It's unclear if Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plans to travel to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in the near future will involve any other elected officials.
Like jaunts to Ireland, Italy and Israel, a trip to the islands could be viewed as a standard stop for any New York governor keen to reach out to significant ethic groups.
Cuomo on Monday stressed that he hasn't finalized details of the upcoming trip. "I'd like to visit before Election Day just as a sign of respect to those communities," he said.
Also not yet finalized: Whether he'll be accompanied by members of the state Senate's Democratic conference with Puerto Rican or Dominican roots.
An informal poll suggested that none of the Senate's half-dozen Hispanic members who are either Puerto Rican or Dominican had been contacted about a possible trip.
"I would say, instead of going to Puerto Rico he should go to the South Bronx," said Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., a socially conservative Democrat who grew up in Puerto Rico. Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino accepted his endorsement at a recent meeting for ministers in the Bronx.
Other lawmakers who would comment said they didn't know of any plans to accompany the governor. To be sure, these senators are in safely Democratic districts, and none appear to face serious challenges in November. For New York City Democrats, the real battles are in the primaries.
And the question of who may or may not accompany the governor on an offshore trip is more about political alliances than ethnic identity.
When Cuomo made a 29-hour trip to Israel in August, he took Senate Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeff Klein and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — both of whom are Jewish — as well as Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who is of Greek extraction. No members of the mainline Democratic conference went on the trip.
Cuomo this year has said he'll be working to bring the Senate Democrats into the majority, although his efforts have not yet been vigorous.
"Governors historically take care of their own needs," said Jerry Kremer, an assemblyman turned lobbyist. Most governors — including Mario M. Cuomo — "basically avoided getting down and dirty into street politics."
"He's really operating on his own level in this campaign, divorcing himself from a lot of the local stuff," Kremer added.
That's true even if "local" is a four-hour flight south.
While not expecting an invitation, Diaz said he would be happy to join the governor on a trip to Puerto Rico, where he would like to bring him to his hometown of Bayamon, and have lunch with the city's mayor.
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In a Tuesday meeting with the Times Union's editorial board, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman made his case for another four-year term and briefly discussed the controversy over the Moreland Commission on public corruption.
The Democrat, who deputized many of the members of the prematurely mothballed panel as deputy attorneys general, has taken heat from his Republican opponent, John Cahill, for allegedly not doing enough to preserve its independence in the face of what's been widely reported as the Cuomo administration's attempts to steer the commission's activity.
Schneiderman reiterated that he couldn't talk about what happened within the commission, citing U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's ongoing probe into its operations and its findings.
"I thought the goals were laudable," he said of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's decision to convene the panel.
"I deputized them, and then I treated it as an independent commission," he said.
Schneiderman demurred when asked if he would have preferred to see the commission complete its planned 18-month mission instead of being dismantled in late March.
"I know it's sort of frustrating sometimes to journalists — you guys all want to know everything — but there are really important reasons for confidentiality when there's an investigation," he said.
"I think at some point in time down the road I will be able to talk more about it," he said, "but I'm not going to compromise ongoing investigations."
On less controversial matters, Schneiderman said his partnership with state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has borne fruit in dozens of corruption cases against public officials. It should, he noted, become a permanent part of the office's operation.
He said the amount of activity in the office was the result of years of effort tinkering with the different arms of the attorney general's operation.
"In the last year or so, I think all the bureaus are firing on all burners now — I look forward to doing more," he said.
Schneiderman discussed his settlements with large banks and financial services companies (including JPMorganChase, Citibank and Bank of America) including sums that are now being directed to homeowner protection programs.
He pointed to the support his office has offered to land banks, which battle blight by allowing communities to take ownership of dilapidated properties.
"The Capital Region has been more aggressive than any other part of the state" in that regard, Schneiderman said.
On Wednesday, the attorney general's office is slated to announce $20 million in additional funds for land banks statewide, including a two-year commitment of $3 million for the Capital Region Land Bank, which covers Schenectady and Amsterdam, to renovate 43 properties and demolish another 208 severely distressed parcels.
The Albany County Land Bank will receive $2.8 million over two years, funding the demolition of up to 20 blighted structures, the rehabilitation of a dozen properties, the initial stabilization of up to 40 homes, and the clearing of the same number of vacant lots for repurposing.
The Troy Community Land Bank, which received its designation only last month, will receive more than $1.25 million in this round of awards.
Pennsylvania drilling sites are emerging as destinations for political pilgrimage for candidates for governor in New York as politicians and voters alike weigh in on whether to allow the technique called hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.
Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins opposes the drilling technique, also called fracking, and last week toured drilling sites in Pennsylvania to highlight what he says are negative health and environmental impacts.
Republican Rob Astorino supports fracking and plans to visit a Pennsylvania fracking operation later this month to show what he says are the economic benefits.
"President Obama supports hydrofracking," Astorino told a gathering of business leaders this month, saying that if he's elected "we'll move forward with the proper environmental safeguards in place and join the 30 other states in harvesting this abundant energy resource beneath the ground."
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, is steering clear of the issue. A long-awaited decision on whether to allow fracking in New York has been delayed until after the election. Cuomo says he wants to see the scientific evidence before weighing in.
Cuomo has said he will visit communities where fracking is allowed before deciding whether to lift the state's moratorium.
"On a weekly basis, you can get academics and reports saying it's totally safe and then the next week you get a report saying it's the most dangerous thing since a nuclear explosion," Cuomo said last week.
"I'm not a scientist," he said. "I'm not going through the data and the research myself, but they are."
Pennsylvania has seen a boom in drilling in the Marcellus Shale, a formation that also lies below New York's Southern Tier. But New York has had a de facto ban as the state studies the environmental and health effects.
Polls show New Yorkers are nearly evenly divided on the issue. A statewide Quinnipiac Poll in August found that 48 percent of voters oppose fracking, while 43 percent support it. The Aug. 14-17 poll included 1,034 voters with a margin of error of 3.1 percent.
