Monday, October 31, 2005

What About Solid Waste?

Garbage is the forgotten issue in this campaign. The mayor has deftly dodged the issue by making the siting of the marine transfer stations the focal point of his SWMP. This does, of course, skirt the more important problem of waste reduction and the total failure of the mayor's disposal plan to deal with commercial garbage.

Instead of technologically sophisticated and innovative approaches, the SWMP falls back on the useless methods of the past. In the area of recycling for instance, the plan calls for greater education. As we have said numerous times in the past, the falling back on "education" is a sure sign that any waste reduction program is moribund even prior to beginning.

Read My Lips

In the NY Sun's story this morning on the mayoral debate, the featured theme is the mayor's pledge not to raise taxes in the upcoming fiscal year. He bases this on the belief that the rising economy will raise revenue and on his intention to "do more with less."

This should be a feature of the last days of the campaign. The media needs to push the mayor to specify just how, since he has shown relatively little inclination in this area in his first four years, he plans to restructure municipal government to do more with less (aside from closing more firehouses).

Our take here is that the mayor will find this to be a great deal more difficult than he is letting on today. His basic philosophy of government has been to expand service delivery without offering any innovative ideas on how to restructure or, better yet, reinvent government to make it more competitive and efficient.

Debate Observations

We're writing this as the debate is still going on. What comes across for us is that Freddy lacks the kind of needling and aggressive debate style that would be able to better put the mayor on the defensive. We believe that Anthony Weiner on the other hand would have gotten up front and personal with Bloomberg. We're missing the provocative edge and Freddy is still too wonkish.

On substantive issues Freddy laid down on the Bronx Terminal Market. He made a great deal about Atlantic Yards, Goldman Sachs, and the West Side Stadium but never even brought up this BRONX Bloomdoggle. Too bad since the BTM deal, more than any other, exhibits the kind of callousness and cronyism that underscores the haughty nature of the economic developing patricians making policy decisions in this city.

We thought that Freddy also missed the opportunity to hit the mayor in the right way on firehouse closings. As we have pointed out, the FDNY decisions on the six firehouses were not made out of any in-depth analysis of siting (since the last study done by the Rand Corporation was completed in 1975).

The mayor's lame -"We can't have a firehouse in each neighborhood"- should have been met more forcefully with a direct attack on Deputy Mayor Shaw's comments about firefighters sitting around the firehouse all day cooking and eating. The Bloombergistas have a disregard for the firefighters and are totally under the sway of the NYPD. Ferrer should have alluded to all 41 firehouses that were on the Dinkins doomsday budget list and accused the mayor of just waiting for his reelection to start the retrenchment process.

Equally lame was the discussion of small business. Bloomberg pointed out that these firms supply over half of all the jobs in the city but Ferrer missed a golden opportunity by not pointing out that bankruptcies are at an all time high and a great deal of responsibility for this should be laid at the door of an administration whose tax and regulatory policies have hit this sector the hardest.

Here Freddy could have segued into discussing the eviction of the BTM merchants and the planned eviction of 150 small firms at Willets Point. As we look at the overall picture, from tax and regulatory policy to economic development patricianage, Mike Bloomberg has been no friend of small business and could even be fairly labeled its worst enemy.

Working For Wal-Mart

In yesterday's Daily News Lenore Skenazy parodies Wal-Mart's recently released internal memo by creating a her own Wal-Mart job application. Like all good satire, the fake app is comical yet also quite representative of the way in which Wal-Mart approaches the whole issue of health benefits for its workers. Here is an excerpt:

Part I

Name:
Nickname: (Note: If it's "Gimpy," "Stubby" or "Wheezy," please skip to Part IV.)
Age:
Weight:
Real weight, you big fat liar:

Do you:

• Smoke?
• Drink?
• Eat fatty foods?
• Have you ever eaten hot dogs from the stand in the front of the store?

If yes, skip to Part IV.

Part IV: Try Kmart.
The serious issue that the parody deals with is that Wal-Mart is looking to discourage the "unhealthy" from even applying for work. All of this comes on top the revelation that nationwide 46% of the children of its workers our on Medicaid. Clearly Wal-Mart is the leader in keeping prices low only because it has cleverly been working to keep vital health benefits from negatively impacting its bottom line. The chickens are coming home to roost.

A more sober look at this issue is in the Business Section of Saturday's NY Times. Here the health care problems of Wal-Mart are put into a more global perspective, a problem that is facing all private employers and not just the Walmonster.

Overspending and the Public Good

Saturday's Times story raises another issue that we didn’t touch on in the previous post: The way in which an unlimited campaign expenditure by a spectacularly wealthy individual can undermine the public interest even more so than if a candidate was beholden to a coterie of special interests.

As the Times points out, the mayor's approval rating hovered at around 42% in the spring right before he began his ad blitz. It now stands in the high 60s with many respondents eerily sounding the Bloomberg message points when asked by reporters to comment on the mayor's record.

The overwhelming nature of the message saturation, and the concomitant lack of any strong countervailing voice, has not only defined what's important in this election but has also circumscribed the nature of the debate itself, precluding the discussion of those very issues (the budget, taxes and the structure of government) that will define the next four years.

The purpose of a campaign is to frame the political agenda. It will do this best if there is a vigorous political debate, one accompanied by a robust media chorus that forces the candidates to confront the most potentially thorny political issues. The current "all Bloomberg all the time" campaign has therefore done the voters a serious disservice, one that we will all likely have to pay for in the next four years.

Overspending Your Welcome

The Times on Saturday does its most exhaustive look yet at the mayor's spending and concludes that he may be risking "overkill." The conclusion, however, is directed exclusively at the potential that the dollar splurge may have on the primarily Democratic electorate in the city. The story speculates that alienated voters may stay home because of what they perceive as the mayor's "bullying" tactics.

The Times piece also reminds readers about the mayor's 2001 remarks in NY Magazine when, commenting on his own spending, he said, "At some point you start to look obscene." What's interesting here is the acknowledgement by "disbelieving" Bloomberg aides who said that there was no intention of slowing down because:
it was his intense spending that led to his recent surge in the polls and it would make no sense to let up just before Election Day.
What the Times doesn't touch on is the potential of the "overkill" and "bullying" to backfire after the mayor's reelection. As we have pointed out, this kind of manufactured consent can have a post-coital backlash and once a crisis emerges it will force the mayor to make hard decisions that he is not only ill-prepared to make from a philosophical standpoint but for which he has not prepared the voters.

If that should occur the very triumphalist quality of the Bloomberg message will come back to literally bite the mayor on the ass. The canonization of Mayor Mike in some editorial quarters may also contribute to exacerbating the intensity of the potential backlash.

Rolling Bloomberg Gathers a Moss

In his usual dew-eyed fashion, NYU prof Mitchell Moss, described by the paper as a "informal advisor" to Bloomberg, defends the mayor's continued ad blitz, trotting out some clich├ęs that not even Mitch himself believes. Moss (they should coin a new phrase here: "Mitch advertising") talks about the feared Democratic Party infrastructure, the same apparatus we guess that propelled Gifford to his 10% triumph.

The only advice we'd offer Moss is not to attempt to publish this nonsense in any scholarly journal. If he keeps it up this "boon companion" can star in the sequel of Les Miserables as the "Master of the House" (the toady line being most apropos).

Friday, October 28, 2005

New York Post Raises the Right Questions About Bloomberg

As expected the NY Post endorses the mayor today but does so with the kind of caveats that have also been raised elsewhere by others (including us). In particular the paper points out that the mayor's great failing has been in not tackling the inefficiency of the delivery of services or recognize the need to rein in the size of government in general.

But, as the Post points out, the city faces a $4.5 billion deficit and asks, "Will Mike raise taxes again?" In the interview with the editorial board Bloomberg had pledged that he wouldn't but it is the same promise he broke four years ago. When asked what the alternative to higher taxes was he replied he'd "do more with less."

Just how he would is of course unanswered since he has never even broached this subject in his first four years (aside from closing fire houses). And, as the Post asks, “But if he can do [“more with less”] next year, why not now? Is the city being run inefficiently?"

Our view is that he really has no idea since his view of government doesn't seem to include any concern about waste or any concept of intrapreneurism. If faced with a crisis he's going to have to wing it a little and, as we've already pointed out, his popularity will be prove to be extremely shallow and unable to withstand such a calamity.

NY Times Poll

One of the most interesting things about he NY Times/CBS poll released today is the 15% Undecided total. With the level of mayoral spending and the election looming two weeks away it is remarkable to find that large a group of voters who still are unsure of what they will do.

This large number of undecideds may very well mean that (yes we know that the undecideds tend to break towards the challenger) a great many voters are in fact saturated out by the Bloomberg ad blitz. It could also mean that those voters on the right don't see the need to vote defensively for the mayor since it appears that Freddy isn't even in the ballgame. Oh yes, the mayor is only at 52% in the Times survey.

