondering why they can't learn how much PCG might be earning for getting more money from insurance companies. Medicaid has traditionally picked up much of the cost of EI services, but the change to PCG could get more insurers involved in coverage.

PCG could not be reached for comment.

Policies surrounding rejections can be frustrating. If a patient is turned down by PCG after a provider submits a bill, the provider has to repeat the process.

"If the insurers say no ... we have to re-apply," said Hofmayer. "That's the big issue."

Hofmayer holds out some hope, noting that PCG has said it's trying to streamline the billing process for therapists. "They are trying to work on making it easier," he said. • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

City's Small Business Crisis Continues

Gotham Gazette - 7 hours 58 min ago

A closed Umberto's Clam House in the Bronx (photo: Elizabeth Zanghi/The Ram) 

Umberto's Clam House. Gray's Papaya. Union Square Cafe. These famous, long-established New York City businesses and many more are victims of circumstances advocates say come down to a lack of protections for commercial tenants. Given the recent focus on residential tenants and affordable housing, many don't realize the bitter plight of the city's small businesses, especially low-profile mom-and-pop type stores and restaurants.

And these establishments - the city's small businesses - are desperately looking for help.

Few New Yorkers can't name a favorite local business or neighborhood staple forced to close over the last several years. Bodegas, Korean markets, and Irish Pubs are now considered to be part of a dying breed - endangered species poached by high rents, corporate competitors, and real estate development deals. Large swaths of commercial areas have all but disappeared from Little Italy, Chelsea, Hell's Kitchen, and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. Empty storefronts litter the five boroughs, sometimes for weeks, months, even years.

Ramon Murphy, president of the Bodega Association of the United States, told the Daily News the main reason for all the small business closings "is the one-sided process of lease renewal...Landlords either do not renew them or want to raise the rent four or five times. Often, you have to give money under the table for the lease to be extended."

The Small Business Congress (SBC) wants to change the system. An umbrella organization of private small business groups advocating for policies that will best benefit its community, SBC aims "to save the pathway to social mobility for lower income families, save the character of our neighborhoods, save our art and cultural groups, save our not-for-profits and save our middle class."

SBC Executive Vice President Steven Barrison is on full alert, emailing, "We are bleeding about 800-1,000 mom and pop stores per month in NYC! Costing us tens of thousands of jobs when you consider 7-8 jobs per store and 11,000-12,000 closings a year now! The CRISIS is real and it is here right now!"

The crisis Barrison describes has been building for decades: from 2002-2012, during Mayor Michael Bloomberg's tenure, the city's Landlord and Tenant Courts issued 83,211 warrants to evict commercial tenants, according to SBC data. SBC believes for every business that fights in court, two walk away, and estimates that at least 240,000 businesses closed and between 2.5 and 2.8 million jobs were lost (gross, not net) over the combined years of the Giuliani and Bloomberg mayoralties.

Landlords evict commercial tenants for a variety of reasons. Often, tenants fall behind paying escalating rents, but don't want to walk away from their life's work. Activists say they see a growing trend by which owners move faster to evict because they want to make space available for a corporate franchise or a bank, which can and do pay substantially higher rents.

Even though thousands of new small businesses also open every year, the odds are against their success and many close within the same year they open. Sung Soo Kim, who is president of the Korean-American Small Business Service Center (KASBSC) and has been called the godfather of New York's small business community, explains the significant obstacles against success, chief among them being high rents and operating costs. With the city's small businesses providing the large majority of jobs for New Yorkers - and establishing a gateway to the middle class, especially for immigrants and in ethnic communities - many, including Kim, wonder why little has been done by city government in the last twenty years to stem the tide of business closings, particularly of long-standing, neighborhood establishments.

"It's a crisis," agreed Ron Shiffman, founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development. "There's a dramatic impact on neighborhoods, especially on lower income folks [who rely on] inexpensive stores and culture, who get priced out," Shiffman said, referring to gentrification. Shiffman says the importance of neighborhood small businesses is that they "hire locally, they contract out services, their purchases are local. A dollar recovered in the local community [means] far more than it does [from] corporations."

The city's small business community is looking to its local government to act before entrepreneurship is further stifled and every mom-and-pop store is replaced by a corporate chain, making "family business" an oxymoron.

Government Action
On June 26th of this year, New York City Council Member Annabel Palma, of the Bronx, re-submitted the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), which is considered by many to be the key antidote to mass closings. The bill, which is co-sponsored by Council Members Rodriguez, Chin, Gentile and Rose, states it would "amend the administrative code of the relation to creating a small business lease program for establishing an environment for fair negotiations in the commercial lease renewal process."

While this is the first time Palma is the prime sponsor, the legislation has existed over the course of a myriad of previous sponsors and several council speakers.

Supporters say the legislation equalizes the relationship between commercial tenants and landlords to allow for fairer lease negotiations, in part by strengthening tenant protections. When an agreement is unreachable, a mediator or arbitrator would be enlisted at the parties' expense - there would be no government involvement or cost. Those behind the bill emphasize it is not commercial rent control.

"Every week I hear about another small business closing its doors because the rents are no longer affordable," Palma said in a recent statement. "I know that communities grow and change, and rental markets heat up...But there needs to be some protections for the small businesses that give character and life and jobs to these communities...That's why I have always supported the lease renewal bill."

There is, of course, another side to the issue. "The legislation represents an unconstitutional intrusion on the use and disposition of private property," said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, about SBJSA.

SBC legal counsel Sherri Donovan argues, though, that "There is an entire line of U.S. Supreme Court cases that permit local authorities to enact legislation and rules as long as there is a rational basis." The SBJSA is reasonable, she said, because it promotes arbitration, which is used in "every sphere" of business. "It's not like we are taking property away from owners," Donovan said of the SBJSA.

The De Blasio Administration
There was great optimism in the small business community when Mayor Bill de Blasio was first elected. Finally, it was thought, there would be a substantive policy change after the Giuliani and Bloomberg years. De Blasio's mentor, former Mayor David Dinkins, was considered a true ally, having created the first-ever Interagency Task Force on Small Businesses. According to SBC's Barrison, the Dinkins Task Force (later disbanded by Giuliani) was successful because it included participation from all sectors and "every ethnic group," allowing business owners to work directly with city agencies.

Moreover, when de Blasio was in the City Council, he was a sponsor and vocal advocate of the SBJSA, backing it as a means to bring greater economic equality.

In a letter to de Blasio's transition team with recommendations for his then to-be-determined Commissioner of Small Business Services (SBS), the SBC wrote the selection was essential to stemming the tide of small business closings and the related job losses. SBC urged the next commissioner must have "the courage to stand up for small business owners and be a strong voice for them."

A major point of contention for SBC - particularly during Bloomberg's tenure - was that no senior official at SBS had direct experience owning or running a small business, coming instead from either big business or government. Currently, the deputy commissioner in charge of workforce development, who has had that title since 2013, previously owned two small businesses.

Quenia Abreu, president of the New York Women's Chamber of Commerce, said she wants SBS to hire as permanent staff or consultants "people who have owned small businesses so they know the tribulations and challenges."

Ultimately, de Blasio selected Maria Torres-Springer, a former executive vice president and chief of staff at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). Torres-Springer, who is of Filipino descent, also worked for the non-profit Local Initiatives Support Corporation and for Friends of the High Line.

Merideth Weber, director of communications at SBS said there are other ways of getting experience relevant to running SBS, arguing, "It's not necessary to have experience of a small business" and that bringing in multiple perspectives to SBS is important.

Gotham Gazette asked both Torres-Springer and Weber of SBS, a representative of NYCEDC, and the mayor's press office about specific programs in existence or being planned with a focus on job retention, especially through keeping small businesses open throughout the city.

Mayoral press secretary Phil Walzak emailed to reiterate key pieces of de Blasio's mayoral platform: "From cutting burdensome fines and helping...navigate regulatory rules to providing assistance in developing a business plan," Walzak wrote, "the City is dedicated to helping small businesses start, operate, and grow."

Earlier this month, the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) announced more than 20 reforms the administration hopes will lighten the financial burden on the city's small businesses. Designed to "bring much-needed relief" by reducing the number and cost of fines, improve transparency, and even provide inspections in a prefered language, DCA commissioner Julie Menin said the agency is "committed to making our operations fairer, simpler and less onerous on law-abiding businesses." And in de Blasio's new budget, the City plans to collect eight percent less in total fine revenue over fiscal year 2015 than it collected in 2012: $789 million, down from $859 million.