Polls suggest support is highest upstate and lowest in New York City.
The president of a major hospitality union has told the state Gaming Commission that a casino project proposed for the Southern Tier should be bounced from consideration because its backers have failed to reach a "labor peace agreement."
Peter Ward, head of the Hotel Trades Council, wrote a letter last week to the state Gaming Commission's casino siting board declaring the Traditions project proposed for Johnson City, Broome County, was ineligible for a casino license because of its failure to secure an agreement.
The Lago project, Traditions' competitor for the license in the Southern Tier zone, secured such a compact with the union earlier this month. The agreements, which are designed to facilitate smooth labor relations for projects with a significant public interest, are required for any casino proposal that hopes to land one of up to four licenses for upstate.
"We were blown away," said John Hussar of Traditions. He said the team's lawyer had been trying to complete a labor peace agreement for weeks. Hussar sent a letter Saturday letter to Gail Thorpe, a Gaming Commission staffer, and attached reams of emailed communications exchanged with union representatives, including draft agreements. The letter said Traditions was engaged in "good-faith negotiating attempts despite repeated delays and no communication from the HTC. We have been told we have no other option as they are the only (hospitality union) with jurisdiction for our area."
The Hotel Trades Council's headquarters in New York City was closed for the Columbus Day holiday.
Also Monday, Full House Resorts, which is seeking to handle the operations of a proposed casino at Howes Cave in Schoharie County and another at Stewart International Airport in Orange County, formally responded to allegations from a dissident group of investors that the company has been on a spending spree.
The letter from the Las Vegas-based company's management team says that while it has retained an outside firm to examine options including sale and merger, "the company believes that the proposals by the dissident group are inappropriate and disruptive at this time and encourages stockholders to not take any action with respect to the proposals. ... The company also believes that the dissident group are the wrong people, with the wrong agenda at the wrong time."
The Gaming Commission's site panel is expected to recommended licensees in the next few weeks.
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Like the New York City residents who have sought refuge in the rural setting around the Capital Region, the fight over Airbnb's policies has migrated upstate.
While the battle over the popular website's place in the red-hot New York City market has been raging for months, a recent skirmish involved a barn in the Columbia County town of Stuyvesant. As described last week in New York magazine, it resulted in the eviction of Michelle Martinez by Christopher Griffith, the owner of the renovated 1880s Dutch barn, after Griffith discovered that Martinez, who was renting the barn for $4,000 a month, was subletting it on Airbnb and several similar sites.
Griffith told the magazine that letting friends stay at the rental was one thing, but "groups of social networking strangers is a completely different ball of wax."
Though this type of tenant-landlord dispute isn't unique, what makes the case high-profile is Martinez's appearance in an Airbnb ad campaign designed to depict its users as everyday New Yorkers trying to make a modest extra income. Her eviction has been taken up by some state lawmakers who believe Airbnb facilitates the flouting of the city's housing law.
"Airbnb claimed throughout this process that they are just a 'platform' and had no responsibility to protect either the property owner or the host, and the host was put on the hook to be evicted because Airbnb fails to properly screen or inform tenants who are breaking the law or their own leases," state Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat and staunch Airbnb opponent, said in a statement last week.
Martinez was part of the public relations campaign after reaching out to the company in an effort to provide a free place to stay for displaced Superstorm Sandy victims. In a statement, Airbnb called her case "a simple misunderstanding."
In New York City, it's illegal to rent out a Class A multiple-dwelling property for any period of less than 30 days. A law passed in 2010 by the state Legislature made consistent existing regulations to make them more enforceable — though it applied to New York City only.
Airbnb rentals are available across the Capital Region, though they are far fewer than in New York City. Current listings for the city of Albany yielded six results, with roughly 10 spread among Guilderland, Slingerlands and Troy.
Nearly as many properties were available in the city of Saratoga Springs alone.
As in Columbia County, those rentals weren't made illegal by 2010's so-called Illegal Hotel Law, though they may violate zoning laws depending on the municipality, or lease agreements depending on the landlord.
Airbnb advises potential hosts on its website to check with the local homeowners association and landlord to make sure there aren't prohibitions in place against subletting.
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Waldorf sale under scrutiny for security
WASHINGTON — Concerned about potential security risks, the U.S. government is taking a close look at last week's sale of New York's iconic Waldorf Astoria hotel to a Chinese insurance company.
U.S. officials said Monday they are reviewing the Oct. 6 purchase of the Waldorf by the Beijing-based Anbang Insurance Group, which bought the hotel from Hilton Worldwide for $1.95 billion. Terms of the sale allow Hilton to run the hotel for the next 100 years and call for "a major renovation" that officials say has raised eyebrows in Washington, where fears of Chinese eavesdropping and cyber espionage run high. The officials also said the sale could have implications for the government's long-standing relationship with the hotel, which serves as home to the American ambassador to the United Nations and hosts the president and hundreds of U.S. diplomats during the annual U.N. General Assembly.
— Associated Press
A crackdown on high achievers
NEW YORK — Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has proposed a law that could bring five years of prison time to anyone who scales high-profile national structures such as the World Trade Center, Statue of Liberty and Golden Gate Bridge.
Schumer said Monday he's pushing the tough sentence because of terror threats he says are now "at a high" — with New York as the top target.
The law also would apply to a nuclear power plant in suburban New York.
A Russian tourist was arrested in August after climbing the Brooklyn Bridge. Weeks earlier, two German artists claimed responsibility for replacing American flags atop the bridge with white ones as a public art stunt.
— Associated Press
Power company considers drones
POUGHKEEPSIE — An upstate New York-based utility is exploring the use of drones to help inspect utility structures and find damaged wires and poles.
Central Hudson Gas & Electric says drones could help find downed poles or wires, especially in remote locations. The company says in a release the drones have the potential to substantially reduce costs and delays.