One question we'd love to see answered is just how the mayor, who was running 13 points behind Ferrer in a putative matchup this past spring, got so far ahead. Where did all this post West Side stadium debacle enlightenment come from? (to "greatness" no less).

BJ's Back in the Bronx

There is a real donnybrook building in the Bronx over a controversial effort, apparently spearheaded by Councilmember Maria Baez, to bring BJ's back to the same Brush Avenue site that the full City Council had rejected for the store in February. The impetus behind the move is unclear but it has generated considerable ire from the unions that had fought to defeat the retailer last winter.

We need to remember that the battle against BJ's was widely seen to be a surrogate struggle against BJ's big brother- Wal-Mart. It was argued at the time that if the Council allowed BJ's permission to locate in the Bronx it would remove any rationale for opposing the larger threat of Wal-Mart in Rego Park. As it turned out, when BJ's did go down to defeat it triggered a three cushion billiard shot that ended up with the developer Vronado pulling the Walmonster from its Queens site.

The vehement opposition to BJ's, however, rested not only on its Wal-Mart-like qualities but also on defects that were unique to that particular retailer. In particular, BJ's had arrested two African-American women (coincidentally the leaders of a union organizing drive) on trumped up shoplifting charges, holding the women for over 24 hours at a local precinct.

What disturbs the two unions involved in all of this - Local 1500 of the UFCW and Local 338 of the RWDSU - is that the council members involved in the attempt at BJ's rehabilitation have met four times with store personnel but not at all with labor, In addition, there is a move afoot to craft some kind of a labor neutrality provision into a CBA (all without any consultation with the impacted unions), notwithstanding the fact that any such provision, should it have any real force, must be negotiated between BJ's and its workers' reps.

This battle has the potential to get real ugly if cooler heads don't prevail. To those of us who were part of the original fight it is puzzling that some council folks would press for a vote of the Bronx delegation on behalf of BJ's, especially since it is impossible for the application to get to the full council until after the first of the new year (when a new council member will take Madeline Provenzano's place).

Throw Mama From the Train

Last night on the Chris Matthews Show the host asked one of the guests whether the president had accepted the resignation of Harriet Miers or, alternatively, "had thrown Mama from the train." It's been quite a long time since Matthews has had something funny to say and it's only right that we should bring it to everyone's attention.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Benefits of Markets

Back in April when the City Council had a hearing on the Bronx Terminal Market merchant relocation, a man by the name of Irwin Cohen gave perhaps the most heartfelt, interesting testimony of the afternoon. Cohen is the developer of the Chelsea Market, a highly successful wholesale/retail venture that includes a mixture of local vendors. He recounted growing up in the multi-lingual borough of Brooklyn where immigrant and ethnic market vendors sold everything imaginable. To him, the market is a quintessential New York City institution, one that brings small businesses together and provides New Yorkers with the wide array of products that can only be found in this great city.

Cohen also added that markets are excellent economic engines that can revitalize whole areas by bringing in foot traffic and nurturing neighborhood businesses. He mentioned that when he first proposed the Chelsea market, the area was deemed beyond repair but now many years later, in part due to the market’s vibrancy, the area is one of the hottest parts of the city. He believes the same thing can happen in the Bronx with the merchants at the Terminal Market.

Jonathan Bowles, in this month’s City Limits, interviews Irwin Cohen who elaborates more on his vision for the Bronx Terminal Market’s preservation/expansion. Cohen believes that making sure the merchants stay together is key:

So, you think it’s important for the vendors to remain together?

Yes. New York City is one of the few cities in the entire United States that has such a huge number of similar businesses. Where else can you have a section called Madison Avenue with advertising agencies? Where else do you have a theater district? These are markets. The Bronx is a terrific place for this market. The fact that these wholesalers want to stay in the Bronx is the most exciting part of the whole plan, because everyone else wants to be in Manhattan. But if they’re willing to work in the Bronx, you can combine them with other uses to spur development there.
Cohen then points out that the Bronx Terminal Market could eventually become the economic/cultural boon that the Chelsea market has become:

Think about the Chelsea Market. Nobody has to come here. It’s on the periphery of the neighborhood. The next thing you see is New Jersey. But why do people come here? Because we have a concentration of vendors. Every company is family-owned. There are no chains. If you want to get that special birthday cake that Ruthie’s Cheesecake sells, you can’t get it anywhere in New York except here, because this is where it’s made. And if you want Amy’s Bread as it’s coming out of the oven, this is the only place to get it. You’re not going to get Amy’s bread from Gristedes. That’s why people come here. Markets work.
This is why we have been clamoring so loudly for the BTM’s preservation and criticizing the city for its negligence and disregard. If nurtured and expanded, the Bronx Terminal Market could easily become a unique commercial center for immigrant and ethnic products. The creation of such a market would further assist in the Bronx’s revitalization and provide local, immigrant entrepreneurs with untold opportunities. Instead of taking the Sassanow position – “EDC will not consider construction of a new market ... [the city] has no obligation to provide relocation for them [the merchants]" - the city should learn from Irwin Cohen and do what it can to make sure the BTM is preserved and expanded. It should also reread Susan Fainstein's report on the BTM's relocation for it too shows that markets like the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia and Pike Place Market in Seattle are incredibly successful retail/wholesale centers that uniquely serve those respective cities both economically and culturally.

Grinder Pilot Program

At today’s stated City Council meeting, Intro 742 will be introduced creating a pilot program to study the effect of commercial waste disposers. If accepted, the pilot will allow for the installation of grinders in 1500 stores throughout the city and we believe the results will be tremendous both for neighborhood businesses and the city. Specifically, these disposers will:

1) Reduce the cost of disposal for neighborhood supermarkets, green grocers, bodegas, fish stores and restaurants. Due to a change in garbage regulations, stores can now be charged by weight and this has resulted in the doubling and, in some cases, the tripling of a store’s waste removal costs.

2) Reduce the amount of garbage being exported which will lessen the city’s dependency on costly, out-of-state landfills. Currently, the mayor’s Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) has no provision for the reduction of commercial waste which garbage disposers have the potential to drastically lower.

3) Improve the public health in the city’s neighborhoods by eliminating the food source for rodents and insects as well as reducing the number of truck trips and transfer activity in waterfront communities. Both of these benefits will also favorably impact on asthma rates which are made worse by truck fumes and rat/bug droppings. In fact, the New York City Department of Health has recognized these benefits and has implemented a grinder pilot program of its own in certain Manhattan and Brooklyn housing projects.

4) Greatly enhance the recycling levels of commercial waste. With contaminated, organic material removed, it is a lot easier to process/re-use the remaining garbage.
We encourage all councilmembers, especially those who sponsored Intro 220, which called for a complete legalization of commercial grinders, to support the pilot program. This measure is good for stores and beneficial for the city in terms of lowering garbage costs and improving public health.

Liu Admits Stoop Stand Mistake

In today's Daily News, Frank Lombardi reports that Councilman Liu now realizes that his two proposed bills (Intros 699 and 731) targeting neighborhood fruit stands was ill-conceived:

I will readily concede I made a huge mistake here," Liu said in scuttling the bills.
We congratulate the Councilman for his honestly and for removing legislation that would have negatively impacted upon the small business community.

The Public Good and Ground Zero

In an editorial in today's NY Sun ("Discussing Development") the paper questions Mayor Mike's (and Deputy Dan's) sudden interest in guiding development at Ground Zero. They make one important point:
No one is saying that the mayor and Mr. Doctoroff don't have the city's best interest at heart. It's just hard for them, or for any politicians, to know what that interest is...
This just underscores what we have been stressing in a series of comments about the mayor's supposed freedom from "special interests." The putative freedom tells us nothing about Mike Bloomberg's ability, on any particular policy issue, to discern where the public good lies. The Sun, in fact feels that when it comes to real estate development, it is the private sector that should be given free reign to determine that the best course of action might be.

They could very well be right. But aren't these folks the "special interests" bogeymen that the mayor has been trying to frighten us with this close to Halloween? This one issue demonstrates how the whole question of special interests and the public good needs to be redefined so that the people are not so quickly misled by the phony dichotomies that seem to be so much in favor these days.

Freddy Ferrer: A Tale of Two Boroughs

In today's Daily News Freddy Ferrer comes out swinging against the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. While stopping short of calling for the project's defeat, Ferrer said that the development needed to be downscaled. What he didn't say, of course, was a word about the deal that the Bloombergistas hatched right in his own borough at the Bronx Terminal Market. Hmmm!

Now we aren't busting Freddy because of our ties to FCRC. In fact we have no problem with him trying, by criticizing the Brooklyn project and the mayor's role in it, to get any political traction that can prevent his poll numbers from falling right off the graph. It would be fairer and more honest, however, for him to focus on the no bid deal that was directly crafted by Deputy Dan for his love interest Steve Ross.