For her part, Torres-Springer listed SBS' pro bono legal assistance to help with lease renewals, loans, training programs, workshops, and initiatives available to startups. According to Weber, SBS helped nearly 7,000 new businesses that opened in 2013, and NYC Business Solutions assisted 8,700 businesses with more than 13,300 free services.

"All of our services are to help businesses grow and operate," Torres-Springer said. "So in that way, a lot of programs, if not all, are to help businesses not close down."

She added that upon her taking the helm of SBS, she sees an opportunity to reassess what SBS does, better understand the reasons for business closures, and examine specific interventions that might be helpful.

Steve Null, founder of the Coalition for Fair Business Rents, doesn't see the same picture the City sees. Null asked how it could be possible that the singular city agency (SBS) tasked with helping small businesses has no job retention goals for the city's biggest employment generator. "Or even a single business program or initiative to save a single small business or a single job?" he added, expressing years of frustration.

Advocates like Null point to the number one issue facing small business owners: rent, and ask what will be done by the City to ensure more small businesses can afford the space they inhabit - with the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA) pointed to time and again.

Adding to the skepticism, advocates say, is that Torres-Springer is a veteran of Bloomberg's EDC, an agency they believe either ignored or actively worked against their interests. SBC virtually begged the mayor not to choose someone who previously worked for this kind of entity. "(We) will not gain such an advocate from people who remained silent for over 20 years or people who never once advocated for the small business owners," SBC's transition letter to Mayor-elect de Blasio reads.

At the press conference announcing Torres-Springer in January, Mayor de Blasio said, "As Commissioner of Small Business Services, she will establish a new revolving loan fund to help local businesses grow, expand outreach to immigrant-owned businesses, and help launch new economic development hubs in underserved communities." De Blasio promised that under Torres-Springer's leadership, the City will deepen "our outreach to immigrant entrepreneurs long overlooked by City Hall...We will lift up every community. This will be one community. This will be one city, where everyone rises together."

While Torres-Springer has only been on the job a few short months, starting in late March, frustration with SBS remains high and advocates are waiting to see the different approach promised by de Blasio. Kim was the first and last chair of the Small Business Task Force, and believes SBS hides behind "useless programs and bureaucratic organizations controlled by special interests." The Korean-American Small Business Service Center (KASBSC), which Kim runs, is the oldest small business service center in the city. Over the past decade, SBS has never contacted KASBSC or similar organizations about the mass closings and the increasing extortion of immigrant owners, Kim said.

Not everyone is critical or skeptical of the selection of Torres-Springer. Former Brooklyn Council Member David Yassky, who chaired the Council's small business committee for four years, said of Torres-Springer, "I liked working with her. She's a terrific choice." When Yassky dealt with Torres-Springer, she was working for former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff and EDC. "Even though we were not on the same side, [she was a] total professional, very smart. She is trouble-solving oriented," Yassky said.

Abreu, of the Women's Chamber of Commerce, said, "I love that she's a woman."

Null explained a systemic problem within SBS, in his view, is its poor staffing and leadership. "They have absolutely zero interest in solutions. If the structure [included] the right people with the right mandates, they would have solved all these problems," Null said.

One of the biggest changes is that SBS will become more collaborative, said Torres-Springer. "The vision moving forward," she said, "is for there to be a more consultative, ground-up planning process, that takes into account the needs of different stakeholders: small businesses, job seekers, community-based organizations."

She is particularly proud of work she did at EDC where she "championed personally" programs targeting immigrant entrepreneurs, the commissioner said. In May, SBS announced a new immigrant-owned business initiative funded by Citi. Community-based organizations will collaborate with the City to help immigrants "start, operate, and grow" new businesses. The program includes business education and counseling, and these services will be marketed to immigrant populations.

To which Null quipped, "Yes, phone people who have never owned or operated a small businesses to learn how to grow your business."

While there is no silver bullet answer to rampant small business closings, it's important to consider "the entire toolkit of services," Torres-Springer advised, adding that she is "optimistic" and the picture isn't quite as bleak as SBJSA advocates paint. SBS is taking the opportunity to examine the lifecycle of small businesses and ask why those which have struggled or closed have had such difficulty, she said.

One small business which successfully utilized SBS is the specialty food store Russ and Daughters on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a 100-year-old landmark. Co-owner Niki Russ Federman said SBS was "so helpful" by providing a point person to navigate through the relevant rules and regulations when the business expanded to include a cafe in a separate building. Russ and Daughters was also awarded an SBS workforce development grant, as they require a specialized kind of worker. "The skills are so unique," Russ Federman said of those required to staff her famous store, and the grant helped pay for the necessary training.

But Kim, who is also co-founder and president of the SBC, explained his members ask daily for assistance because the City only views them as "cash cows." He discussed the psychological damage and disenfranchisement that's been festering as a result, "There is a loss of pride, a loss of belonging, to be a New Yorker." In 2013 alone, 24 percent of Korean-owned businesses closed, Kim said.

And Kim doesn't buy the myriad of services and initiatives SBS promotes. "SBS programs are ridiculous and worthless to the majority of NYC hard-working immigrant owners," Kim said. "There is nothing more absurd," he added, "than a loan program to [businesses] who can't pay their rent."

The Coming Tell-Tale Months
Despite successful attempts by the real estate industry and its elected allies to kill the SBJSA in the past, there is hope the new 'progressive' City Council (and mayor) will act differently. The last time the bill had a hearing, in 2009, overseen by Yassky's committee, there were more than 30 sponsors.

The current chair of the Council's small business committee, Robert Cornegy is said to be working on legislation using subsidies to pay landlords to not rent-gouge. "The investments small business owners make in our communities are often part of the dynamic that helps to raise property values," Corney said. "I hope that we can create an effective incentive for commercial landlords that will give businesses greater predictability and allow them to benefit from the positive changes they help to create."

Cornegy is not currently a sponsor of the newly re-introduced SBJSA, which has just five sponsors, though Palma and others will surely be looking to add to that number over the summer.

There is some concern about the mayor because of his perceived inaction on small business issues while public advocate. As a candidate and thus far as mayor, de Blasio has focused on issues like access to capital and the burden of regulations, not directly on closings, sky-high rents, and extortion. Barrison said that If de Blasio thinks "that the biggest problems facing our small businesses were fines and lack of loans, he will continue the same anti-small business conservative Republican Giuliani/Bloomberg policies." The mayor's choices for SBS commissioner and the new deputy mayor for housing and economic development, Alicia Glen (a former Goldman Sachs officer, skeptics like to point out), don't bode well for change, Barrison said.

At his hearings, Yassky said he thought it was critical the City do something to fix the pervasive rent-gouging. "Not doing anything is not an option at this point," Yassky said at the time, now five years ago. "We can't allow our mom and pop businesses who create the majority of our jobs to disappear and that is what is happening."

In fact, advocates say, nothing was done and the city's small businesses have suffered. Null explained his coalition would never oppose government helping someone start a new business or access loans, that they are not opposed to SBS programs, but they feel SBS is not focused in the right direction. In the end, Null says the central problem is "the failure of not keeping successful businesses in business."

by Jillian Jonas for Gotham Gazette

Categories: State/Local

For Rapidly Expanding Participatory Budgeting, Next Step: Tracking

Gotham Gazette - 7 hours 58 min ago

Agnes Rivera of Community Voices Heard at Wednesday's press conference (William Alatriste)

NEW YORK — In the three years since being introduced in the city, participatory budgeting's popularity among both city council members and their constituents has grown. This year, 22 council members will implement the program in their districts, more than doubling the number of members who will allow their constituents to directly decide how to spend roughly $1 million in capital funding.

The process allows youth (age 16 and up) and non-citizens, groups not part of the typical voting process, to engage in their communities in ways never done before. The engagement, praised by community groups, allows residents to become more invested in how their tax dollars are being spent and neighborhoods improved.

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a transparent process from the initial meetings each cycle where the process is explained and ideas are pitched, to when ballots are cast and project winners selected. But once the ballots are cast and winning projects announced, finding out where approved projects are in the completion process is less transparent.

Because all participatory budgeting initiatives are capital projects, many involve construction of one kind or another. Some, particularly those that need design and procurement, can take years before anything is actually built. Each type of project and each agency involved has its own set of criteria and steps to getting shovels in the ground - parts of the process not regularly made public. The Parks Department, which has been ridiculed for having a particularly slow capital process, announced it would be adding project status tracking to its website this summer (as of this post, it had not been added).

The City Council launched a new participatory budgeting FAQ web page on Wednesday, but there is currently no central page on the Council website that displays a list of approved participatory budgeting projects and the status of each in the completion process.

On Wednesday when announcing the major increase in council participation in PB, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito acknowledged the lack of a tracking system as a challenge, but added it is something she wants to see to make the process more transparent.