— Associated Press
Inez Dickens, Keith Wright & Charlie Rangel (L-R) (photo: @CaseyTolan)
For the first time in 70 years, Upper Manhattan voters could see an open seat race for Congress in 2016.
Rep. Charles Rangel, who has represented the district for 44 years, has pledged to not run again in two years after coming through two straight tough Democratic primaries and turning 84 in June.
Questions about who will replace Rangel have been a popular topic for rumor and discussion in uptown political circles for years, and they're only getting more urgent now that Rangel says he's retiring.
Assuming Rangel follows through on his pledge, 2016 will mark the first open seat race in the Congressional district since 1944, when Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was elected during World War II. Rangel defeated Powell in 1970, and has been in office ever since.
While anything could happen in the next two years, political insiders expect to see a long list of contenders on the primary ballot for the 13th district come 2016, which will be a presidential election year. The ethnically-diverse district includes almost all of Upper Manhattan and part of the Bronx. Interviews with several current and former uptown elected officials and political insiders focused on about half a dozen main contenders.
One big question hovers: will Rangel be able to choose his successor?
"I'm not looking forward to retiring. I'm looking forward to two more years of hard work and fighting," Rangel recently told Gotham Gazette. "The most important thing is for me to live long enough to make certain I'm involved in my successor."
He declined to name who that could be.
"One of the reasons it's taken Rangel so long to decide what to do with the seat is that he wants to have a hand in choosing his successor," Harlem political consultant Basil Smikle said. "But there's no guarantee that that anointed person would win."
A crowded field of candidates would be a boost for State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who came close to beating Rangel in the 2012 and 2014 Democratic primaries, if he runs again.
While Espaillat lost by a larger margin in 2014 than in 2012, his actual number of votes and vote percentage went up - he received 41.3 percent of the vote in 2012 and 43.1 percent in 2014. Espaillat would enter the next race with a fairly high name-recognition advantage and the experience of having run twice before in the district, which includes a good chunk of his senate district.
An Espaillat spokesperson declined to comment about the senator's 2016 thinking and said he's focused on his senate district, especially with regard to rent law reforms in Albany.
Espaillat was endorsed by a broad coalition of elected officials and unions in his 2014 race. Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant who has worked for Rangel, predicted that if Espaillat runs again he won't see the same enthusiasm for his candidacy in a third go around.
"It'll be hard to put together his support again," Sheinkopf said.
Whether or not Sheinkopf is right, if Espaillat runs again he would not only have an experience advantage over potential opponents, but if several Rangel allies run, they could split the vote and make Espaillat's path to victory easier.
Rangel "wants to choose a successor, but the minute he begins publicly grooming a successor, the people he's not grooming, he has no more leverage over," an uptown Espaillat supporter said.
Who could be Rangel's chosen successor? One oft-mentioned name is State Assembly Member Keith Wright, a close ally of Rangel and the chair of the Manhattan Democratic Party.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Wright said, smiling, when asked last month if he was considering running in 2016.
But Wright could have other opportunities waiting for him, insiders say.
"I think Keith will wait it out in the Assembly to become Speaker, after Shelly [Silver] retires," said one uptown politico.
"He is in line for other opportunities – I think he'd do very well as Speaker," said former Gov. David Paterson, who represented Harlem in the State Senate before being elected Lieutenant Governor.
What about Paterson himself for Congress?
"I wouldn't rule it out, but it's not a priority for me," Paterson said. "When you have had the privilege of being governor for three years, when you've lived in the executive mansion...there aren't many things on your bucket list." Paterson was recently named State Democratic Party Chair.
Another strong Rangel ally is City Council Member Inez Dickens, whom Rangel has described as his "political wife."
Dickens, who will be unable to run for her Council seat again in 2017 because of term limits, said in a statement that she was focused on her district.
"Congressman Rangel's replacement will have big shoes to fill but I trust in the voters that whomever they choose will do their best," she said. Dickens was an active Rangel supporter this past election season and could often be seen near the incumbent during events.
Adam Clayton Powell IV, a former East Harlem state assembly member and city council member, said he was "absolutely" considering running again, and expected "about 100 people" to run for the open seat.
"This seat has only had two people in 70 years," said Powell, the son of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who represented Harlem in Congress before Rangel. "Both of them have been icons. Whoever replaces them is going to have big shoes to fill."
Powell, now a lobbyist for New York businesses, challenged Rangel in 1996 and 2010, but endorsed him for re-election in 2012 and 2014.
State Senator Bill Perkins, who is seen as a little more politically independent from Rangel than Wright or Dickens, is also a possible contender. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
And some hope to see Reverend Michael Walrond, preacher of First Corinthian Baptist Church, run again. He received about eight percent of the 2014 vote running against Rangel and Espaillat.
Walrond was unavailable for an interview, a spokesperson said.
Sheinkopf suggested one more name: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose East Harlem and Bronx district overlaps somewhat with the congressional district. She endorsed Espaillat in 2014.
Mark-Viverito, who will also be term limited in 2017, did not respond to a request for comment.
The age factor
Paterson said he hopes to see younger candidates in the running.
"One of the reasons Congressman Rangel was able to be so effective was because when he was elected, he was 40 years old," Paterson said. "He had the time to accumulate seniority."
"My first choice would be a young person that's brave and dynamic and represents the issues," he said. "And then if that isn't the case, there are a number of people around who I'm sure would all be good — my favorite would be Keith Wright."
Most of the main contenders for the seat are in their fifties or sixties. Espaillat turned 60 a few weeks ago. Walrond and Mark-Viverito are in their forties.
"I don't think that we have really involved a lot of young people in the political process," Paterson said. "I think this has been a kind of a failure on our part [by] the elected officials" in Upper Manhattan.
Smikle, a political consultant, agreed that age could be an important factor.