The reality is that the Atlantic Yards project moved ahead more in spite of the Bloomberg administration rather than because of its support since the key players were more concerned with the West Side. And if Ferrer is concerned about business dislocation and eminent domain then what is happening to the BTM should really set him off against the mayor but apparently, as Richard Lipsky said($) in the Times story on this topic, Freddy is "cross-pressured."

Bloomberg a Dirty Word in Queens

The startling new Pace Poll underscores a various serious problem for the now inevitable second Bloomberg term (yes, we know all elected officials should have such problems). In number of editorials that support the mayor’s reelection there is the admission that the Bloomberg’s campaign spending and the resultant absence of genuine debate over the city’s future – exacerbated by the ineptitude of the Ferrer effort – leaves New York in the dark about how Bloomberg will deal with a number of pressing policy issues in the next 4 years.

Some of this is underscored in an interesting story by Patrick Healy in yesterday’s NY Times that focuses on the doubts about the mayor in certain Queens neighborhoods. What emerges in the piece is the real undercurrents of unhappiness in working class homeowner communities. As Healy points out “Bloomberg” is used as a profanity in neighborhoods that have seen their property tax bill rise by half and where resentment of ticketing and enforcement in general is high. Healty reports that a lot of these folk are simply stunned by polls that show the mayor winning in a blowout over his Democratic opponent.

At the same time, a number of residents who do express somewhat grudging support for the mayor seem to be speaking in phrases that eerily replicate the Bloomberg campaign message. As local resident Kathy DiLieto Says, “He brought us back from 9/11. What’re you going to do, criticize him?” This tends to support our view that the enormity of campaign spending and its sheer repetitiveness create not only an air of inevitability but at the same time defines the political reality (certainly even more so with the relative absence of any competitive messaging).

While a well-honed, unchallenged message is certainly good for a reelection effort, it is problematic in terms of effective governing over the next for years. This is particularly true because the reality that the Bloombergistas have defined is a Potamkin Village, one that will be exposed for its stage, ersatz quality as soon as crisis looms. The mayor, because of his spending and the undercurrent of resentment that it exacerbates, will be extremely vulnerable for a rapid deconstruction that no amount of money will be able to stymie.

In addition, there is a tendency for Americans, and New Yorkers even more so, to get a great deal of satisfaction from the fall of the rich and famous. If a crisis does occur then the words of Queens resident Eulynis Frames (“Even Stevie Wonder can see that people are getting poorer, working people are really being squeezed…But you listen to the mayor and ‘everything’s fine’”) will begin to resonate throughout neighborhoods similar to those profiled in Healy’s story and the mayor’s popularity may well start to plummet.

Looming Budget Crisis

The upcoming fiscal deficit is very likely to generate the kinds of problems that will test the mayor severly precisely because he has not looked for ways to creatively restructure government. This point is emphasized by Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute:
The mayor has not used his first term, and the cushion of the tax increases, to reform the budget…People are angry, by the mayor dodged public debate about it.
The implications of the mayoral dodging are brought home by Greg David in this week’s Crain’s where he observes that the mayor thinks “he has pared the budget as much as possible.” If this is true then:
The real question – which hasn’t been confronted in the campaign – is whether the mayor truly believes that city government can’t be reduced. If so, he has no alternative but to seek another round of tax hikes.
Should that happen the harmless griping of Kathy DiLieto and Eulynis Frames will be transformed into a crescendo of wailing that will reverberate way beyond the parochial confines of South Ozone Park. In the process the mayor will be forcefully toppled from the pedestal of greatness that the NY Times editorial board looks to construct for him.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Internal Memo: Wal-Mart’s Health Care Problem

The New York Times’s Steve Greenhouse has an amazing story today detailing an internal Wal-Mart memo that discusses the company’s health care benefits and ways to reduce those costs.

An internal memo sent to Wal-Mart's board of directors proposes numerous ways to hold down spending on health care and other benefits while seeking to minimize damage to the retailer's reputation. Among the recommendations are hiring more part-time workers and discouraging unhealthy people from working at Wal-Mart.



Wal-Mart executives said the memo was part of an effort to rein in benefit costs, which to Wall Street's dismay have soared by 15 percent a year on average since 2002. Like much of corporate America, Wal-Mart has been squeezed by soaring health costs. The proposed plan, if approved, would save the company more than $1 billion a year by 2011.
Those of us who have criticized Wal-Mart’s health care coverage can feel pleased that the company is now listening:

Acknowledging that Wal-Mart has image problems, Ms. Chambers wrote: "Wal-Mart's critics can easily exploit some aspects of our benefits offering to make their case; in other words, our critics are correct in some of their observations. Specifically, our coverage is expensive for low-income families, and Wal-Mart has a significant percentage of associates and their children on public assistance."
The public assistance theme is also brought up earlier in the article:

Ms. Chambers acknowledged that 46 percent of the children of Wal-Mart's 33 million United States employees were uninsured or on Medicaid.
And then there is the memo’s point that people who work longer at Wal-Mart are more costly yet not necessarily more productive. It almost sounds like they will be discouraging associates from considering long careers:

Ms. Chambers's memo voiced concern that workers were staying with the company longer, pushing up wage costs, although she stopped short of calling for efforts to push out more senior workers.

She wrote that "the cost of an associate with seven years of tenure is almost 55 percent more than the cost of an associate with one year of tenure, yet there is no difference in his or her productivity. Moreover, because we pay an associate more in salary and benefits as his or her tenure increases, we are pricing that associate out of the labor market, increasing the likelihood that he or she will stay with Wal-Mart."
What this memo demonstrates is that: 1) Valid criticisms of Wal-Mart are starting to reach the company 2) People who cheer Wal-Mart’s job creation must realize that they are often part-time employment that, especially now, will not result in long-term career opportunities and 3) Wal-Mart workers and their children are a burden on public safety net programs and this must be considered, especially by the retailer’s “free-market” supporters.

Stoopendous!

Councilmember John Liu, clearly seeing the handwriting on the wall yesterday, withdrew Intros 699 and 731, bills that would have greatly increased the level of oversight over the city's 2100 mom and pop fruit stand owners. The withdrawal was a clear victory for Mr. Sung Soo Kim and the entire small business community who had worked hard to inform councilmembers about the clear and present danger to neighborhood stores posed by the measures.

It also needs to be emphasized that a great deal of credit must be given to the mayor who not only vetoed 699 but, through his hardworking legislative liaison Patrick Wehlie, helped rally support for sustaining the veto and defeating the proposal. We have been very critical of this administration's record on small business but the collaboration on this issue hopefully bodes well for a greater awareness in the mayor's second term.

Also deserving kudos is Deputy Commissioner Pauline Toole at the Department of Consumer Affairs, someone who we have also been at odds with in the past in relation to the Department's regulatory procedures. Toole's testimony – that if there is no visible problem with stoop stands and pedestrian safety why are we legislating to mitigate it – was right on point and helped speed up the evaporation of support for 699 that was already well under way at the Council.

At the Council itself, members Monseratte and Jackson spearheaded the original opposition to Intro 699, pointing out among other things that the rapidity with which the bill was introduced and subsequently passed didn't allow for a full and thorough review of the proposal's merits. It was left to Councilmember Koppell, a member of the Transportation Committee and another original opponent of the measure, to apply the final coup de grace to the Intro. Speaking at the final hearing Koppell ridiculed the necessity of Intro 731, indicating that if the Council needed to pass legislation to remedy defects in a bill it had just recently passed than there was something irreparably wrong with the original initiative.

Koppell also gave credit to the tenacity of the small business opposition. As he says in today's NY Sun, support for Intro 699 had faded when members:
took another look after the mayor vetoed the bill and the business activists had a chance to get in touch with their councilmen.
As a final thought, we would like to refer to our original posts on Intro 699, comments that were criticized by an anonymous Council staffer who, calling himself George Washington Plunkitt, accused us of "not reading the bill." Well Mr. GWP, it now appears that at least the councilmembers got around to reading it and the results speak for themselves!

Survey: I Like My Wal-Mart in New Jersey

As the Staten Island Advance reports, a recently released Staten Island Economic Development Corporation (SIEDC) survey demonstrates the obvious: many Staten Islanders shop in New Jersey because of a lower sales tax, cheaper gas, less traffic and better customer service. What this shows is that adding a Wal-Mart in Totenville will not necessarily keep people from spending their dollars out-of-state.

Scott Landron tells a similar story.

"There are nicer people, there's no taxes, the stores are cleaner, the gas is cheaper," said the Tottenville resident who was shopping at Target with Jennifer Calandra.
In addition to economic issues, traffic was a big concern among those surveyed. Due to Staten Island’s clogged local infrastructure, people felt it easier to get to and travel within New Jersey than to travel to Island-based retail. Therefore, though a Tottenville Wal-Mart may be geographically closer we bet than many will still make the short trip across the Outerbridge instead of dealing with the hassle of navigating packed local streets. One must also remember that just a couple miles north of the proposed Wal-Mart site the Bricktown Shopping Centre, with a Target and Home Depot, is nearing completion. Traffic will already be horrendous even before a 200,000 sq. ft. Wal-Mart is constructed.