For now, she said, it is up to individual council members to interact with agencies to ensure the money allocated is being spent properly.

On his website, Council Member Brad Lander, who along with the speaker and two other colleagues has implemented participatory budgeting since its first New York City cycle, keeps a status update of all of his district's approved projects. Lander said he keeps tabs on the projects by checking in with each agency and gives updates to the site when he has them. Lander's site and system is the exception, not the rule, though.

Technology Fix?
The Participatory Budgeting website currently has an interactive map that shows the winning projects, in addition to proposed projects that didn't make it through. Constituents unable to make the meetings in their district can propose a project and even comment on other projects.

The map was build by a local tech company, Open Plans, which has also built maps for the city's Department of Transportation. The PB map lists location, description of the project, and cost, but not a status of the project.

Frank Hebbert, director of Open Plans, said adding status information would be possible, so long as the data was provided. He said the easiest way to pull that information into the map is to have it on the City's open data portal. Hebbert suggested pulling the capital project information, such as when an agency gives approval, for all city projects, not just those funded by PB.

"Council members could use the data to find out what's going on [with their PB projects], advocates could use it, we could use it [for the map]," Hebbert said by phone Wednesday. "The same data would serve multiple uses."

Speaker Mark-Viverito said the Council has been engaging with city agencies about making that information more readily available, but conversations are ongoing.

As with most government processes, getting from the current space to the ideal situation is much more complicated than a press of the button. Processes would need to be formalized, standardized, and centralized. While not impossible, it is a big task involving many moving parts.

Up until now, the motivation to take on such a chore has not necessarily existed. But with nearly half the City Council implementing PB and ever more New Yorkers emotionally invested in capital projects in their own neighborhoods, perhaps PB will be a catalyst for further change.

by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette

Categories: State/Local

Around NY

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 1:07am

NYSUT president talks Common Core

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

Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio talks to Karen McGee, the newly installed president of the powerful New York State United Teachers union, about Common Core implementation and recent tweaks to student and educator evaluations.

WMHT's Matt Ryan talks with advocates on both sides of an Adirondack resort project that got a favorable ruling from a state appellate court.

Times Union state editor Casey Seiler convenes the Reporters Roundtable with Jon Campbell of Gannett News Service and DeWitt to discuss a halved loan package for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement and the exit of state Sen. George Maziarz. "New York Now" airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. and 11 p.m. Sunday on WMHT Ch. 17.

City seeks to shelter young migrants

SYRACUSE — Syracuse's mayor is asking President Barack Obama to speed along the approval process to provide a local shelter for young Central-American migrants surging across the border.

Mayor Stephanie Miner wrote a letter to the president Thursday saying the city and its leaders welcome the chance to provide shelter to the children. She requested a partnership between Syracuse and the federal government to expedite the review of a potential shelter at a former convent.

Miner says the site could shelter between 100 and 200 children.

-— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

LIRR unions OK tentative contract

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 1:07am

New York

After four years of negotiations — and weeks of fretting by 300,000 daily riders about a possible strike — unions and management at the nation's largest commuter railroad reached a tentative contract agreement Thursday.

The deal announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who got involved in the final hours of the negotiations, gives Long Island Rail Road workers a 17 percent pay raise over six and a half years but requires them to contribute to their health care costs for the first time.

Cuomo, who is running for a second term in November, hailed the deal as a compromise that protects workers and riders because it calls for no additional fare hikes.

"There was a high degree of agita," the governor said of nervousness over the negotiations. "The good news is there could have been a lot more agita next week" if there had been a strike.

Eight unions representing 5,400 Long Island Rail Road workers had threatened to walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. The workers had been seeking a new deal since 2010.

Commuters at Penn Station in Manhattan expressed relief that they would not have to seek transportation alternatives.

"I was really concerned," said Sibel Aras of Port Washington. "It's really good news. I'm happy for them. They deserve it."

Manhattan attorney Douglas Bartner said he was pleased Cuomo stepped in.

"His taking last minute efforts to avert what could be a crisis is good, whatever it takes," Bartner said. "It got done. I hope the terms are fair to employees."

According to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR's parent organization, the typical salary for a Long Island Rail Road worker is $65,000, and with overtime annual earnings average $85,000. A round-trip peak ticket from central Nassau County to Manhattan currently costs $25 a day; an unlimited trip monthly ticket is $276.

Chief union negotiator Anthony Simon said his membership was reluctant to strike, but a tough stance was necessary in order to get an agreement.

"This was definitely about the riders," Simon said. "We cared about the financial stability of the railroad as well."

"All riders feel relief at the announcement of this settlement" said Mark Epstein, chairman of a commuter advocacy group.

Categories: State/Local

Cannabis lobbyists form alliance

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 1:07am


A group of Capital Region lobbyists for hopeful cannabis growers and dispensary owners started a business alliance on Thursday.

Organizers say the Medical Cannabis Industry Alliance of New York is a clearinghouse for those who hope to enter New York state's budding field. MCIA's membership will be composed of growers, real estate interests and advocates — as well as other industries associated with medical marijuana.

In Connecticut, where the medical marijuana industry is tightly regulated, a comparable group struggled to get off the ground and quickly closed. Owners of dispensaries in Connecticut said that organization was launched prematurely, before the state began requesting applications to take part in the system.

Still, one of MCIA's founders believes it's important that New York's group begin as soon as possible because of the market's complexity and the challenge of dealing with the state's similarly tight rules.

"Starting now and building that knowledge base will be helpful as we build the regulatory structure and help (out-of-state) firms to develop local partnerships," said Ed Draves, a lobbyist with Bolton-St. Johns Inc., a government relations and public affairs consultant with an office in Albany.

Draves is on the group's board, with fellow lobbyists Patrick McCarthy and Lisa Reid of Mercury Public Affairs, a national firm that has an Albany office. Melissa Hilt, of East Greenbush, a parent, patient advocate and registered nurse, is the only board member not registered as a lobbyist.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo two weeks ago signed legislation that will create a medical marijuana system, making New York the 23rd state in the nation to do so. The state has 18 months to implement the rules and regulations — though that period can be extended at the state health commissioner's discretion.

"It was a great honor to see Gov. Cuomo sign the bill onto law, but my work doesn't stop there," said Hilt in a statement announcing the MCIA's formation. "Now we need to make sure this program is a success from every perspective, and I am looking forward to providing my perspective on best practices when it comes to patient care."

The well-connected lobbyists on the board have been working on medical marijuana legislation for several years. Educating legislators and state officials on the pharmaceutical quality of these products will continue to be a central part of their work, the board members said.

"We've always focused on the industry side of this business," said Patrick McCarthy. "And have spent a lot of time really introducing seed-to-sale into the Albany vernacular."

Companies like Gaia Plant Based Medicine, KannaLife Sciences and the Retail Wholesale Department Store Workers Union/AFL-CIO will be founding members of the MCIA. Both Gaia and KannaLife are clients of Mercury, and spent $75,000 and $25,000 respectively on lobbying during the most recent legislative session, which ended with the bill's passage.

Gaia's Erik Williams had been the president of the Connecticut Medical Marijuana Business Alliance, which he helped start in January 2013.

That trade group cost $5,000 to join. Fees to join the New York association haven't yet been determined.

Members of the Connecticut group say that amid the frenzy of preparing to apply for licenses, the group struggled to coalesce. By September 2013, when the applications for licenses came out, its executive director had resigned. The group folded not long after that, Williams said.

Individual companies hoping to enter the New York market are not allowed to talk with regulators, Health Department officials have said. The agency said it was trying to assess the legality of whether its personnel could hold discussions with a trade group, but remained open to the possibility.

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo confidant advised AG's probe, mortgage industry

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 1:07am

In early 2007, when he was state attorney general, Andrew Cuomo brought on a longtime confidant as a consultant on mortgage industry investigations, a move that has gone undisclosed until now.

The friend was Howard Glaser, and he had another job at the same time: consultant and lobbyist for the very industry Cuomo was investigating.

Glaser, who went on to become a top state official in Cuomo's gubernatorial administration, was operating a lucrative consulting firm, the Glaser Group, with a host of mortgage industry clients.

Later that year, Glaser provided insights on Cuomo's investigations to industry players on a conference call hosted by an investment bank.

Cuomo's office ended up giving immunity to one of Glaser's clients a year into his term as attorney general.

Experts say the mortgage investigations Cuomo touted as "wide-ranging" came to little, even as he held one of the country's most powerful prosecutorial positions through the financial crisis and its aftermath.