"Congress is a seniority-based system, so you want someone who will be able to stay there for 15 or 20 years to build seniority," Smikle said. "There'll be some apprehension of electing someone who's significantly older."
Race and geography
The 2012 and 2014 elections were influenced by a racial dynamic in this changing district, which includes central Harlem and its large African-American population, and Washington Heights and Inwood, which are more Dominican. A 2012 redistricting that included part of the Bronx increased the district's Hispanic population.
In both Democratic primaries, Espaillat won big in Dominican areas, while Rangel took the lead in African-American and Puerto Rican-majority areas. Rangel accused Espaillat of having done nothing in office "besides saying he's a Dominican."
The growing Hispanic population in the district - along with an ongoing effort to register Dominican voters - could be a boost for a Dominican candidate like Espaillat.
"This district, the way it was drawn, it's still a Harlem district, but it's no longer a black district, and a lot of people have trouble recognizing that," said Paterson, who is black. "Sooner or later it is going to be a Hispanic district likely held by a Dominican...I don't plan on being bitter when this happens because it's the inertia of change."
Wright, Dickens, Perkins, and Walrond are black. Mark-Viverito is Puerto-Rican and Espaillat is Dominican. Powell is African-American and Puerto Rican (as is Rangel).
The vote could also be split geographically. While most of the district is in upper Manhattan, it also includes part of the Bronx.
"If there is any consolidation of support [for] a single candidate in the Bronx, it would significantly change the dynamics of the race," Smikle said.
With almost two years to go until the next election, is it silly to already be thinking about who's going to run? Not so, said Smikle.
"The district has been represented by Rangel for over four decades, and there needs to be some conversation about the succession plan," Smikle said. "It's not just about who will replace him, it's a conversation about what the community actually needs."
In this heavily Democratic district, winning the primary will likely amount to winning the seat itself.
Some still wonder, will Rangel really retire? He's said he will - but in politics, and especially with Rangel, never may not mean never.
And in Harlem, where Rangel remains an icon, some are sad to see him go. At the African-American Parade Day Breakfast last month, several attendees worried that no one could fill Rangel's shoes.
"We don't have anyone who knows the streets, the community, the people like Charlie Rangel does," said Shirley Scott, who has lived in Harlem her whole life. "If he does retire, it's not going to be a good thing."
"I remember when he ran the first time," said Gloria Wright (no relation to Keith Wright). "He's been raising Harlem up. Everyone in politics has done something or said something they shouldn't, but he's a good Congressman."
by Casey Tolan, Gotham Gazette
The theory behind putting in place a medical marijuana industry in New York appears to be on solid footing, but questions still surround putting it in practice.
Hundreds of people — from legislators to industry insiders — gathered for a Sunday panel co-moderated by state Sen. Diane Savino at the 2014 International Cannabis Association East Coast Cannabis Business Expo, Educational Conference and Regulatory Summit in Manhattan to discuss the questions about the business side of the state's new program.
"This was a great event," said Patrick McCarthy, a Medical Cannabis Industry Alliance of New York board member and managing director for Mercury Public Affairs. "It's a reminder to policymakers and elected officials across the state that there is a lot of capital ready to be invested."
Legislation leading to the creation of the state's medical marijuana program was approved at the end of this year's legislative session, making New York the 23rd state to legalize medical marijuana. The program, which has been criticized as narrow and slow-moving by some, was slated to take 18 months to get up and running when it was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in early July.
The legislation allows for up to five growing and distribution hubs, each with four spoke dispensaries, to be set up across the state to begin. Patients with only certain illnesses will be eligible to receive the drug.
While the state Department of Health continues to set up the regulatory structure that will control how the industry works, companies have begun looking into where and how they might operate in the state.
Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, a sponsor of the medical marijuana legislation, said concerns from the industry presented Sunday center on the regulations outlined in the law. He said some expressed concern that because of the limited number of dispensaries allowed, only large operations with access to strong capital and political connections will be able to set up shop. There also was concern about if a limited number of dispensaries can serve such a large state and if requiring the manufacturers to also be the retailers is the best way to go.
Gottfried characterized the mood of some Sunday as eager, though uncertainty and some frustration remains.
"We enacted this law because there are tens of thousands of New Yorkers with very serious debilitating and life-threatening conditions whose lives can be made more tolerable and more productive and in many cases longer by medical use of marijuana," Gottfried said. "I think that creates a real need to get this system up and running as quickly as possible. I think what we heard (Sunday) also argues for amending some of the economically restrictive pieces of the law."
McCarthy said going about the process correctly is crucial for an industry New York is new to.
"There are few industries that you get a chance to set up from the beginning," he said. "This has to be done the right way. Because it's still a Schedule I substance, there are a lot of serious questions that have to be answered. It's very different than anything else New York has done."
While companies wait for the state Department of Health to make moves that address some of their concerns, the department has reached out to the federal government to try to speed up the process. Though marijuana is still considered a Schedule I drug by the federal government, the state has asked for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Justice to allow it to import small amounts of medical marijuana from other states to be made available to children with severe forms of epilepsy.
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Patrons dine during fire at Mahopac diner
MAHOPAC — Firefighters responding to a report of a blaze inside the Olympic Diner found about two dozen patrons eating their meals and employees working despite the smoke.
The diner's owner said he thought the smoke was the heating system that he had turned on earlier because of the chilly Saturday morning.
But firefighters walked through the restaurant and the air grew thicker with smoke, the paper reported, and they heard a sound in the walls near the stove. It turned out to be a real blaze inside the walls. The patrons were evacuated. Crews battled the fire for more than an hour and no injuries were reported.
The diner owner says he'll repair and rebuild. The Mahopac restaurant has been open about 35 years.
College files lawsuits to collect student fees
VALHALLA — A suburban New York college has filed more than 600 lawsuits against former students to collect tuition debt. Unpaid tuition and fees at taxpayer-funded Westchester Community College amounted to $779,000 in the 2013 academic year and topped $800,000 in 2012.