So while a Staten Island Wal-Mart will not capture as many shoppers as SIEDC officials hope the store will generate Island-based business. The survey does show that some people would be willing to shop at Wal-Mart (though number is only 35 out of 254: 14%). We believe that these shoppers will be mostly from areas farther away from the proposed site and therefore less concerned about the effect of a Wal-Mart on the local Tottenville neighborhood.

The question then becomes does a Wal-Mart that will capture only a smaller-than-expected percentage of New Jersey-fleeing customers worth the costs of tremendous traffic and the destruction of quality of life in a quiet, middle-class, homeowner neighborhood? Is this building of yet another box-store in the already overdeveloped South Shore worth the elimination of local small businesses and the addition of thousands of cars to roadways near 3 public schools? The answer is a resounding no and, after talking with a number of local civic and PTA leaders in the area, we believe that a Totenville Wal-Mart will be strongly resisted and eventually defeated.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Staten Wal-Mart Meeting Tonight

There will be a community meeting on the North Shore of Staten Island tonight to dicsuss the proposed Wal-Mart in Mariner's Harbor:


IS WAL-MART RIGHT FOR STATEN ISLAND?

IS IT ONLY ABOUT PRICES?

WHAT IS THE CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING WAL-MART?

PLEASE JOIN YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS FOR AN INFORMATIONAL MEETING.

HAVE YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED REGARDING THE EFFECT A WAL-MART WILL HAVE ON OUR COMMUNITY.

7:30 P.M.
(DOORS OPEN AT 7:00 P.M.)

THE PETRIDES SCHOOL
715 OCEAN TERRACE

MAIN AUDITORIUM

For Information Contact:

Gary Lane, Event Coordinator at 917-696-0267

Neal Tepel, Public Relations Coordinator at 646-591-6484

Ernesto Mattace, RWDSU Local 338 Political Director, Regarding Wal-Mart Issues at 646-210-8706

SPONSORED BY

THE NORTH SHORE DEMOCRATIC CLUB

OF RICHMOND COUNTY, INC.

Disposers on the Way

The City Council is about to introduce a pilot program version of Intro 220, the bill that would have legalized the use of garbage grinders in commercial establishments. This culminates a three year effort on the part of the Alliance to find alternative methods of disposal for stores that are literally being weighed down by the escalating cost of garbage removal.

We're hopeful that the measure will be moved quickly and that the pilot can be up and running by early next year. As we have been commenting all along, the use of disposers has significant implications for improved and less costly methods of garbage disposal, methods that will be applicable to both commercial and residential sectors.

The Times, BTM and the Mayor

Thanks to Ben Smith at the Politicker for linking our post on the Times expose of the BTM deal. His comments were also on point when he indicated how the concocting of the deal by Dan Doctoroff needed to be laid at the doorstep of the mayor and his laissez faire governing style.

The key unresolved issue is still the relocation of the illegally evicted merchants. Given the exposure of the unprecedented municipal emoluments given to the Related Companies isn't a bit unseemly for the Bloombergistas to claim that the city has absolutely no obligations to the merchants who have operated out of the BTM for decades? Does the Mayor feel, as the flacks for Related have argued, that the $7 million get out of Dodge money proffered to the BTM firms is "generous?"

What is clear, as Smith points out, is that absent the presence of Dan Doctoroff in this administration there would be no Related in the BTM deal. The Times, in demonstrating that Doctoroff had unvolunteered his voluntary recusal from any dealings with Steve Ross and Related, underscored what we have always suspected about volunteers in the Bloomberg administration: they are generally well-compensated one way or another, giving a whole new meaning to the term volunteer.

Whither Freddy?

The Times story also underscored the fact that, as far as the shenanigans at the BTM are concerned, Freddy Ferrer definitely has lockjaw. In fact, the Times held the piece off for three weeks while waiting for Ferrer to comment. The fact that he abstained in the face of a story that seriously questioned the ethics of Bloomberg’s administration indicates just how compromised a candidate he is. It was as if he were running 29 points ahead. Who's running this campaign?

Can anyone imagine Anthony Weiner taking the same quiescent posture in a matter that has this kind of potentially explosive political impact? The BTM deal, if properly exploited, could highlight the hypocrisy of the mayor's claim to be beyond the pull of special interests. It could go a long way toward demonstrating just how much the current administration exhibits a propensity towards "patricianage."

The fact of the matter is that this BTM precedent could mean that this or any other administration could evict the tenants of the Brooklyn Terminal Market, the Hunts Point Meat and Produce Markets, all because of the alleged authority of Commissioner Walsh. Does anyone seriously believe that the city has this power – to, in effect, abrogate the property rights of longstanding tenants – because some friend of a deputy mayor has a "better and higher use" for the site?

Stooping So Low

The City Council's Transportation Committee held its hearing yesterday on Intro 731, the measure introduced by Councilmember Liu as a remedy for the defects of vetoed Stoop Stand Law (Intro 699). The hearing was interesting from the stand point of the unusual concurrence of opinion between the representatives of the small business community and the mayor's office. Put simply, all of us felt that Intro 731 was unnecessary (it calls for the creation of a task force to address the stoop stand issue) and that 699 was a positive danger to the welfare of neighborhood stores.

The administration's testimony was headlined by DCA Deputy Commissioner Pauline Toole. The gist of her remarks centered on the complete lack of evidence that stoop stands were posing any great danger to the pedestrians of this city. She relayed the fact that there were less than 30 real city wide complaints against fruit stores and pointed out that the expense of requiring DOT inspections for each of the 2100 or so license renewals would cost the city $1 million a year.

This is the expense that the Alliance has emphasized would be borne by the legitimate store owners, whether or not they had done anything at all to violate the law. Chairman Liu, undaunted, pointed out that the bill was not designed to target small stores but simply meant to force DOT inspectors to "do their job." It is, however, always the stores that get caught in this municipal regulatory drive-by shooting.

The small business star of the hearing was Councilman Koppell who frankly wondered why 731 was even necessary. As Frank Lombardi reports, he told Liu, however, that he would support the measure if the Chairman would withdraw 699. At that time, Koppell said, it might make sense to call for an exploratory task force but why, he said, "should we put the cart before the horse?"

All of this will come to a head on Thursday when Liu tries to marshal the votes to override the mayor's veto of Intro 699. At this time, the outcome is probably too close to call.

Monday, October 24, 2005

NY Times Nails BTM "Sweetheart Deal"


In today's NY Times Charles Bagli and Robin Shulman provide their readers with an exhaustive evaluation of the development deal that brought the Related Companies into the Bronx Terminal Market. The long and thoroughly researched piece lays bare the role played by Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff in paving the way for his friend Steve Ross to not only get hold of the site without the benefit of an open competitive bid but to also avail his company of public benefits that the Times reports as unprecedented in the city's history:

The city often provides developers in struggling neighborhoods with incentives, including low-interest loans, tax-free bonds and tax breaks. In addition to tax breaks, Related is getting more than $14 million in cash grants that a similar project in Harlem did not get, as well as the equivalent of a money-back guarantee if the developer fails to get the zoning he says he needs. That benefit, Andrew Alper, president of the city's Economic Development Corporation, acknowledged was unusual and possibly unprecedented.
Our comments here will be followed with a more in-depth evaluation of the story and the status of the BTM at the present time. Suffice it to say, however, that the Times piece lays bare the utter mendaciousness of the Deputy Mayor who had supposedly voluntarily recused himself from any dealings with his old buddy Ross. With an appropriate acknowledgement of Tom Robbins's original Village Voice story the Times depicts how Doctoroff spent hours discussing the BTM deal with the appointed mediator as well as his buddy Steve (along with lengthy e-mails back and forth):

Still, as The Village Voice first reported, Mr. Doctoroff's meeting and telephone logs show he closely followed the Terminal Market talks, meeting at least eight times with the mediator, Richard Ravitch, or members of his staff working on the deal. He also met frequently with Mr. Ross and talked to him by telephone, although the logs do not indicate the subject of their discussions.

City officials working under Mr. Doctoroff were not passive spectators to the deal; they had to approve the transfer of the lease from Mr. Buntzman to Related and the benefit package for the developer.

"It had to be a three-party deal," said Jeffrey Blau, a top executive at Related. "The city had the right to approve any transfers of the lease."
What the story reveals is that when it comes to economic development the claims of Mike Bloomberg that he is above special interests turns out to be blatantly false (unless Doctoroff is to be considered a free agent). The collusion between the two old friends, a collusion that began with Deputy Dan's intervention on behalf of Related in 2002 on the Bradhurst project in Harlem, is an ongoing one and can be seen in a number of other projects all over the city. It is just the kind of special interest favoritism that cries out for an independent investigation.

One of the missing pieces in the Times story (can we get a sequel?) is an examination of the legality of the evictions of the merchants. It is our contention that the evictions are patently illegal and, hopefully, that is just what Judge Cahn will decide in the court case.