Glaser's role in the attorney general's investigations was disclosed to ProPublica in response to a public records request. The extent of his work is unclear, as is how long it lasted. Glaser told ProPublica the scope of the work was limited. While it was a formal arrangement, it was unpaid.

After Cuomo's election as governor in 2010, Glaser served as director of state operations. He left that post last month to become an executive at OTG Management, an airport development company that lobbies New York officials.

Cuomo's office referred questions to Steven Cohen, who was chief of staff when Cuomo was attorney general. "There is no doubt Glaser provided advice to the governor when he was attorney general," Cohen said. "The role he served was as a general consultant on the industry overall. He did not provide advice on specific investigations."

Glaser also said that, despite the investment bank conference call, he never advised clients on Cuomo investigations.

Before becoming a lobbyist for the mortgage industry, Glaser worked in the late 1990s under Cuomo at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he was known as Cuomo's "right-hand man'' and "hammer."

Glaser declined to release a list of his clients from the period he worked for the attorney general. A 2008 bio said his clients included "mortgage insurance companies, real estate and housing trade associations, mortgage bankers, and investment research companies."

Glaser's dual role when Cuomo was attorney general "poses a serious conflict of interest," said Craig Holman of Public Citizen.

At least two of Cuomo's early investigations involved firms that Glaser acknowledged to ProPublica were his clients. The client that was granted immunity in return for cooperation was the mortgage due diligence firm Clayton Holdings.

Clayton ended up being at the center of the mortgage meltdown. It worked for banks such as JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch, examining whether the mortgage loans the banks were buying from lending institutions met the lenders' standards for creditworthiness. The banks would package those loans into securities that were then sold to investors.

Cuomo subpoenaed Clayton in mid-2007 before coming to a deal in January 2008 in which he granted the firm immunity from civil and criminal prosecution in exchange for information about its dealings with the banks.

It's not clear whether Cuomo used the information he got from Clayton, though it did come up in a case brought by Cuomo's successor, current Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Clayton data showing how the banks bought, packaged and sold off bad loans was considered key to understanding the complex deals that led to the crisis.

Clayton has never been charged with any wrongdoing. Some reporting has shed light on the firm's relationship with big banks.

Clayton workers interviewed by two veteran business reporters for the 2008 book "Chain of Blame" reportedly said they were under pressure "to pass as many loans as possible."

In the book, Clayton workers recall quotas of one loan per hour, higher-ups changing negative determinations, and "that they were told by their supervisors at Clayton never to use a certain word — 'fraud.'"

Noting that Cuomo had the power to subpoena Clayton for documents without granting immunity, Erik Gerding, a law professor and author of "Law, Bubbles, and Financial Regulation," raised questions about the deal.

"The first question is, why do they need immunity? The second question is, what did the prosecutors get that they otherwise wouldn't have gotten without immunity," Gerding asked.

Clayton declined to comment.

When The New York Times broke the news of Cuomo's immunity deal with Clayton in January 2008, Glaser was quoted in the story — though the piece did not mention Glaser's work for either Clayton or Cuomo.

Glaser said Clayton had separate counsel in its dealings with the attorney general's office. Further, Glaser said the attorney general's office "never talked about those specific cases with me."

Glaser added that he was brought in to the attorney general's office at the beginning of Cuomo's tenure because he had warned of problems in the industry.

Glaser provided a copy of a March 2007 email to top Cuomo aides in which he outlined ideas for the attorney general's office "to obtain relief and a good public policy outcome on several fronts."

The attorney general's office denied a request for other Glaser emails, citing an exemption in the state's Freedom of Information Law.

A second Cuomo case involving Glaser clients was the attorney general's attempts to reform appraisal standards via deals with mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (Politico reported in 2008 that Glaser was appearing on TV commenting favorably on the government's efforts to prop up Fannie and Freddie without revealing his work for the faltering companies.)

Glaser said Fannie and Freddie had separate representation with the attorney general's office in that investigation.

Another curiosity about Glaser's role is that he was a frequent commentator on Cuomo's investigations, both to the press and to industry players. He was usually identified as simply a mortgage industry consultant or occasionally as a lobbyist.

While Glaser denies having advised clients about Cuomo's investigations, he did just that with industry players. In a November 2007 conference call hosted by the investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, Glaser held forth about Cuomo's investigation of inflated appraisals of homes, according to an account in American Banker magazine.

American Banker reported that Glaser "said it is doubtful the attorney general is seeking 'record-breaking fines' or to subject lenders to the pain of loan repurchases 'unless ... the industry does not respond to his desire to implement prospective change.'"

Glaser said he was not compensated for "a few" analyst calls he did for Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

His firm, the Glaser Group, described itself as "the unparalleled leader in Washington for government affairs strategies and analysis specializing in the financial services and mortgage finance arena."

It's not uncommon for outside consultants to be brought into complex investigations, according to James Tierney, a former Maine attorney general and director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School.

"The key is full transparency," Tierney said, both from the consultant to the prosecutors and from the prosecutors to the public. " ... Who are your other clients? And how much are you getting paid by them?"

This article was reported by ProPublica, a nonprofit devoted to producing investigative journalism in the public interest. If you have information related to this story, email


Categories: State/Local

PEF: Cameras keeping tabs on N.Y. state workers' time

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 1:07am

A state workers union has filed a grievance over the Cuomo administration's use of surveillance cameras to gather evidence in cases of employees allegedly taking time off from work improperly.

The Public Employees Federation, in a grievance filed this month with the Department of Environmental Conservation, said that using cameras to track work habits violates a section of its labor contract that states that "no employee in this unit (PEF) shall be required to punch a time clock or record attendance with a timekeeper.''

"Our members have the contractual right (as professionals) to record their own times of arrival and departure from work, free of surveillance,'' PEF spokeswoman Jane Briggs said in an email about the case. "We argue that using time records generated by security systems/cameras to monitor our members' time and attendance violates..." the contract.

PEF represents many of the state's white-collar workers, also known as the professional, scientific and technical staff.

The flap stemmed from what a union meeting memo referred to as "heightened focus on departmentwide disciplinary issues," at DEC.

At least three DEC employees have been disciplined for lengthy lunch breaks at the agency's Broadway headquarters or for other absences during the 7.5-hour work day.

In one case, managers referred to a video of a person coming and going during a one-hour lunch break that was allegedly recorded as a half-hour on a time card, known as a leave and accrual tracking sheet.

Another employee was rebuked after moving a vehicle to avoid a ticket.

How many other agencies use surveillance cameras isn't known.

DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis acknowledged that the agency uses cameras as a way to help its investigations.

"If DEC determines an investigation is warranted, we may use cameras in place to aid in our investigation. Time and attendance is an issue we routinely investigate as warranted," she said in an email.

The recent grievance, which has not yet been resolved, is being viewed by some as a dispute over semantics.

DEC managers say they used the cameras not as timekeeping devices but to verify the comings and goings of state workers, according to documents reviewed by the Times Union.

Briggs said another section of the union's contract, known as a side letter, says electronic surveillance is allowed if it furthers the health and safety at state workplaces.

"We believe this means the state can use security systems and the information that is generated from them for valid security purposes," she said. "They cannot use that information to track/document time at work.''

Investigations of lengthy breaks from work take place occasionally, but usually in high-profile cases of blatant abuse.

In one such instance, former DEC biologist Christopher Keim was arrested in 2011 and charged with "stealing'' up to $35,823 in taxpayer-funded salary and benefits for leaving work and drinking at a nearby bar.

That case was investigated by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli's office as well as the State Police and prosecuted by Albany County District Attorney David Soares.

Soares spokeswoman Cecilia Walsh said videos were used to verify that Keim had been at the bar when he was supposed to be at work.

He pleaded guilty to petit larceny, agreed to pay back about $15,000 and left his job, said Walsh.

She said there have been several other big cases in recent years including that of Gregory Ruth, who had been at a bar while clocked in at the Office for General Services, and Edward Reilly, an environmental engineer who spent an estimated 500 hours over six years making phone sex calls on the job at DEC.

Both were forced to resign when their cases were prosecuted two years ago. • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Stonewall Democrats to Make Endorsements, Give Indication of Cuomo LGBT Support

Gotham Gazette - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 1:00am


Members of the city's largest LGBT political club, The Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, will decide on major statewide endorsements on Wednesday night. Stonewall's endorsement in the governor's race will give deeper insight into the relationship between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the progressive base.

The Jim Owles Democratic Club voted to endorse Cuomo's Democratic primary challenger Zephyr Teachout in June. LAMBDA Independent Democrats of Brooklyn had a contentious debate over choosing between Cuomo and Teachout - only narrowly endorsisng for the incumbent. Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats (GLID) endorsed Cuomo unanimously. 