The suits were filed in state Supreme Court between last January and early October. So far, the college has won about $117,000 in judgments.
Spokesman Patrick Hennessey says the school tries to be flexible with payments to give students more time before suing.
$1.4 million raised for Buffalo tree replacement
BUFFALO — A group that came together after a surprise autumn snowstorm killed thousands of Buffalo's trees is nearing its goal of replacing them.
It's been eight years since the so-called "arborgeddon" of October 2006, when two feet of snow fell, crushing trees that had yet to lose their leaves.
Nearly 60,000 trees were damaged or destroyed in and around Buffalo.
Re-Tree Western New York Chairman Paul Maurer says the group is making a final fundraising push to complete its goal of planting 30,000 trees.
So far, the group has raised $1.4 million and planted more than 26,000 trees.
New York is losing the rat race.
Citizen complaints about pests to the 311 hotline plus online reports went from 22,300 in fiscal year 2012 to 24,586 the next year, city Comptroller Scott Stringer said Sunday.
"Rats are a daily, stomach-turning insult to New Yorkers — whether they're scurrying over people's feet on the sidewalks, invading homes where children sleep or swarming through restaurants," Stringer said.
Stringer said an audit conducted by his office found that the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene isn't managing its pest control program effectively. Health inspectors didn't always follow their own protocols, and in 160 cases, no field inspection was conducted.
"Without a vigilant and timely response by the city to citizen complaints, this problem will come back to bite us again and again," he said.
The Health Department issued a statement saying the agency "strongly disagrees" with the audit and is taking a proactive response to exterminating pests in the city.
"We believe the auditors reached incorrect conclusions because they focused only on complaints while ignoring the fact that complaint response is a small part of the department's overall approach to discovering where rats are present, notifying owners about how to respond, and carrying out targeted efforts to exterminate and prevent rats from re-emerging," the department said.
Auditors found that in 24 percent of the cases examined, the agency did not check out complaints within its own 10-day target, Stringer said. In addition, action was stopped prematurely on some complaints before the required number of inspection attempts, according to the audit. And in fiscal year 2013, there was no indication that assessments were conducted in 44 percent of 386 instances where inspectors requested cleanup services.
The comptroller also reported that the department failed to notify some property owners about city orders to eliminate rodent conditions, increasing the risk that rat infestations could spread through a neighborhood.
The comptroller's office recommends that the health department identify complaints that have been pending a long time, ensure complaints are not closed after only one failed attempt to gain access to a site, and make sure problems in the field have been dealt with efficiently and completely.
With candidates in full campaign mode, most of the government action in Albany is left to the bureaucrats this week — not that there's anything wrong with that:
The state Department of Environmental Conservation holds a public hearing on proposed changes to Petroleum Bulk Storage and Chemical Bulk Storage regulations — a topic of special interest in the Capital Region due to stepped-up shipments of crude to the Port of Albany. The four-hour session begins at 3 p.m. in Meeting Room 6 of the Empire State Plaza Convention Center.
The state Board of Examiners of Nursing Home Administrators meets in public session at 10:30 a.m. at the Department of Health offices at 875 Central Ave., Albany.
The Bureau of Tobacco Control and state Tobacco Use Prevention and Control Advisory Board meets from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Corning Tower, 2876A Conference Room.
It's one of the costliest and most contentious House races in the state: Rep. Chris Gibson and his 19th Congressional District Democratic challenger, Sean Eldridge, take part in a live televised debate at 8 p.m. on WMHT Ch. 17. The debate is presented in collaboration with the Times Union.
The annual meeting of the state Retired Public Employees Association begins at 10 a.m. at Holiday Inn, 205 Wolf Road. Elections for leadership of the organization will take place.
— Casey Seiler, NYSNYS.com
The state constitution is the bedrock blueprint for the structure of New York's civil society. And as with any blueprint, it's subject to frequent adjustments — and the occasional down-to-the-studs renovation — according to the will of the homeowners.
In New York, a constitutional amendment requires the approval of two consecutively elected legislatures and a statewide majority vote. This year, there are two constitutional questions and a bond act on the Nov. 4 ballot for voters to ponder, with possible consequences stretching many years and billions of dollars into the future.
The most controversial potential change is Proposal One, which would overhaul the once-a-decade process of redistricting that draws the state's political maps. Districts are now shaped by a legislative panel controlled by the majority conferences in the Assembly and Senate — a practice derided by good-government groups as allowing elected officials to pick their voters instead of the other way around.
The proposed fix, hammered out in 2012 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders, would hand over redistricting to a 10-member panel: eight members selected by the four legislative conference leaders and two selected by the initial members. Rules would prevent anyone with an obvious conflict of interest from serving.
When done, the panel's new electoral maps would still have to be approved by the Legislature. If their work fails to pass after two attempts, lawmakers would be able to tweak the maps — with restrictions.
Because lawmakers retain some control over panel membership and the shape of its final product, Proposal One has resulted in a schism within New York's good-government community. A coalition calling itself Vote Yes for Progress includes Citizens Union and the League of Women Voters, while Common Cause and the state Public Interest Research Group hope New Yorkers will reject the measure as an insufficient substitute for real independent redistricting — the sort of change that most lawmakers and Cuomo promised to achieve before the most recent round of redistricting in 2012 but then backed away from.
Last month, a state Supreme Court judge ruled that the state Board of Elections had to edit out the adjective "independent" in the proposal's description of the new panel — a victory for foes of the plan, including Susan Lerner of Common Cause.
"New Yorkers understand that this proposed commission would actually make a bad situation worse," Lerner said.
Advocates for passage insist the proposal, while imperfect, represents the best chance on the horizon to change the system. The next round of redistricting will be in 2022, using data from the 2020 census.
The proposal's fate may turn on whether Cuomo pushes for a yes vote as he campaigns for re-election.