Hail To Helen Diane Foster

We would be utterly remiss if we failed to give ultimate props to Councilmember Foster who righteously stood up for justice and defended the market merchants:
Helen Diane Foster, a City Council member from the Bronx, has criticized the city's effort to evict the market's two dozen Caribbean, African and Central American wholesale produce merchants. Ms. Foster, whose family used to buy its Christmas tree there and whose father bought produce and provisions for his restaurant at the market, said, "While we need economic development, I don't know that we need it at the expense of the merchants."

"An even larger issue is how the deal was cut," she said.
Our praise for Helen in no way diminishes our sincere gratitude to the pioneering role of Councilmember Monseratte in the BTM case (Hiram is so active and generally fearless that we often do take him for granted. His willingness to take a stand is absolutely vital to the small businesses that he so often champions). It goes without saying, however, that Foster's stand as a Bronx official is a profile in courage.

Wal-Mart and the Numbers

One of the staple pro-Wal-Mart arguments is that the store creates jobs and hence contributes to the economic betterment of an area. However, critics continually point out that job creation cannot be viewed in a vacuum, that the Wal-Mart jobs added need to be balanced with those jobs lost due to store closings or cutbacks. And even when Wal-Mart doesn’t cause direct jobs losses it, by offering low paying, low-benefit employment, creates a race-to-the-bottom atmosphere where competitors slash their own wages and health care packages in order to stay afloat.

The question then becomes what are the true costs Wal-Mart’s often touted low prices? More specifically, what is the retailer's net effect on employment, wages and the overall economic situation of a particular area?

In a new report, David Neumark, Junfu Zhang, and Stephen Ciccarella, fellows at the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California, begin to answer these aforementioned questions in their abstract [emphasis added]:

In the retail sector, on average, Wal-Mart stores reduce employment by two to four percent ... Overall, there is some evidence that Wal-Mart stores increase total employment on the order of two percent, although not all of the evidence supports this conclusion. There is stronger evidence that total payrolls per person decline, by nearly five percent in the aggregate, implying that residents of local labor markets earn less following the opening of Wal-Mart stores.
The report, entitled “The Effects of Wal-Mart on Local Labor Markets,” ironically, as Jonathan Rees points out, is being submitted to a conference sponsored by Wal-Mart and intended to portray the company’s positive affect on the U.S. economy. Also interesting is the fact that the authors received store data directly from Wal-Mart and hence believe their findings to be more accurate. To be fair, they do question certain earlier Wal-Mart-critical papers (e.g. the Penn St. poverty study) for relying on poor data/methodologies. However, Neumark, et. al, come to many of the same conclusions and do so using Wal-Mart’s data and what they see as improved economic models.

While the economics is way beyond me, these conclusions should be clear to any lay person [again, emphasis added]:

The evidence is, on balance, more consistent with the claims of critics of Wal-Mart, although questions remain. In the retail sector, the representative Wal-Mart store, which is open about eight years in our sample, reduces employment by two to four percent. There is some evidence that payrolls per worker also decline, by about 3.5 percent, but this conclusion is less robust. Either way, though, retail earnings fall. Looking at total employment, some of the evidence, but not all of it, points to employment increases on the order of two percent. At the same time, there is stronger evidence that total payrolls per worker and per person decline, by about 2.5 and 4.8 percent, respectively, implying that residents of a local labor market do indeed earn less following the opening of Wal-Mart stores.

Finally, we find clear evidence of adverse effects of Wal-Mart stores on retail employment, total employment, and total payrolls per person in the South, where Wal-Mart stores are most numerous on a total and per capita basis, and where they have been open the longest
Again, to be fair, the authors mention that Wal-Mart may result in lower prices and that this may offset, at least partially, the demonstrably lower earnings after Wal-Mart comes to town. However, despite this caveat the report shows that our critiques and those of other skeptics are right: when Wal-Mart comes to town there is considerable collateral damage and the longer the store stays the worse these wounds become. This is something all politicians and neighborhood residents should fully understand before giving the green light to the big box from Bentonville.

Garden of Eden

In her latest installment of “Blog On,” The Daily News’s Dawn Eden gives props to our blog:

On the flip side, there's the Neighborhood Retail Alliance(momandpopnyc.blogspot.com), a group of small-business owners whose blog - run by Matt Lipsky - revels in the smallest details of local issues.

For the average New Yorker, 350 words on, say, waste management may be a bit much. But if you're an enthusiast, Lipsky's dry wit adds color to even the dullest stories.

Witness this world-weary anecdote from the item about a hearing on Yankee Stadium traffic issues:

"Unfortunately, when an [Economic Development Commission] rep was asked, at a recent hearing, 'How does the city plan to handle the traffic problems from these two major projects?' his only answer was: 'Carefully.'"
We’d like to thank Dawn for her kind words and hope that she and all of you keep returning for our patented “dry wit.”

Whooping Crains and Bodegas

As was expected, Crain’s came out against the Health Care Security Act (HSCA) in a recent editorial. However, unexpected and particularly gratuitous, was its personalization of the bill as a "Catsimatidis -bodega protection act” (the target of the paper's ire being John Catsimatidis, the owner of around 48 Gristedes supermarkets, and a client of Alliance Director Richard Lipsky’s). Crain’s claims that Gristedes is losing business, not because it provides for adequate health and pension benefits to its workers, but because of "the highest prices and worst service in any city."

We can't wait for Crain’s to do this comparative city analysis but until then let's offer a different view on this issue. Gristedes is located all over Manhattan and the chain is paying exorbitant real estate taxes on all of its locations. It is not unusual for one store to pay as much as $500,000 in such taxes. On top of this, and just as all stores in the city experience, Gristedes suffers from a regulatory mind-set that adds additional burdens on to the very consumers that, quite all of a sudden, Crain’s has decided to champion.

Shouldn't these be the kind of issues that a business publication should save its ire for? Instead Crain’s attacks the victim here and in the process sounds more like Mark Green who erroneously told New Yorkers that it was the poor who "paid more for less" when it came to grocery shopping.

Blaming Bodegas

It was Karl Marx who observed that history repeats itself – the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Marx was referring to Napoleon’s nephew but the observation applies to the Crain’s editorial as well.

The editorial, while tragically blaming the supermarkets who are the victims of an out-of-control municipal tax and regulatory policy, then goes on to farcically lay blame on the city's bodegas who it says, "have long charged residents of poor communities exceptionally steep prices and worked hard to keep out competitors."

Is Crain’s serious here? How have the bodegas, community institutions in neighborhoods all over the city, conspired to keep out competitors? Come on now, get out of the office folks! There are often three or more bodegas on each block. This just in: Jose Fernandez and the Bodega Association have set up an attack apparatus, funded by the millions of dollars the stores have apparently extorted from low-income consumers, and are taking aim against--who?--why Wal-Mart of course.

This is really quite hilarious. Memo to Crains: Bodegas, all 13,000 of them, will continue to thrive in neighborhoods all over the city even should Wal-Mart break into the NYC market. And as far as high prices are concerned well, these are convenience stores and we've never heard any editorialist inveigh against, 7-11 stores for instance. That being said, however, if you do a price comparison (our favorite is the 20 oz. bottle of Diet Coke) you will find that the corner bodega, precisely because it is faced with a fierce competition, offers reasonable prices on its staple items (unlike some of the chain drug stores, and gas station convenience outlets, that will be at least 50% higher on these items in the same neighborhoods).

As far as health care is concerned does Crain’s, a paper that detests HCSA, really want it to apply to the Mom and Pop bodegas? Are bodegas, which have historically been a bootstrap opportunity for generations of immigrants, that much of a threat to poor New Yorkers? Has HCSA made the paper perhaps become unhinged? We can just see it now, Crain’s the business paper launches a crusade to reform the hiring practices of small stores so these outlets comply with the minimum wage laws that we'll suppose Crain’s has been philosophically (and historically) opposed to.

The NY Times and Mike Bloomberg: Perfect Together

In an expected editorial that fully underscores the paper's worldview as well as its rather significant limitations, the NY Times enthusiastically endorsed the reelection of Mike Bloomberg yesterday. Its one misgiving was, of course, the mayor's "out-of-control" campaign spending. That didn't, however, restrain the praise the paper heaped on its ideological soul mate.

Let's get to the spending issue first. We would greatly appreciate it if the Times would from now on simply shut up on campaign finance reform. If the complete disregard for one of the paper’s core political principles can be ignored when convenient then the issue's significance is no longer relevant, at least when articulated by the Grey Lady.

What is clear from this editorial is that the matter of campaign finance will always be filtered at the Times by the old "whose ox is being gored” disregard for principle. In other words, the paper can conscious Bloomberg’s total disregard for the campaign finance system because it enthusiastically approves of the way he’s governing. However, when it comes to “right wing” special interests influencing campaigns, especially on the national level, the Times responds with outrage and reaffirms the need for strict controls. The paper can't have it both ways.