Stonewall president Eunic Ortiz said she feels Cuomo has delivered major achievements for the LGBT community, but stopped short of saying her group's endorsement was in the bag for Cuomo. "It just depends who comes out that night to vote," said Ortiz. "If you have paid your dues you can vote. We could have 500 members voting, it's a possibility."

Ortiz stressed that her club allows members to vote on endorsements without the influence of the board and that all candidates are welcome to attend, or send surrogates to speak to the club about why they deserve its endorsement. Ortiz expects representatives from the Cuomo and Teachout campaigns to address members on Wednesday. Candidates vying for endorsements in legislative races are also expected to attend or send surrogates.

Political observers are struck that Cuomo, who managed to deliver the passage of marriage equality early in his term, has such a mixed relationship with the LGBT community. However, two major legislative priorities for LGBT advocates have been stalled in the state Senate for years and many see Cuomo as having given Republicans the power to control the Senate through redistricting and backroom deals - leading to limited action on a whole host of progressive legislation.

Cuomo's success on marriage equality makes the lack of a Senate vote on either the Gender Expression Non Discrimination Act or a bill to ban gay conversion therapy look to some like he is taking LGBT votes for granted.

GENDA would prohibit discrimination against a person because of their gender identity and expression. The bill has major support from civil rights groups and law enforcement heads from around the state. The Assembly has passed GENDA seven times but the Republican-controlled Senate has not allowed a vote on the bill.

The conversion therapy bill would make it illegal to try to change the sexuality of someone under the age of 18.

A number of members of GLID, LAMBDA, and Stonewall expressed concern that Cuomo has taken their support for granted and note that he has not met with the head of the state's largest LGBT advocacy group, The Empire State Pride Agenda.

Pride Agenda president Nathan Schaefer acknowledged that Cuomo has not met with him personally.

"We do desire a meeting with the governor but we have met with his associates," said Schaefer. "I have a hard time managing my own schedule, but like a lot of other groups around the state we would like to meet with him. We would like to talk to him about GENDA and our other legislative priorities," said Schaefer.

The Pride Agenda is expected to issue its own endorsement in the governor's race in the next few weeks. Schaefer said his group has been in communication with Cuomo's camp and that they are submitting a questionnaire for an endorsement. Meanwhile, the campaign of Republican candidate Rob Astorino has been in contact to say they will not be filling out a questionnaire.

Sen. Brad Hoylman of Manhattan who sponsors the conversion therapy bill said that clubs like Stonewall are a signifier for the community in that they represent the grassroots. "The grassroots are usually the most skeptical of legislative achievements - even achievements as great as marriage equality," Hoylman said. "They play the necessary role of agitator to push candidates on certain issues."

Hoylman says that the new Democratic majority in the Senate will allow Cuomo to move GENDA and other legislation important to the community. "The old coalition wasn't working for his legislative agenda," said Hoylman.

Ortiz says that the Stonewall Democrats have only grown in influence in the last decade. "The interest from candidates grows exponentially every year," she said. "The days when candidates would shun us or ask for our endorsement but hide it are long gone. Candidates want our endorsement and they want people to know about it."

Note: This article has been corrected to state that GLID endorsed Cuomo unanimously, it originally stated that GLID narrowly endorsed Cuomo. 

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Categories: State/Local

State jurist halts mining tests

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 1:07am


A mining company must delay test drilling on Adirondack Forest Preserve land under a temporary restraining order issued by a New York state Supreme Court justice in a lawsuit claiming the work was illegal despite state agency approval.

New York voters approved a constitutional amendment last fall for NYCO Minerals Inc. to expand its Essex County pit mine onto 200 acres of state-owned land in exchange for 1,500 acres elsewhere. The company had planned to do test drilling before completing the swap, to ascertain whether it contained a rich vein of wollastonite, a white mineral used in ceramics, plastics, paints and other products.

But Deborah Goldberg of Earthjustice said Wednesday that since the 200 acres is still under state Forest Preserve protection, any tree-cutting or test drilling is illegal, despite approval by the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency.

Earthjustice filed the lawsuit against the state agencies and NYCO on behalf of Adirondack Wild, Protect the Adirondacks, the Sierra Club and the Atlantic States Legal Foundation.

State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Buchanan granted Earthjustice's request for a temporary restraining order Tuesday, providing the environmental groups post a $10,000 bond to cover NYCO's damages if Earthjustice loses the suit. Goldberg said the bond was posted Wednesday.

The restraining order is good until Aug. 22, when Buchanan will hear arguments.

Categories: State/Local

Around NY

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 1:07am

Lawyer: Don't prejudge woman in son's death

WHITE PLAINS — A lawyer asked the public Wednesday not to rush to judgment in the case of a young mother accused of killing her 5-year-old son by poisoning him with salt, but he offered no details in her defense.

Lacey Spears "looks forward to her day in court and the opportunity to challenge the allegations," attorney Stephen Riebling said. "We continue to trust the people will keep an open mind and not judge Lacey or the facts of this case based on what's been reported," he said.

Spears, 26, of Scottsville, Kentucky, pleaded not guilty last month on charges of depraved murder and manslaughter in the death of Garnett-Paul Spears.

The boy died in January at the Westchester Medical Center when, prosecutors say, his sodium levels rose to an extremely dangerous level with no medical explanation. Spears was sharing her son's hospital room — he had been brought there after suffering seizures — and doctors thought she might be harming him. Prosecutors believe she administered sodium through a feeding tube in his stomach.

— Associated Press

Man accused of peeping in windows with drone

ULSTER — A Hudson Valley man faces an unlawful surveillance charge after State Police say he flew a personal drone outside the windows of a medical building, shooting video.

Police said David Beesmer, 49, of Lake Katrine flew the drone close to fourth-floor windows where patients were examined. Beesmer, a rock music promoter, says on his Facebook page he "made a huge error in judgment" but said he only shot the video to promote the facility.

— Associated Press

Talks resuming Thursday in LIRR labor dispute

MINEOLA — Talks aimed at averting a strike at Long Island Rail Road are continuing.

A Long Island Rail Road spokesman says the agency and union leaders will resume negotiations Thursday after an all-day session Wednesday. The unions say they're reviewing developments out of the session and are maintaining contact with the railroad's negotiators via teleconference.

The sides resumed talks at Gov. Andrew Cuomo's urging after a two-day impasse over whether future employees would have to contribute to health and pension plans. The unions have said their 5,400 members will walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. Sunday if they do not get a deal.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo's war chest nearly 15 times Astorino's

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 1:07am


Andrew Cuomo is still king of the mountain — of cash.

And Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino's campaign filings show he has a long climb to come anywhere close.

The governor reported $35 million in his campaign war chest on Tuesday, the deadline for candidates to file their six-month campaign finance reports. Cuomo's campaign took in $8.5 million and spent $6.8 million since January.

Astorino reported a far more modest sum of $2.4 million after raising $3.4 million and spending $980,000. Astorino's camp previously said it hoped to raise $10 million to $15 million this cycle.

The funding gap between the two mirrors the distance between them in the political polls, which have consistently shown a more than 30-point advantage for the Democratic incumbent as Astorino fights for name recognition outside of his home Westchester County. Upstate, where analysts widely agree Astorino will have to pick up the most votes, his name is still known by only 30 percent of voters, a June poll by Siena Research Institute says.

Lack of funds may exacerbate his identity issues.

Political consultant Bruce Gyory said to be able to boost the ranks of voters who can identify him, Astorino needs to be in the $10 million range. What may be more telling is the return on investment for the $980,000 he spent.

"He raised $3.4 million but only has $2.4 million left — that's a pretty high burn rate given that most people have not seen Astorino TV ads or traditional campaign outreach," Gyory said. "For those who said he is not projecting issues so much because he is spending time raising money, when you look at the late winter, spring and early summer campaign activities, he's neither projected issues, nor has he raised the money to get known."

Cuomo spent $4.8 million on television ads, but just $11,700 on print. Astorino listed a single TV ad purchase worth $279,485.

Astorino's funds came largely from individual donors or partnerships, who chipped in $1.9 million. Among those not on the donor list are Senate Republicans or their campaign committees.

Astorino has some donors who have been Cuomo supporters in the past, though they appear to be giving him less than they gave the governor.

Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group noted that Clough Harbor & Associates, an engineering and design firm, gave Astorino $5,000, but gave Cuomo $50,000.

Roger Hertog, a nationally-known conservative donor, pitched in $20,000 for Astorino's campaign; he made an earlier $30,000 donation to Cuomo. Hertog's name does not appear on individual and partnership contribution filings for Cuomo this time.