"As the governor was the engineer of this political compromise ... I fully expect him at the appropriate time to become more public about this amendment and the rationale for its passage," Dick Dadey of Citizens Union said Wednesday. "We still have four weeks left in this campaign."
While the debate rages over how Proposal One would affect who sits at lawmakers' desks, Proposal Two would fundamentally change what sits on those desks.
If approved, the change would digitize the bills that lawmakers must consider before voting. Bills now must "age" on lawmakers' desks for three days before a vote, often resulting in tall stacks of paperwork — almost always unread — in each chamber. Under the change, digital distribution three days before a vote would satisfy the aging requirement.
With an estimated 8,500 bills generated in both houses each year, potential savings are considerable.
"Imagine how many trees have to come down," said Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, the Capital Region Republican who helped launch the initial push to get the idea on the ballot.
Digital bills could be retrieved with simple search words or numbers; the proposal would still allow printed copies on demand. And any changes to bills would have to leave a clear digital record.
While there would be a yet-to-determined cost to set up the digital system and buy needed hardware such as legislative tablets, Tedisco said the change would save an estimated $53 million in paper, ink and other associated costs.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says lawmakers in Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, North Dakota, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, Wisconsin and West Virginia are paperless to some extent.
"Tablets are now common in many state legislatures," Pam Greenberg, a senior fellow at the conference, said in an email.
Here, there's been little talk about the measure, and no obvious opposition — though workers in the Assembly were said to be measuring desks in anticipation of the addition of tablets or similar devices.
Proposal Three is also concerned with new technology, but in a very different setting.
The "Smart Schools Bond Act" sounds like the kind of idea that would be hard to argue with: It would raise $2 billion in bonds to upgrade technology in school buildings and expand prekindergarten space. It could pay for surveillance cameras, broadband and WiFi, or desktop devices like tablets for teachers and students. The initiative was launched by Cuomo in January's State of the State address. But almost no one — Cuomo included — has been actively pushing for its approval.
And members of the education lobby who rarely pass up a chance to secure more funds are lukewarm at best on the measure, with some suggesting the dollars could be better used elsewhere.
"All of the things that are within that bond issue are legitimate, appropriate goals," said Tim Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. But "maybe it would be better to take that $130 million (in projected debt costs) and put it into state aid or put it into categorical grants."
"If you spend more on one thing, it means you've got less available for other things," added Robert Lowry, deputy director of the state Council of School Superintendents.
Neither group has taken an official stand. But educators stress they are dealing with other budget issues, such as paying for employee health care and pensions while living under a tax cap.
Vocal critics of the bond act include E.J. McMahon, president of the fiscally conservative Empire Center. He says bond issues, which represent long-term borrowing by taxpayers, are traditionally used for infrastructure projects like subway improvements, bridges or other long-lived items.
The technology purchases that could be fostered by a bond act would likely be obsolete in a few years. From that standpoint, it's like a homeowner taking a home loan for the latest flat screen TV or mobile phone, compared to something more substantial like a new roof or boiler.
McMahon said Cuomo's proposal followed "the strategy of calculated presumptuousness" in its belief that taxpayers want to pay for this set of school improvements.
As with Proposal One, the fate of Proposal Three could turn on whether Cuomo's re-election strategy involves pushing for a yes vote.
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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — A group that came together after a surprise autumn snowstorm killed thousands of Buffalo's trees is nearing its goal of replacing them.
It's been eight years since the so-called "arborgeddon" of October 2006, when two feet of snow fell, crushing trees that had yet to lose their leaves. Nearly 60,000 trees were damaged or destroyed in and around Buffalo.
Re-Tree Western New York Chairman Paul Maurer says the group is making a final fundraising push to complete its goal of planting 30,000 trees. So far, the group has raised $1.4 million and planted more than 26,000 trees. Municipalities have added thousands more.
In this final effort, donations of $50 to Re-Tree are being matched by Buffalo News Publisher-emeritus Stanford Lipsey, National Grid, and the Buffalo Green Fund.
BC-NY--Student Debt Lawsuits,99
Suburban NY college sues students for tuition
VALHALLA, N.Y. (AP) — A suburban New York college has filed more than 600 lawsuits against former students to collect tuition debt.
Unpaid tuition and fees at taxpayer-funded Westchester Community College amounted to $779,000 in the 2013 academic year and topped $800,000 in 2012.
According to The Journal News (http://bit.ly/1qg8KwD ), the suits were filed in state Supreme Court between last January and early October.
So far, the college — based in a hamlet called Valhalla — has won about $117,000 in judgments.
College spokesman Patrick Hennessey says the school tries to be flexible with payments to give students more time before suing.
Information from: The Journal News, http://www.lohud.com
The New York Fed's Small Business Credit Survey (image via @NYFed_News)
Small businesses are critical to the jobs recovery. They employ half of private sector workers and have generated roughly two-thirds of the nation's net new jobs since 1995. Despite the economic significance of this sector, local policymakers lack high quality information about small firms' performance and their financing and investment decisions, including decisions to hire new workers. The New York Fed, working with a coalition of community partners, is trying to fill this gap.
Since 2010, the New York Fed's Outreach Team has surveyed small businesses in the greater New York region about their performance, financing needs and choices, and employment experiences. We work with organizations that serve the business community—including government agencies, chambers of commerce, and nonprofit service organizations—to gather timely intelligence and help shape programs that benefit small business owners.
Two themes have emerged from the survey: unmet small dollar credit needs (loans of $250k or less) and high credit application costs.
First, small business loans under $250k are the most frequently needed and hardest to come by. According to the latest Small Business Credit Survey (SBCS), 90% of small businesses in our region that applied for credit in 2013 sought amounts under $1 million, with the bulk of demand under $250k. These figures are consistent with national data, which show that small dollar lending through large and small banks hasn't returned to pre-recession levels.