The emphasis on special interests, as we have pointed out elsewhere, will always skew the understanding of the nature of how the political system works and overall concepts of how to achieve the public good. As bad as the Bloomberg spending is, it is not the egregious kind of special interest funded spending that drives the Times bonkers. Our argument elsewhere is that this billionaire exemption, if you will, can be just as bad or even worse.

Shared Perspectives

So, after excoriating the mayor's spending (something that it did in a separate editorial a few weeks ago that it ghettoized in the City Section) the Times goes on to praise the mayor with a fulsomeness that is actually quit funny. Of interest here of course is the paper's failure to even mention that Bloomberg enacted record tax increases that had sent his approval ratings into the toilet in 2002-2003.

The omission is glaring because with the city facing a potential $4.6 budget deficit you'd think the Times would express concern about how this policy-challenged and ideologically constricted patrician will respond to the crisis on the horizon. Knowing the Times, however, this is simply outside their purview.

They support and applaud any tax increase that keeps the established government colossus undisturbed. After all, their criticism of Anthony Weiner's campaign – the only one that threatened to offer a fresh challenge to the mayor's/Times approach – centered on Weiner's audacity to suggest tax cuts (which the Times analogized to George Bush's approach).

The Times reaches its comedic heights, however, when it comes to placing and evaluating Mike Bloomberg in historical context. Here they exhibit an obsequiousness that would even embarrass Bloomberg if humility could be found anywhere in his personality make-up. (On this we refer readers back to our discussion of John Avlon's NY Sun column on Bloomberg in history).

In comparing Mayor Mike with Ed Koch for instance (we wonder whether this sleight will help the notoriously thin-skinned Koch to become more honestly critical of the mayor in his second term), the Times highlights the Bloomberg achievement of one manned garbage trucks! This is the Ed Koch who challenged the sway of municipal unions in the most public way, in the process helping to start to change the city's political culture in a most significant way (ironically on the same day that the paper runs a piece by Ian Urbina that undermines the paper's exaggerated praise of this initiative by pointing out that the one man truck will probably be possible on only 50 of approximately 2300 garbage trucks in the city's fleet).

The Times goes on to use the garbage issue (Why has this issue become so important? it certainly hasn't been in any of the mayor's own campaign literature) to invidiously compare Bloomberg to Giuliani. They point to the props Rudy achieved by closing Fresh Kills but remind readers that he "failed to come with a workable plan to get rid of the displaced garbage...[while] Mayor Bloomberg offered an environmentally sensible solution."

Are these people really serious? Let's not forget that the mayor spent two years floundering and finally came up with a SWMP that, while siting transfer stations in a more racially sensitive way, offers little that is practical in reducing the environmentally hazardous land-fill based disposal methods that the city has relied on for years. In addition, in continuing in this tradition the mayor has failed to let New Yorkers know just how expensive this unimaginative approach will be for the taxpayers. Expense and taxpayers are not the concern, however, of the Times it appears.

The cheapest shot in the Times' comparative analysis is reserved for the discussion of crime. The paper praises the mayor for reducing crime "farther than even the wildest optimists would have imagined during the Giuliani crime-fighting years...." and goes on to point out invidiously once again that, "Mr. Bloomberg has managed to achieve all this in an atmosphere of racial harmony."

This is pretty hard to swallow since it demonstrates not only a disregard for historical accuracy but also a bad faith that ignores just how much Rudy did in this area that was truly groundbreaking. Let's not forget that reducing crime, beginning with the "broken windows" theory that former Mayor Dinkins had ridiculed, meant that the former mayor had to also attack a political culture, one shared by the Times, that being too aggressive was inherently racist. It meant ignoring the Times social work mantra that crime reduction, if it were to be effective, needed to first deal with the root causes, i.e., poverty.

Mike Bloomberg came in and rode a trend that his more passionate and committed predecessor had set at great cost to his own standing, particularly among African-Americans. What Giuliani established, however, was that crime reduction could be achieved and, once it was, the communities that benefited the most got used to the positive changes. Bloomberg came in after this worldview had been relegated to the dustbin of history and crime reduction had become welcome in low-income areas. Elevating Mike over Rudy here is the ultimate dishonest cheap shot.

All of which leads us to the observation that the Times' worldview and the mayor's, while perfect together, is so unimaginative and stale that we wonder how the coming fiscal crisis will be tackled at City Hall and evaluated in the editorial boardroom at 43rd Street. Both have exhibited such a callous disregard for the well-being of homeowners and small businesses that are the true lifeblood of this city that we just can't see any possibility of any creative policy initiatives coming to deal with the difficulties ahead.

We do offer one caveat to this bleak future scenario. The mayor, unlike the salons at the Times, does have something in his background that could enable him to approach a new fiscal crisis in some boldly innovative way. He needs, however, to utilize the instincts and philosophy that helped to make his fortune and disentangle from a status quo approach to governing that got New York City into trouble in the first place. That is where real greatness lies.

We Stoop To Conquer

We are hopeful that our efforts to expose the wrong-headedness of Intro 699 are taking hold in the approaching override battle at the City Council. Real credit, however, goes to the indefatigable Sung Soo Kim, who has been blitzing councilmembers with material that underscores the folly of the law. The message is starting to take hold.

There are a couple of interesting points about the law that need to be brought out. In the first place the entire methodology surrounding the measurement of "pedestrian traffic flow" should open the eyes of councilmembers who are having second thoughts about the utility of 699. In reading the description of the analytical method we were impressed by the complexity of the review process, one that relies on the Highway Capacity Manual (the same one that is used in the generation of data for the Environmental Impact Statements used for mega-store development).

The pedestrian analysis is also the same methodology used for evaluating newsstand locations. What's interesting about this is that, according to Rob Bookman (counsel to the newsstand dealers), the DOT will often take months to evaluate the traffic issues pursuant to the license application of a newsstand operator. And get this – there are generally no more than a handful of such applications each year.

What 699 is proposing is to use the same methodology to review the 2,126 fruit stand licensees, businesses that turn over with much greater frequency than newsstands. It portends, then, a regulatory nightmare with hundreds of additional inspectors brought on to examine the pedestrian flow issues for thousands of license applications.

Which brings us to the issue of fees. A critic of ours suggested that 699 would not lead to any increase in regulatory costs. Guess again. Someone is going to have to pay for the DOT's increased regulatory responsibilities and store owners are the usual suspects that the agency will round up to dutifully pay for the increased work load.

Oh and the Council, eager to demonstrate that the legislation was justified in the first place will not hesitate for a second in providing the DOT with the requisite resources. And the agency, however reluctantly it was dragged into all this in the first place, will undoubtedly warm to its regulatory task and do what city agencies always do: find violations, fine businesses and generally bust chops.

Intro 731A

As a result of all of Mr. Kim's efforts, there is now an awareness that 699 has certain critical defects. This awareness is threatening to prevent the Council from overriding the mayor's veto next Thursday. In response, John Liu has introduced Intro 731 as an antidote to 699's deficiencies. In essence, a flawed bill was introduced and passed in great haste and when the flaws were dramatized by the impacted retailers, Liu rushes another bill forward as a remedy.

What a scene! Doesn't it make more sense to send 699 back to the drawing board and remedy its defects rather than pass a companion bill which, on careful analysis, doesn't even provide the relief that its sponsor pretends it does. All of which brings to mind Karl Marx's comment about his rival, the French socialist Proudhon: "He seeks synthesis and all he achieves is composite error."

Friday, October 21, 2005

Where There's Smoke, Sometimes There's, Well, Smoke

In today's Daily News Errol Louis hits on some human rights themes two of which, minority contracting and the racial composition of the FDNY, deserve a comment or two. As far as the contracting issue we think that Louis is right on point. We all welcome the mayor's election year recognition of the racial disparities in the awarding of contracts to minority firms but as we have said before this recognition needs to lead to real empowerment and not booty-crumb capitalism that, while giving minority contractors some secondary work, continues to give the real benefits to all of the usual suspects.

The poster child of this issue is of course the Fernandez brothers who were passed over on the Bradhurst supermarket development by Deputy Dan in favor of his friend Steve Ross of the Related Companies. The brothers, heads of a $50+ million business are still waiting for the "partnership" that Dan promised them when he cavalierly passed them over.

As far as the FDNY is concerned the issue may be a bit more complicated. While the agency remains heavily white, the actions of the firefighters in the performance of their duties has always been heroic and color-blind. It is the only city service whose best practitioners vie for placements in the city's toughest neighborhoods (compare this to teachers with seniority who look to transfer out as soon as they can).

So while the issue of the composition of the force needs to be addressed it should not be done so in any spirit of malice. We need to come up with better recruitment methods and uncover the reasons for the failure of previous efforts. The entire issue shouldn't be seen through the prism of 1950's Southern-style racism. This will only complicate things without leading to any positive changes. What should be avoided at all costs are efforts to alter the testing methodologies that would compromise the quality of the firefighting cadres.