Many Cuomo donors gave more than $25,000. Among the recognizable names are former State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs, who gave two contributions worth $10,000 total, and Barbra Streisand, who gave $500.

Of note in other races was the minuscule pool of funds GOP comptroller candidate Robert Antonacci raised compared to Democratic Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. DiNapoli reported $2.7 million on hand; Antonacci filed for just under $30,700.

While Antonacci plans to opt into the public campaign financing pilot program, he must reach the $200,000 threshold before he can begin getting the 6-to-1 matching public funds. Even then, only the first $175 of each contribution counts toward those matching funds.

DiNapoli, an advocate for public financing of campaigns, has said he won't opt in to the pilot program.

In regional races considered competitive, U.S. Rep Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, reported $1.9 million on hand. His Democratic opponent, Sean Eldridge, reported $2.1 million.

In the state Senate's 49th District, Republican Sen. Hugh Farley has $189,839 while Democratics Madelyn Thorne and Patti Southworth show $47,312 and $3,925 respectively.

Reports were still being posted later Tuesday. 518-454-5449

Categories: State/Local

At Least 20 Council Members to Implement Participatory Budgeting In Its Fourth Year

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 1:00am

Constituents cast ballots in participatory budgeting (

On Wednesday morning at 10:30, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, other council members, and advocates will gather in City Hall's red room to announce the expansion of participatory budgeting to at least 20 council districts.

Participatory budgeting, now entering its fourth year in New York City, will see implementation double, up from ten council districts the previous cycle, eight the second year, and four the initial year. This rapid increase in city electeds allocating $1-2 million in capital funding to community decision-making reflects the successes council members have seen in directly engaging their constituents in the budgeting process and empowering them to take ownership of bettering their communities.

The recently passed New York City municipal ID law, set to go into effect in 2015, is another effort, along with participatory budgeting (PB), to bring more New Yorkers into civic life. The ID law could even prove to be a boon to PB involvement among community members previously hesitant to register with government entities. All district residents 16 years and older can take part in the PB process where it is being implemented, which with this year's expansion nears half the city's 51 council districts.

PB allows district constituents to propose projects and vote on how to spend roughly $1 million in discretionary funds to improve their communities. Participants need not be registered New York voters or U.S. citizens, and advocates say PB has brought many more New Yorkers into community involvement.

While the official list of council members implementing PB will not be released until Wednesday morning, several participating council members have begun holding initial information sessions in their communities and Gotham Gazette has confirmed at least 20 council members who have committed to the program for fiscal year 2015, which just began on July 1.

And, though no official report on the efficacy of PB over its first three years in New York has yet been offered, the Urban Justice Center and the Participatory Budgeting Project, the not-for-profit organization that helps facilitate the PB process, released a report on year two of PB in New York that evaluated engagement and impact.

Council Participation
Participatory budgeting in New York City began in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 with implementation by Council Members Brad Lander, (now-speaker) Melissa Mark-Viverito, Jumaane Williams, and Eric Ulrich. In FY2013, the four pioneers were joined by colleagues Dan Halloran, Mark Weprin, Stephen Levin, David Greenfield.

Then, while the FY2014 PB process was happening, so were the 2013 city elections. Nine council members originally committed to PB in FY2014, with eight of them seeing the process through, and Carlos Menchaca taking over for Sara Gonzalez in council district 38 after he defeated the incumbent in the Democratic primary and went on to take the seat. Menchaca was one of many candidates in 2013 who pledged to PBNYC that they would implement the program if (re)elected.

Newly elected Council Member Ben Kallos, who had also made such a pledge, joined the nine other districts with his own truncated PB process after taking office in January of 2014, making for ten total participating districts in FY2014.

The ten districts were those represented by repeaters Lander, Mark-Viverito, Williams, Ulrich, Weprin, Levin, Greenfield; and first-timers Kallos, Gonzalez (replaced by Menchaca), and Donovan Richards.

Now, as the FY2015 process is underway, Gotham Gazette has confirmed that the ten council districts in which council members dedicated funds to PB last year will again run the program, while at least ten other council members have committed to initiate the process. These new confirmations include Council Members Corey Johnson, Dan Garodnick, Helen Rosenthal, Mark Levine, Andrew Cohen, Ritchie Torres, Jimmy Van Bramer, Daneek Miller, Antonio Reynoso, and Mark Treyger.

Three other council members had pledged to The Participatory Budgeting Project that they would participate. The names of Council Members Chaim Deutsch, Inez Barron and Laurie Cumbo were listed in a September press release from PBNYC, the Project's NYC branch. Inquiries to the offices of the three council members have not been returned.

More clarity will be gained on Wednesday morning. There is, of course, the possibility that more than 20 council members will be implementing PB in FY2015. A higher number is more likely if Speaker Mark-Viverito has decided to dedicate greater council staff and/or funds to support PB. The speaker's office did not return multiple requests for comment.

The PB Process & Increased Community Input
PB's growth can largely be attributed to Mark-Viverito's early involvement, the community groups involved with PB, and the successes seen in the neighborhoods in which PB has been implemented. While PB funds are for capital work only and can often go to seemingly mundane projects, those chosen often relate directly to neighborhood quality of life issues. Over the past two years in New York City, PB has led to funding for expanded sidewalks for pedestrians, increased security in libraries, computers for schools, and much more.

Pam Jennings, Project Coordinator for the Participatory Budgeting Project, observes that the projects proposed through PB tend to better address community needs.

"We've seen projects that get implemented in areas where there's higher need in the community compared to in the past when it was just the council member deciding on their own," Jennings said in an interview.

In 2013, Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander (D-39) oversaw the repaving of pothole-plagued 50th Street between Fort Hamilton Parkway and 13th Avenue. The project, costing $150,000 and greatly easing traffic on the congested roadway, was entirely initiated by constituents through the PB process and completed just over a year after it was chosen for funding. Lander is one of the only council members with a dedicated web page to tracking approved projects in his district.

After a council member decides that his or her district will be home to PB and sets aside $1-2 million in capital funds to do so, the PB process has four stages that take months of planning and dedication from the community - and the council member's staff.

Information sessions for PB start in the summer, almost immediately after a new budget is passed. Here council members spread the word and educate constituents about the process. Newly-elected Council Member Johnson, representing District 3 in Manhattan, and incumbent Council Member Van Bramer, of District 26 in Queens, are two of the many council members that have already begun holding information sessions.

District residents then come together in the fall to brainstorm ideas for capital projects that will help their communities. Capital projects are intended to better the district's infrastructure and make it a better place to live. Projects can range from park renovations to new handicap-accessible ramps to updated technology in schools.

Next, brainstormed ideas are developed and defined by cost estimates, timelines, and projections. Steering committees, made up of constituents, guide this research and compilation process. Then the projects go to a vote.

The top projects get funded - with the number of winning projects varying. Projects become earmarked within the council members' discretionary funds in the completed budget that the mayor signs into law for the following the fiscal year.

The Participatory Budgeting Project and Community Voices Heard (CVH), a grassroots community development group, come together to provide structure for the process that spans almost the entire fiscal year. The two groups conduct outreach to get residents involved, and provide materials to take the creative process through the stages.

Sondra Youdelman, Executive Director of CVH, lauds how PB creates new space for all residents to engage in the budgeting process, especially groups that have typically been marginalized.

"Relationships across constituents and residents in communities that may never interact with one another start to get built across boundaries of neighborhoods, across boundaries that are traditionally established of class, of race, of culture...and people come together for the greater good of the community," Youdelman said in an interview.

According to PBNYC, in 2014 nearly 17,000 people came out to vote on how to spend approximately $14 million in discretionary funds allocated by their council members.

However, there are inherent challenges to eliciting engagement and ensuring projects enhance communities to help the most people, and help those that are most in need, Youdelman said. It can be a question of whether to pursue, for example, more streetlights and security in NYCHA developments or new turf fields at high schools. Like any other democratic process, these decisions can come down to get out the vote efforts.

Finite staff and resources limit the capacity of nonprofit organizations, but constituent steering committees are coming up with creative ways to tackle these challenges.

"Almost like the spicy spectrum on a menu where you have an extra logo that says 'Hey, look this is a spicy thing,'" the ballot might begin to highlight projects "that really advance equity in the neighborhood, allowing individuals to decide whether they want to choose that or not," Youdelman said.

Mark-Viverito, a pioneer of PB in 2011, is now in the position of leadership where she can dedicate greater resources for PB along the lines of central staffing and accountability measures.

Tracking PB Progress
While a list of funded projects is available to the public on the PBNYC website, a clear, systematic tracking system for the status of projects does not exist. Certain council members, such as Lander, have chosen to post results on their own web pages, indicating where in the process approved projects may be.