Why do firms need small dollar loans? The most common need is working capital to finance day-to-day operations, including financing inventory for an outstanding contract or to smooth seasonal cash flow. However, approval rates for these smaller amount loans were significantly lower than those for higher dollar amounts. The most common credit challenges are weak performance, often resulting in a weak credit score, and insufficient collateral.
City and state officials at the Department of Small Business Services and Empire State Development have used these insights to shape industry-specific loan and grant programs and to design post-Superstorm Sandy recovery programs. Our team at the New York Fed has used the findings to shape Access to Capital workshops, which we hold regularly in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The workshops demystify the credit application process by featuring direct conversations with lenders. They also introduce businesses that cannot qualify for traditional credit to alternative credit sources such as community development financial institutions, which can assume greater risk than banks and feature credit products designed to introduce (or reintroduce) firms into the financial mainstream.
A second and related finding from our research is that the credit search process can be quite costly in time and effort. Small business borrowers report spending more than 30 hours on average applying for loans—the better part of a workweek of a full-time employee. Consistent with this, small firms report growing interest in obtaining credit from non-traditional sources, including online lenders, which promise faster credit decisions. Even though this market currently represents less than $10 billion in outstanding loan capital, compared to the $700 billion from traditional sources, it is estimated that the portfolio balance of online lenders is doubling every year.
While the online sector has streamlined the credit application process, the terms and conditions can be quite costly. For example, online balance sheet lenders like OnDeck and Kabbage typically provide small short-term loans at an annualized rate that can range anywhere between 30 to 120 percent. Peer-to-peer lenders like Lending Club and Prosper, on the other hand, normally target near-prime borrowers and lend larger amounts for longer terms; interest rates for these loans range from 8 to 24 percent.
Given the importance of these trends for the economic health of small businesses and the US economy, the New York Fed remains committed to finding ways to maximize opportunities from credit innovations and minimize risk. Our goal is to provide high quality information and analysis on small businesses and to increase transparency about new sources of credit that may profoundly affect firms' financing options.
by Claire Kramer, AVP, Director of Community Development, and Diego Aragon, Associate Director, Outreach and Education
Gov. Cuomo, left, during a recent interview on PBS (photo: @charlierose)
The following is part of our series, The Cuomo Record, examining incumbent Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo's first term as he seeks re-election heading to Election Day, November 4
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's policy book for his 2009 campaign seeking the state's highest office promised that "sunlight is the best disinfectant and will bring transparency and ethics to government." Cuomo pledged to post his full schedule online including meetings with lobbyists and elected officials. Instead, the press has become accustomed to daily announcements that "Governor Cuomo is in New York City."
When it comes to transparency, Cuomo's first term has included a great deal of state data published online, but can largely be characterized by secrecy, obsessive message control, and the editing of public records and reports.
"The bottom line is Andrew Cuomo is not a transparent governor," said Baruch professor of political science Douglas Muzzio. "There are many points, but the fact that the administration uses text messages rather than email is troubling. The administration closely holds their cards to their chests."
However, Muzzio says that the lack of openness may very well have enhanced Cuomo's ability to govern. "Lack of transparency is not necessarily a bad thing. Too much transparency leads to inefficiency. Would he have been successful in budget negotiations, the SAFE Act negotiations, same-sex marriage negotiations? Some things in politics ought not be exposed to public view because it can freeze system," said Muzzio.
The Cuomo administration has pushed transparency efforts through the use of technology and posting data online, but experts agree most of the information shared that way has been superficial.
In the days prior to the 2011 launch of Cuomo's CitizenConnects website ("an electronic town hall") the governor's press office lobbied reporters not to focus on the fact that Cuomo would be posting his full public schedules online and instead that the site was designed to keep New Yorkers apprised of public meetings and to share their ideas. The administration did begin posting Cuomo's schedules, but with months delay and serious omissions.
A Mixed Bag
"I can charitably say the administration has been a mixed bag of making data open to the public," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). "They have utilized technology to make government databases open to the public and they deserve credit for it. But when it comes to the process by which decisions are made the administration is opaque - budget negotiations are shrouded in secrecy, they monitor who is requesting information through FOIL (Freedom of Information Law). They really cherry pick the information they make available to the public."
Horner, who is a seasoned Albany veteran, says that Cuomo's father Mario had the most open administration he has seen whereas former Gov. George Pataki was very closed off. "I think this Cuomo (Andrew) is closer to the Pataki administration. They are extremely secretive. We still don't know how they are funding the building of the Tappan Zee Bridge and they are pouring concrete into the ground."
Horner notes that increasing transparency whether it be from sharing schedules, government data, or policy positions can open a politician up for attack. Cuomo has felt that sting a number of times in his first term.
Cuomo's schedule became particularly important when he unexpectedly announced in his 2012 state of the state speech a plan whereby Genting, a Malaysian gambling company, would build and run a Queens convention center and casino.
Many observers wondered where the idea had come from. It turns out that Cuomo was approached about the idea by Genting officials during an October 2011 fundraiser that was not disclosed on Cuomo's official schedule. Cuomo officials said the omission was a mistake. It further turned out that Genting had given $400,000 to a business-focused advocacy group, formed at Cuomo's behest and called The Committee to Save New York, while Cuomo was working on the convention center plans. The New York Gaming Association gave the committee $2 million and The Committee to Save New York refused for months to release its list of contributors.
As criticism swirled, plans for the convention center were eventually dropped.
Meanwhile, the administration has won praise from advocates and tech groups for making budget data and info on state agencies available through open.ny.
Cuomo's new memoir details what appears to have bred his deep mistrust of the press. In the book, released October 14 (exactly three weeks before Election Day), Cuomo explains how he learned about his divorce from a New York Times reporter and how he feels the press was responsible for sinking his 2002 bid for governor because it harped on his statement that then-Gov. George Pataki had held former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's coat in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Perhaps an exchange with the Times' Amy Chozick best distills Cuomo's feelings for the press: "You have to be careful because sometimes the temptation is actually to tell [reporters] the truth," Cuomo said in reference to those 2002 comments. Chozick responded: "We like the truth." To which Cuomo countered: "No. You like your truth."