Educated Guess

The Sun did a great piece yesterday on the question of whether or not NYC school test scores have actually risen. Here's Julia Levy's great lead:
Although Mayor Bloomberg counts record leaps in student test scores among his highest achievements, new national data suggest that better teaching or smarter students may have nothing to do with those gains. The city and state tests could simply be easier.
We've felt all along that the trumpeting of the scores, certainly expected in an election year, might create the impression of educational progress even though the substantive pedagogical results do not back up the claim. Remember that the Department of Education spent the better part of two years pursuing progressive education nostrums that have been shown to be unhelpful for raising achievement levels for low income children. So the expected Daily News editorial defense today of the Bloomberg-Klein regime is really beside the point.

All of this has been artfully pointed out by the Sun's Andrew Wolf. We remember when the Times did a story on the young turks who were recruited to the Ed Department. All were definitely part of the "best and the brightest" Ivy League brigade but not a single individual had any actual educational policy experience. We guess that Joel Klein didn't want to feel isolated.

The reality is that there are quite a few fairly intractable problems with the current system. A number of them inhere not to the schools themselves but derive from the challenges brought by the particular student population that needs to be educated. In many unfortunate ways the system has not seen any dramatic improvement in the thirty years since Richard Lipsky left his elementary school Valhalla for greener pastures. That being said, these unique challenges mean that the school bureaucracy needs to be able to react to the challenges in a creative fashion.

This gets us back to the issues we've raised about the mayor's lack of entrepreneurial instincts when it comes to public policy making. We've always felt that Mike Bloomberg was just the right guy to wrest mayoral control of the schools away from a sclerotic BOE. At the same time, does anyone think he is the right guy to really shake things up-and fire-up those in the system to follow and be inspired by new innovative teaching methodologies?

The irony is that the kind of school change that is needed – and we'd definitely include a voucher experiment here – is more likely to be produced by a Giuliani-like change agent than by a Bloomberg-style manager. That is precisely why Bloomberg, the manager, has been able to continue Giuliani’s successes in crime fighting, while no one really believes that Mayor Mike would have been able to radically transform the way we police this city.

The kinds of changes needed in the NYC educational system are those can infuse the system's frontline soldiers. The structure will not be transformed, however, by a top-down managerially controlled system of policy changes. Certainly the kind of bland competence that exemplifies both Bloomberg and Klein will not be able to shake the systemic changes that are needed.

Which brings us to our critique of Bloomberg's "above politics" glorification. Our response is, So what? He's not beholden to the teachers, the principles, the custodians or the parents. Again, So what? How does this vaunted freedom from the special interests translate into a better educational system if the unencumbered man lacks the vision and the passion to promote the needed changes?

The Marino Organiztion, Wal-Mart and the BTM

In an excellent piece on the Bronx Terminal Market rent strike, the Bronx Times Reporter highlights the role of the public relations firm the Marino Organization (MO) in this affair and by doing so underscores the real and present danger of Wal-Mart being included on the site. The MO represents both the Terminal Market's new developer Related and Wal-Mart and is currently engaged in a campaign to bring the world’s largest retailer to the 5 boroughs. It seems logical to us that these Wal-Mart flaks would be encouraging their other client Related to sneak in a Bentonville box store after the mall receives its approvals. This is why we are emphasizing the need for a legally-binding agreement that will preclude a Wal-Mart or similar store from anchoring the site. As we’ve stated, assuming the City Council votes yes on the project, Related can sign leases with any retailer it wants.

What’s also sad is that the Marino Organization is run by two guys, John and Frank Marino, who were actually brought up in the neighborhoods of the Bronx. Apparently the lure of the developer dollars has expunged whatever nostalgia the brothers may have retained from their youth.

What the Marinos haven't lost is their mordant sense of humor. In the Times Reporter piece, Frankie Marino tells us that the BTM merchants who are trying to prevent their own annihilation are really part of some "desperate" but unnamed cabal "working to deny Bronxites choices in where they shop." Hey Frank, Isn't it Related that is trying to deny Bronx retailers a shopping venue they have come to rely on?

And since when can an illegal execution be characterized as "progress?" But Marino saved his high humor for the description of the relocation plan offered to the merchants, one that Frank called "very generous." Well if Marino still lived in the Throggs Neck neighborhood he grew up in and the city came in to take away two dozen small homes, including his family's, we think that his definition of generous would be dramatically altered.

We're waiting for the Marino Organization to meet us on the playing fields of Staten Island where, in their effort to ennoble the Wal-Mart colossus, they will engage and disparage the kinds of civic groups they grew up defending. They will drag out their bogus opinion surveys and depict the overdeveloped South Shore as a deprived retail desert. We can't wait.

We also can't wait to see the Marino brothers surface, as they are probably angling to do as we speak, in Willets Point. Here they will, once again, defend the powerful and belittle the efforts of the WP merchants (standing in the way of "progress") to protect their property and their livelihoods. Their depiction of the benefits of eminent domain will continue to highlight just how far the brothers have come from their Bronx roots. Which is progress of sorts we guess.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Traffic Issues with Yankee Stadium/Gateway Developments

Teresa Toro, from the Tri-State Transportation campaign, has penned an excellent letter to Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion (which we've signed on to) expressing concerns about the traffic problems that will result from both the proposed new Yankee Stadium and the Gateway Mall.

Toro points out the flaws both projects' Environmental Impact Statements:

Both environmental impact statements deny that the construction of large numbers of new parking spaces in the area, and the absence of the long-promised Yankee Stadium Metro-North Railroad station or other mass transit improvements, will have any impact on the amount of traffic or air quality in the South Bronx.
She also mentions how the construction of 8,500 additional parking spaces is poor planning for an area already suffering from horrendous air quality and nettlesome congestion:

The South Bronx needs better urban planning. It is disheartening that economic development in this area is planned to come at the expense of the health and quality of life of its residents. The South Bronx bears a large burden of regional infrastructure that negatively impacts the health and quality of life of its residents. It has a disproportionate number of waste transfer stations and high levels of diesel truck traffic, and it has one of the highest asthma rates in the city and the country. The environment of the South Bronx should not be further compromised to create car-dependent suburban-focused facilities.
Definitely read the whole thing. As we’ve said to numerous elected officals and community members, the traffic impact of Gateway will not only be considerable by itself, but the problems become exponentially worse when the new Yankee Stadium project is factored in. Unfortunately, when an EDC rep was asked, at a recent hearing: “How does the city plan to handle the traffic problems from these two major projects” his only answer was: “Carefully.”

Rally at the Terminal Market

There will be a rally at the Bronx Terminal Market this Wednesday the 26th at 2:30 p.m. demanding that Related Companies, in a legally-binding agreement, preclude a Wal-Mart or BJ’s from the Gateway Mall. As we’ve commented earlier, the result of this unaccountable development process has been that we’ve been kept in the dark about the anchor tenants. Related hopes to receive its approvals and then after the fact sneak it any anti-union, low-wage, low-benefit store it wishes. A number of the groups involved in the Rego Park anti-Wal-Mart fight will be on hand make sure this doesn’t happen.

Here’s the advisory.

Entrepreneurial Government: Take Out the Papers and the Trash

We have been commenting on the shallow nature of much of the political commentary that, taking its cue from the self-serving assertions of the Bloomberg campaign, has conflated "not being beholden to the special interests" with good government. Our perspective is that this "above politics" view serves to camouflage any real appreciation of how policy is actually made and underplays the importance of leadership style, temperament and ideology in the actual governing process.

One result of this analytical deficiency, especially in regards to Mayor Mike, is the inability of the analyst to not only develop a useful critique of policies that have been put in place but also of the policies that need to be promulgated in the future. One must start with two central questions: What is wrong with NYC government? and What kinds of policies will best address these perceived wrongs?

In our view city government suffers from a bureaucratic sclerosis that is melded to a dysfunctional civil service and municipal labor albatross. NYC government often tries to do too much and much of what it does it does poorly.

One case in point: The pick-up and disposal of municipal solid waste. Put simply, this task is done inefficiently and at too high a cost. In addition, the city actually has a dual system of collection since the roughly 13,000 tons of commercial waste is picked up and disposed of by private sector firms. This duplication actually creates an unhealthy competition between the two sectors for, if competition is going to exist, it should be to the benefit and not the detriment of the city.

All of this is clearly analyzed by Osborne and Gaebler in their seminal work, "Reinventing Government." The subtitle actually says it best: "How the entrepreneurial spirit is transforming the public sector." The point here is that public sector bureaucracies formed in response to, and as an antidote for, the growth of bureaucratic corporate structures in the age of industrialization.

These corporate life-forms, however, have long ago been transformed as the private sector has developed new ways to be creative and innovative, to be intrapreneurial if you will. Yet the unwieldy and hidebound public dinosaurs continue to rule.