The delayed gratification here can be challenging, Youdelman said. "It can be hard because there's a lag time between when you make a decision and when you start seeing the results," she said.

But once constituents see projects come to life, she said, it "inspires people to both understand and respect what the city government and the public sector really bring to our communities."

by Nicola Licata, Gotham Gazette


Categories: State/Local

Desperately Needed Infrastructure Improvements Must Be Given Dedicated Funding

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 07/22/2014 - 1:00am

A water main break in Manhattan (photo: Laura Shin)

Earlier this month, BNP Paribas plead guilty to money laundering and falsifying business records. The French Bank will pay $8.9 billion in fines, with approximately $4 billion directed to New York State and its municipalities. As politicians and civic leaders rushed to offer recommendations for directing this windfall, a consensus began to emerge: the construction, rehabilitation and maintenance of New York State infrastructure.

While the recent settlement is a significant sum, even if it is wholly applied, it will not be enough to address New York's aging and outmoded infrastructure. In New York City alone, thirty-seven percent of subway signals exceed their 50-year useful life; 63 percent of cargo facilities at John F. Kennedy airport are considered "non-viable" for modern screening; 24 percent of the water that enters distribution mains never reaches customers due to leaks and other diversions; 11 percent of bridges are structurally deficient; and nearly 60 percent of NYCHA buildings do not comply with Local Law 11 standards for exterior and façade conditions.

The Center for an Urban Future estimated that $47 billion is needed over the next four to five years simply to bring the city's aging infrastructure to a state of good repair. However, based on accumulated funding gaps and shortfalls in upcoming capital plans, unmet needs will reach $34.2 billion. To address this large and growing funding gap, it's imperative that city and state policymakers identify new dedicated revenue streams and ensure that existing revenue streams are not raided, as they have too often been in the past.

Sam Schwartz's "Fair Plan," for instance, would introduce new tolls on those East River bridges carrying vehicles into the city's central business district while sharply reducing tolls on five non-Manhattan bridges. Most importantly, the dedicated revenue from Schwartz's plan would generate $1.2 billion annually for transit projects and regional highway improvements.

For an additional dedicated funding stream, New York City should follow Seattle, Philadelphia, and 500 other cities in replacing its sewer charges - currently assessed at 159% of the water rate - with a more nuanced stormwater management fee. Property owners would be charged according to the percentage of rainwater captured on their lots (before it enters the city's overburdened sewer system). This would incentivize increased water retention on private property, with customers paying a lower fee as they introduce new green elements – trees, swales, porous pavement, green roofs. This could be coupled with a credit program to help customers finance the installation of green elements, with loans repaid each month via a utility or property bill.

Finally, while the BNP Paribas fine is often described as a "one shot deal", it too could be converted into a continuous, dedicating funding source. By depositing the $4 billion into an infrastructure trust fund, it could generate $200 million a year in perpetuity, assuming a conservative 5 percent annual return (the MTA, by comparison, assumes a 7 percent annual return on its pension investments). This $200 million is hardly pittance. In New York City, it would afford 800 new units of low-income housing, the resurfacing of 1,300 lane-miles of city streets, or 34 miles of reconstructed sewers each year.

Moving forward, political wrangling and posturing over court settlements – like the protracted dispute between Governor Cuomo and Attorney General Schneiderman over control of an earlier $613 million settlement with JPMorgan Chase – could be avoided if the state Legislature mandates that a fixed share of future court settlements be deposited into the infrastructure trust. This would help stabilize the state's critical infrastructure for years to come.

As the city and state consider these new funding streams, political officials should refrain from diverting or dipping into existing (and already insufficient) dedicated revenue sources - a practice that has been all-too-common in recent years. At the MTA, $30 million from the Metropolitan Mass Transportation Operating Assistance account was transferred to the state's General Debt Service Fund in 2014. Funds from the Dedicated Highway and Bridge Trust Fund have also been used to cover state budget expenses. In New York City, revenue dedicated to the water and sewage system is redirected to the city's expense budget through "rental payments." Since 2005, these rental payments have increased significantly, from $109 million to $183 million.

The city's airports have also been affected by political interference. While the airports generate significant revenues from landing fees, gate fees and other levies, $214 million at JFK was diverted to non-airport related activities between 2004 and 2010. Though federal regulations require airport operators to reinvest all airport revenue into their facilities, the Port Authority was granted an exemption. In several instances, area politicians have pushed the Port Authority to use funds generated by the airports to prevent toll and fare increases at other Port Authority-managed assets, such as the PATH train.

The protection of these dedicated revenue streams, as well as the introduction of new funding sources, should not be delayed. Without immediate, sustained, and generous investment in its core infrastructure, New York's quality of life and economic competitiveness will quickly diminish.

Adam Forman is research associate at the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City based think tank. He is the author of "Caution Ahead," a report published in March by the Center documenting New York's infrastructure vulnerabilities.

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


Categories: State/Local

Private data not so private

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 07/21/2014 - 1:07am


Nearly 23 million private records of New Yorkers have been exposed in data security breaches reported by more than 3,000 businesses, nonprofits and governments over the past eight years, New York's attorney general reported.

Deliberate hacking was responsible for 40 percent of the 5,000 incidents, which exposed a majority of the records, followed by lost or stolen equipment, insider wrongdoing and inadvertent errors, according to the report released on Tuesday.

"As we increasingly share our personal information with stores, restaurants, health care providers and other organizations, we should be able to enjoy the benefits of new technology without putting ourselves at risk," Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said. He urged collaboration between industry and security experts so businesses and organizations have the tools to secure data and address the growing, complex problem.

Since 2005, New York law has required breached institutions to advise the attorney general and the individuals when computerized private data consisting of names and account, Social Security or driver's license numbers were acquired by an unauthorized user. The report noted that it excludes thousands of data breaches involving sensitive information that don't fit under the law's reporting requirements.

The 7.3 million records exposed in 900 security breaches last year cost institutions an estimated $1.37 billion to investigate, rectify and help customers, the report said. They included the two largest so far, both involving retailers, when Target Corp. was hacked, exposing the personal information and credit card numbers of more than 70 million customers nationwide including 1.8 million New Yorkers, and LivingSocial's data was hacked, exposing 4.75 million records of New Yorkers.

Target said it subsequently imposed several security measures with enhanced monitoring, limiting vendor access, streamlining firewalls and resetting passwords.

LivingSocial spokesman Kevin Nolan said none of its customers' credit card data was ever compromised, that the exposed data in 2013 was limited to user names and encrypted passwords that were useless outside of its system.

While black market sales of private data were cited as the primary motivation for hacking, the report didn't identify New York consumer losses.

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo upbeat on gambling

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 07/21/2014 - 1:07am


Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday brushed off recent bad news for the gaming industry, saying that the private sector and not the state will determine "the scale and scope" of casino operations coming soon to upstate.

"The private market does this," Cuomo said in response to a question about the recent Moody's downgrade of the industry from "stable" to "negative," and the subsequent news that the Trump Plaza casino will likely be the next Atlantic City gaming hall to shut down.

"They have experts. So I am sure they will propose what they believe will be successful," Cuomo said Tuesday in Niskayuna. "The state isn't building any casinos and the state isn't spending any money here, right? These are private companies, which normally know what they're doing. If they don't, then the market will tell them that."

Last week Moody's Investor Services concluded that U.S. consumers would likely "continue to limit their spending to items more essential than gaming, even as the U.S. economy continues to improve."

The firm viewed the regional gaming industry's modest slide over this past spring as a "fundamental downward shift" in demand.

In New Jersey, four of Atlantic City's 12 casinos have announced plans to close unless they find buyers.

New York's Gaming Commission is currently assessing 17 bids from companies hoping to secure one of up to four licenses to develop and run casinos upstate, including one in the Capital Region.

Cuomo has spent years trying to establish the economic development blueprint for the gaming expansion, which was approved by a statewide referendum last fall.

Categories: State/Local

Up to 44 oil trains weekly upstate

Albany Times/Union - Mon, 07/21/2014 - 1:07am


As many as 44 trains a week, each loaded with at least a million gallons of volatile crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region, move through upstate New York, according to documents released Tuesday by the state.

CSX Transportation said it hauls an average of 20 to 35 trains a week across 17 New York counties from the west to Albany and then south along the Hudson River. Canadian Pacific said it hauls an average of five to nine crude oil trains a week through five counties from the Canadian border to Schoharie County, according to the documents released to The Associated Press by the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services in response to a Freedom of Information Law request.

The U.S. Department of Transportation in May ordered railroads to give state officials specifics on oil train routes so emergency responders can better prepare for accidents. New York officials declined requests from CSX and Canadian Pacific to avoid public disclosure of the information.