Albany insiders remember Cuomo's father Gov. Mario Cuomo as someone who regularly conversed with the press and had collegial relationships with a number of reporters. The son's administration has earned a reputation for the exact opposite.
Administration members have developed dossiers on reporters and in the case of Liz Benjamin of Capital Tonight, the brief was prepared for a meeting with her employers at Time Warner Cable. Her file was marked "Generally Snarky." Administration officials have made direct appeals to have reporters' work or style changed. Cuomo is known to himself make off-the-record calls to reporters and editors trying to shape stories.
The governor has continually refused to appear on prominent political television shows such as Benjamin's and Errol Louis' Inside City Hall. Instead, the governor makes radio appearances on a fairly regular basis, but in a very selective manner.
Cuomo has so tightly controlled his interaction with the media that over his first four years in office he has mainly dealt with two reporters to get his message out to the public. Early in his term Cuomo exclusively appeared on a radio show hosted by Fred Dicker of The New York Post. The administration appeared to float policy ideas through Dicker's articles with anonymous tips. If something was brewing in the news cycle that needed addressing Cuomo would call in to Dicker's show and carefully discuss it, though the focus of his appearances was normally on Cuomo's love of muscle cars and Upstate.
Eventually the pair had a falling out when Cuomo began advocating for tougher gun laws, leading to the SAFE Act. Since then Cuomo has made regular, albeit often brief appearances on Susan Arbetter's The Capitol Pressroom radio program on Syracuse's WCNY.
"He doesn't talk to the press except for in tightly controlled situations and that is a problem because you guys get the message to the people," said Muzzio. "Right now the [agency] commissioners don't talk to anyone unless they get approval from the second floor [of the Capitol, where Cuomo's office is]."
"There is a general lack of information getting to the public. He's got a responsibility to the people and ignoring the press is bad because there could be a much greater discussion of policy than there is," said Muzzio.
With the release of his memoir, Cuomo did tape an hour-long interview with PBS' Charlie Rose in mid-October. However, he continues to ignore invitations from NY1, incuding for televised debates.
In-house Communications & Record/Commission Tampering
In what appears to be another attempt to restrict media and general public knowledge of the administration's goings on, members are known to follow tight rules on internal communications. Cuomo's staff confers by Blackberry pin messages that are not saved for the archives as messages sent by official email would have to be under state law. And Pro Publica reported in August that the administration has an email policy that requires state employees to automatically delete their email periodically.
Pro Publica also detailed how administration members have conducted state business by private email. "Government business should never be conducted through private email accounts," Christopher Dunn of The New York Civil Liberties Union, told Pro Publica. "Not only does it make it difficult to retrieve what is a government record, but it just invites the suspicion that a government employee is attempting to evade accountability by supervisors and the public."
The administration has also tampered with records from the governor's time as Attorney General. The Times Union reported in July 2012 that administration staff reviewed documents it had requested from the archives, inspected them after they left, and then removed what they didn't want them to see.
The New York Times reported that administration staff were "editing" Cuomo's public record as attorney general by pulling multiple files from the state archives. The files related to Cuomo's controversial investigation into the "troopergate" scandal involving then Gov. Eliot Spitzer and former Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. Cuomo's report found major fault with Spitzer's behavior but exonerated Bruno. Other reports were less damning of Spitzer and some saw Cuomo's as a political move to damage Spitzer. Administration officials told The Times that they were simply removing documents that should not have been placed in the archives in the first place.
Lastly, but perhaps most important, is Cuomo's handling of commissions. Cuomo has come under the spotlight for his and his administration's alleged meddling in the anti-corruption Moreland Commission - which the governor had formed to root out corruption in Albany and closed down in what many call premature fashion. This group includes U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, who has had his office pick up on Moreland's initial work and is also investigating Cuomo's interference.
A number of members of previous commissions including Cuomo's on the Long Island Power Authority and tax relief insist Cuomo had complete control of their work - editing their findings, pressuring them to back his agenda, and at times simply telling them what their findings should be.
It was also recently reported by Capital New York that Cuomo's administration edited and delayed a federal fracking study - being performed at the governor's request while he simultaneously drags his feet on taking a stance on the controversial energy extraction practice. Cuomo has said he will make no declaration about fracking before Election Day.
What is most striking about his handling of the recent Moreland Commission on Public Corruption is that Cuomo appears to have begun interfering when the commission began looking into groups that had strong connections to his administration. Subpoenas to the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), which donates heavily to Cuomo, and to an ad-buying firm Cuomo uses were pulled back at the suggestion of Cuomo staffers. Cuomo had promised in August 2013: "Anything (the Moreland Commission) wants to look at, they can look at—me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman. They have total control and ability to look at whatever they want to look at."
Then in April 2014 Cuomo told the Crain's New York Business editorial board: "The Moreland Commission was my commission. It's my commission. My subpoena power, my Moreland Commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it. I appoint you, I can un-appoint you tomorrow. So, interference? It's my commission. I can't 'interfere' with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me."
Muzzio says that its important for politicians to "separate what is good for governing from what is good electorally. It is good at times to open yourself up, but he can't. He is a macro- and micro-manager."
A cloud of 'secrecy' even hovers over the governor's re-election campaign. Horner of NYPIRG said that he would love to know more about Cuomo's policy positions and that it would help Cuomo build a mandate. However, he admits, "When you take a policy position you leave yourself open to opposition. Cuomo appears to be taking the Rose Garden Strategy. So no, Albany has not yet achieved openness nirvana. There are still some very dark places."
This article is part of The Cuomo Record, Gotham Gazette's series looking at the governor's first term. Find the other articles in the series here.
by David King, Albany Editor, Gotham Gazette