In the case of the collection and disposal of NYC garbage, there are a number of ways to inject a competitive spirit into the process, a spirit that would allow for technological creativity to spawn as firms, competing to be more profitable, looked for novel solutions. This does, of course, presuppose the creation of a competitive environment much as Osborne and Gaebler highlight in their description of how the city of Phoenix made garbage collection more competitive and, as a result, less costly (pp.76-79).

Could the same thing be done in NYC? Why not? Could Mayor Bloomberg initiate and achieve this kind of policy innovation? It's possible, but given the evidence from the last four years it is hardly likely. Why is it unlikely? Because Mike doesn't seem to have the same entrepreneurial instincts for governing as he clearly demonstrated in his rise to billionaire status. His lack of any ties to the special interests, then (he certainly doesn't need to kowtow to the municipal labor unions), doesn't translate into bold innovative initiatives that would make city government, dare we say it?, more profitable.

Which is also precisely why the mayor's SWMP is such a failure. The mayor, lacking any clear policy vision and burdened with a propensity to rely on managers, becomes a prisoner of the bureaucracies he, as well as the city, would be better off to dismantle or at least streamline. If the billionaire mayor can't devise a creative privatization policy why do so many put so much credence in his private sector expertise? As far as this private sector experience is concerned, at least with Bloomberg, there's less than meets the eye.

Postscript: Recycling

There is no better policy area to illustrate the above points than the NYC recycling program. Here we have a command bureaucracy that is trained (Thorsten Veblen's term, "trained incapacity," comes to mind here) to basically pump and dump the garbage that is now tasked in a completely different function. The results show. It costs the Sanitation Department over $300 a ton to pick up the recyclables and, in the end, much of the material cannot be reused because it has been contaminated in the pick-up process.

At the same time we have a great example of a privatized recycling initiative: the NYS Bottle Law. Here we see how materials are brought to the transfer points separated and in relatively uncontaminated condition. That costs the taxpayers nothing and the recycling fees are essentially user fees.

Over two decades ago, when the City Council passed its first recycling law it included a provision to fund "buy-back centers" that would pay "cash for trash" to people who brought in designated materials for recycling. The original funding effort got caught in the Dinkins budget cuts and when an effort to revive the concept was made it was nixed by the Department of Sanitation because, "it would compete with the city's curbside program."

Here in a nutshell is the mindset we are talking about. The idea of competition is alien to these bureaucrats. In the case of buy-backs they were concerned that competition would siphon material from "their" program. Of course, this was precisely the point. With costs escalating and materials collected dwindling it was an opportune time to inject a little competition into the system.

In strange way the mindset is also replicated among the advocates of recycling who see the curbside collection program as akin to a religious ceremony. Purity is achieved through the ritual even if the results can't justify the costs. That is why these same folks, while advocating the expansion of the bottle law, are unable to envision how the creative use of deposits could eventually eliminate curbside altogether. That would get them into the profane area of privatization and, therefore, needs to be avoided like "traif" in Borough Park.

Bloomberg In History

John Avlon had an interesting evaluation ($) in Tuesday’s Sun about Mayor Mike's place in history. He makes a point that touches on a theme we have been hitting on recently: the political impact and potential of the mayor's "above politics" status. It is a theme that is also mentioned in Jim Rutenberg's valedictory on the mayor's first four years in this morning's NY Times.

Here is the money quote in Avlon's column:
No mayor in history will owe his election to fewer individuals. His self-funded status makes him an anomaly in our democracy, a principled figure who can operate with complete independence from special interests.
As Rutenberg highlights this is exactly as Bloomberg sees himself: "Most elected officials are dependent for help and therefore are more willing to be open to pressure."

So the mayor views this as a certain "purity in his pursuits." Pure in what way? And what exactly does purity get you? This is a theme that Avlon begins to explore and the points he makes underscores just how simplistic the "not tainted by special interests" analysis really is.

If not tainted than what? This is the essence of the problem. Purity of heart and motive is one thing. An understanding of policy and, even more importantly (since Plato seems to be the editorialist's role model here), the larger concept of justice is another. The good government groups and their editorial epigones think that the removal of the special interests ushers in an era of public interestedness. The assumption doesn't necessarily stand up.

Some of the larger implications of this point can be gleaned by examining the mayor's policy making and his overall view of governance. We need to begin by pointing out that there is nothing in Mike Bloomberg's past that indicates that he has ever given these questions more than a cursory glance. The past four years, however, gives us some indication of how the mayor does approach politics and government.

In the first place, unlike his predecessor who approached government with a skepticism bordering on abhorrence, Bloomberg has a relatively benign view of government's role. At one point he indicated a view that seemed to portray the citizenry as akin to consumers of Bloomberg LLP. With this perspective it is unlikely that the mayor will ever see the radical restructuring of service delivery and the concomitant easing of the tax and regulatory burden as a desirable public policy goal.

The view itself doesn't preclude a reformist approach but with Bloomberg it is combined (and here Fred Siegel’s term is apt) with a liberal paternalism that sees the government as there to uplift, "help" that is. You're not going to hear Mike mock, like Ahnold did, the phrase, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." Doing things for people, and not necessarily helping them to become more self-sufficient, is the underlying mindset.

The key issue here is that good governance presupposes not only an understanding of how government works but a perspective that encompasses an evaluation of what is not working and a correlation of this analysis with some notion of where the overall public good lies. Being enmeshed in special interest politics can impede good government as scandal after scandal has underscored. The untangling from these interests is, however, only the beginning of good policy making.

The question here is how does an elected official, freed from special interests, achieve the public good. Here we return to Avlon's good insights. As he points out, "So far, Mr. Bloomberg has not been aggressive when it comes to electoral reform or shrinking the size and cost of government." In addition his instincts on education, if we can call them that, have been unremarkable and dangerously mainstream status quo oriented (the appointment of progressive educator Diana Lam) as Andrew Wolf has eloquently pointed out.

In a previous post we talked about Bloomberg’s lame approach to solid waste. Another insight that can be gleaned from this fiasco is that the mayor, relatively detached from the policy debate, is often too dependent on advisors and commissioners. The ones in the current administration don't stand out for either innovation or bold creativity.

So, while Avlon feels that a second Bloomberg term offers an opportunity for greatness our view of the mayor and the policy making of the last four years gives us the strong feeling that a second term will fall short of the kinds of initiatives that would catapult Bloomberg into the upper echelon of NYC's greatest mayors. It does look though that he will be given ample opportunity to prove us wrong since the voters appear ready to bring him back again for a second term.

Postscript

Our points above are underscored in an editorial in Tuesday’s New York Post that ironically gives Freddy Ferrer some kudos for his attack on the mayor's propensity to raise taxes and fees. When faced with a major budget shortfall in 2002 the mayor, going back on his campaign promises, raised taxes to extremely high levels. As the Post says, Bloomberg:
socked it to the taxpayers, claiming-arrogantly-that businesses wouldn't mind. Who knows how many businesses- and jobs-vanished as a result?
The key point here is that Bloomberg the businessman would tolerate in government what he couldn't possibly tolerate in his own company: waste and bureaucratic inefficiency. This goes back to his benign view of government. It is unlikely, even though we certainly hope we're wrong, that Mayor Mike will approach a second term with the kind of entrepreneurial energy that he must have brought to his astonishingly successful business career.

Without that mindset and proper policy understanding, the freedom from politics that Bloomberg exults in will not translate into the kind of greatness that Avlon feels he, because unconstrained, should be capable of.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

In a Shock, Bloomberg Supports Eminent Domain

Today's Post is reporting that the Bloomberg administration warned lawmakers "they could seriously hurt future development by changing a law that allows government to condemn and seize property." As Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo testified, "Eminent domain is crucial..."

Cardoza, apparently ignoring the furor created by the SC's Kelo ruling, told the lawmakers that New York laws have enough protection for property owners and called for the establishment of a commission to study the "ramifications of altering" the law. Apparently Cardoza and his boss are unconcerned with the ramifications of simply taking someone's home or business. He also mimicked the Court's endorsement of the wonderful protections of the "carefully considered plan of economic development."

All of which is unsurprising considering the mayor's statements on Willet's Point and the actions of the city in the evictions of the merchants at the BTM (where a carefully considered plan was conceived, not by the city directly, but by a developer who was sole-sourced for the project and just happened to be a close friend of the deputy mayor).

This brings us back to the "above politics" and special interest mantra. When it comes to economic development the Bloombergistas believe in trickle down economics and the value of patricianage. Where are the Black and Latino developers? Oh yes, they say, we'll give job training and sub-contracting to the booty capitalists but the big projects need to go to the folks with the "requisite experience," and we just happen to know who these good burghers are. In fact I just had dinner with them last night at the club.

This is not special interest politics, they continue, it is about competence and resources to do the right job. The fact that the Chosen all look alike and are from the same circle of friends doesn't detract from the fact that merit and the public interest was all that went into decision on this deal, they claim.

Essentially, as the political scientist Schattschneider remarked (paraphrasing somewhat): The so-called public interest choir sings with a distinctly upper class accent.