CSX oil trains follow a route roughly following the Thruway corridor, entering the state in Chautauqua County, heading north through Erie County, then east to the Port of Albany, a major transfer hub for Bakken crude which then continues to refineries by ship down the Hudson River or by rail.

CP Rail oil trains travel south from Canada from Clinton County in northeastern New York to Albany.

Federal officials ordered railroads to turn over shipment details after a string of fiery accidents involving Bakken crude. Derailments have caused explosions in North Dakota, Virginia, Alabama, Oklahoma and Quebec, where 47 were killed when a runaway train crashed in Lac-Megantic last July.

Crude oil shipments have grown significantly since 2008. The Association of American Railroads says major railroads delivered 434,042 carloads of crude in 2013, up from 9,344 in 2008.

On Tuesday, environmental groups asked federal officials to ban shipments of crude in older tank cars which accident investigators say can rupture or puncture during crashes. The Obama administration said it will propose a rule this month governing tank cars that could include retrofits of older cars and tougher standards for new ones.

Categories: State/Local

Around NY

Albany Times/Union - Sun, 07/20/2014 - 1:07am

Neighbors object to suburban gun range

GREENBURGH — Some neighbors are objecting to a gun range in a pricey Westchester County residential area.

Members of the Greenburgh Town Board, which is considering new regulations for outdoor ranges, planned to visit the Westchester Police Revolver and Rifle League on Tuesday, according to CBS New York

The private range, which is not affiliated with a police agency, is in a subdivision where home prices start at $1.2 million.

Last month, a woman in her back yard was hit in the leg by a piece of metal. Ballistics testing is under way to see if it's a bullet fragment; but an attorney for the range said a stray bullet was unlikely.

"If you try to go outside the port to the left or outside the port to the right, it can't be done," Robert Berkowitz said.

Nonetheless, the range has said it was willing to consider changes.

— Associated Press

2 men rescued from 150-foot-high lift

NEWBURGH — Authorities say two workers for a Hudson Valley rental company spent more than five hours stranded 150 feet in the air when a lift they were testing malfunctioned and the device's manufacturer refused to provide information that would have rescued them sooner.

Officials in Newburgh tell the Times Herald-Record of Middletown that two men got stuck early Monday morning at United Rentals.

Fire officials say the equipment's manufacturer refused to provide an override code that would have allowed the bucket to be lowered.

Firefighters used a ladder truck, a regular ladder and safety ropes to eventually bring the men safely to the ground around 1:30 p.m. With thunderstorms forecast, fire officials said the two workers were "a giant lightning strike waiting to happen."

The lift's manufacturer said it couldn't divulge the override code for safety reasons.

— Associated Press

Man gets prison for strangling his wife

A suburban New York computer programmer has been sentenced to 22 years in prison for strangling his wife.

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore announced the sentence Tuesday for Christopher Howson. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in May for killing Theresa Gorski in their Sleepy Hollow home.

She was a part-time staff attorney for the Bronx Legal Aid Society.

Howson called 911 on Jan. 5, 2013, and said he had just strangled his wife.

Authorities have said the couple's daughters were home when the killing occurred. They were 5 and 8 at the time.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, July 20

Gotham Gazette - Sun, 07/20/2014 - 1:00am

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week:

Mayor Bill de Blasio is in Italy this week, where he kicked off his family trip that will mix business and pleasure on Sunday in Rome. De Blasio met with Roman Mayor Ignazio Marino on Sunday and his Monday includes meetings with "the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin...Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini at the Farnesina, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs" and "former Integration Minister Cécile Kyenge in Rome," according to his public schedule. New York City-based journalists in Italy reporting on the de Blasio family's trip include NY1's Grace Rauh and Juan Manual Benitez, The New York TimesMichael Grynbaum, The Daily NewsJennifer Fermino, and The Wall Street Journal's Michael Howard Saul.

De Blasio delayed his departure for Italy one day after the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island resident, during an altercation with the NYPD. This week will surely include more fallout from Garner's death, which occurred after a chokehold was used on him - a practice which has been banned internally by the NYPD.

Also key this week is more on the electoral front, as attention on the upcoming elections will continue to mount as legislating has slowed or stopped in the City and Albany, respectively, and politicos nearly shift fully into campaign mode for the summer leading up to the September 9th primary and Novemeber 5th general elections.

Last week featured news of which 2014 candidates for state-wide and state-level elected offices filed the requisite petition signatures to make the ballot and what candidates' campaign fundraising numbers look like (investigate those filings here). This week, candidates continue to campaign and fund-raise, with the primary just seven weeks from Tuesday July 22nd.

On Monday, Siena will release a new poll on the statewide races for governor, attorney general, and comptroller; and several of the most important issues to voters, including fracking and common core.

There is governing happening, though: on Thursday, the New York City Council will meet for its lone full-body State meeting of the month. There are a few other council hearings this week. See below for details.

And, as always, there are several interesting one-off events and conferences this week to check out.

The run of the week in more detail:

The aforementioned Siena poll should be the talk of the town on Monday - along with further fallout from the death of Eric Garner and reports from the mayor's trip to Italy.

On Monday at the City Council, there are meetings of the Subcommittees on Zoning and Franchises; Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses; and Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions. 

On Tuesday, the City Council's government operations committee, chaired by Council Member Ben Kallos, will hold the second hearing for two bills: one on publishing the city record online and the other on the online publication of city laws. Counsel to the Mayor, Maya Wiley, testified at the last hearing on these bills, expressing mild opposition. It is unclear if she will be testifying again.

Other council committee meetings on Tuesday include the Committees on Rules, Priveleges, and Elections; Land Use; Mental Health, Developmenta Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services; and Immigration.

The mental health committee, chaired by Council Member Corey Johnson, will be looking at "Increasing the maximum income level qualifying for exemption from rent increases granted to certain persons with disabilities."

The rules committee, chaired by Council Member Brad Lander, will meet to consider several recommended appointments by Mayor de Blasio to the City Planning Commission and one nominee to the Landmarks Preservation Committee.

And immigration, chaired by Council Member Carlos Menchaca, will meet regarding a "Resolution urging the President of the United States to include comprehensive immigration reform, and issues of importance to African immigrants and the African Diaspora, on the agenda for the 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit."

On Tuesday evening, Democratic Leadership for the 21 Century (DL21C) holds its summer bash: "Join us for drinks, dancing, and mingling with fellow politicos from across New York and the nation. You'll be joined by local, state and federal elected officials, as well as civic leaders and special guests. This is the best political party of the summer and you don't miss out."

Crain's New York hosts a conference, "The Business of Taxis: Innovating an Industry," on Wednesday morning at John Jay College of Criminal Justice: "The yellow taxi is a New York City institution. However, the NYC of today has opened its arms to other avenues of private transportation, but not without a fight. There are a myriad of upstarts, including the city-sanctioned green cabs, e-hail apps and other car services, and the taxi establishment is not happy about it. Are these disruptors simply stepping in where taxis have historically feared to tread? What are the issues these new technologies and increasingly powerful interest groups raise in the sharing economy? And the underlying questions looms large: how do you innovate a highly regulated industry that's often resistant to change?"

On Wednesday evening, the Stonewall Democratic Club will hold it's state elections endorsement meeting. There has been some discord within the LGBT community over Gov. Andrew Cuomo's agenda and inconsistent support for the governor's re-election from LGBT clubs that have endorsed thus far. Stonewall is the largest LGBT club in New York and its vote will surely say much about the governor's standing. Meanwhile, the club will also vote on other offices that will be on the ballot this fall.

Also on Wednesday evening, it's another round of New York's "Citizens Preparedness Training Program." This one's being held at Fordham University on West 60th Street and "Sponsored by Gov. Cuomo, Congress Member Jerrold Nadler, Borough President Gale Brewer, Senator Brad Holyman, Assembly Member Linda B. Rosenthal, Council Member Corey Johnson, and Community Board 7."

The City Council holds its lone July full-body Stated meeting on Thursday. Stay tuned for meeting details.

Prior to the Stated, the finance committee will meet to consider changes in designation to certain organizations receiving funding in the recently-passed fiscal year 2015 city budget, among other business.

On Thursday evening, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer hosts an Iftar dinner at The Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center and "honoring Sheila Canby, Walter Edwards, and Dr. Rudina Odeh-Ramadan."

Friday and the weekend
It's the summer, so of course Friday and the weekend look light - but if you have intel on events to look at for, please let us know! 

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

by Kristen Meriwether and Ben Max in New York City and David King in Albany


Categories: State/Local
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