Monday, December 31, 2007

Giving Them a Run for His Money

As we have been saying for the past year, the mayor's pursuit of a special interest-his own ambition-has been the undergirding for his miraculous transformation into poverty crusader and an environmental activist. Whether or not you feel all of this is in the public interest or not depends on your own political perspective.

Now, however, the cat's about to get out of the bag-and the coy speculation about the mayor's political future looks like it's gonna turn into something a bit more significant; as today's NY Times story about a confab of alter kocher independents fuels talk of a presidetial plunge: "Buoyed by the still unsettled field, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is growing increasingly enchanted with the idea of an independent presidential bid, and his aides are aggressively laying the groundwork for him to run."

What strikes us here about all of this is the ideological bipartisanship that appears to underlay all of this speculation. The term, of course, contains just a bit of irony-as some of the political oldsters, worrying over their own obsolescence, talk about the compelling need for less partisanship if we're going to be able to properly address the country's problems: "Former Senator David L. Boren of Oklahoma, who organized the session with former Senator Sam Nunn, a Democrat of Georgia, suggested in an interview that if the prospective major party nominees failed within two months to formally embrace bipartisanship and address the fundamental challenges facing the nation, “I would be among those who would urge Mr. Bloomberg to very seriously consider running for president as an independent.”

This is without question a complete crock. The abjuring of ideology from the country's political dialogue is a complete misreading of the current political stalemate. The stalemate devolves from two starkly divergent world views, and bipartisanship is not only no panacea, it amounts to little more than gibberish when you get beyond the drooling over the prospects of someone spending a billion dollars to buy the country's highest office.

Partisanship and its ideological underpinnings are essential to facing forcefully the challenges of Islamic terrorism, illegal immigration, the health care crisis, and the restructuring of the American economy to address a number of other political issues. And, of course, it's important to emphasize that the mayor's own Nanny world view will generate its own potential for political gridlock-not to mention the revenge of all of the "special interests" if by some miracle he would be elevated to the presidency.

The fact of the matter is that Mike Bloomberg's political views do not resonate all that well with the vast majority of Americans, and his minority presidency would create a new form of gridlock, whether it was post partisan or not. Which makes the following comment by former Governor Boren and former Senator Nunn in today's NY Daily News rather droll: "Today, we are a house divided," they wrote to other politicians invited to the powwow. "We believe that the next President must be able to call for a unity of effort by choosing the best talent available - without regard to political party - to help lead our nation."

All of this back to the future bipartisan banter is useful only for camouflaging the ambitious musing of the mayor; after all, no one really cares what all of these political has-beens have to say. And isn't it ridiculous, in the middle of a political campaign, to cite the need for bipartisanship as a rationale for all of this? Here's what Boren said to the NY Post: "But if we don't see a refocusing of the campaign on a bipartisan approach, I would feel I would want to encourage an independent candidacy."

So we've got the oldsters longing for a renewed political relevance teaming up with Daddy Warbucks to create this faux issue, one that is sure to stimulate the masses if a billion dollar ad campaign is used on its behalf. Perhaps so, but trust us here, it will have nothing to do whatsoever with solving some of the perilous problems that the country faces today.

Poverty Pimps

In the 1970's Mayor Ed Koch coined the term "poverty pimps" to describe the social service empires created by the likes of Ramon Velez. Ever since then, poverty has become a lucrative industry for a slew of foundations and academic consultants. What all of these minions fail to understand is that a well functioning economic system is always a better remedy for poverty than any of their schemes-particularly for the Black and Latino masses that they pretend to be so concerned about. Or, as Tom Lehrer says in his "The Folk Song Army:" "We all hate poverty, war, and injustice-unlike the rest of you squares."

So now it's Mike Bloomberg's turn at the wheel. With all the fervor of a newly hire Ford Foundation consultant, the mayor is out to find the magic elixir for poverty. This year he has pioneered for New York's poor a Mexican initiative that will pay folks to behave more industriously. As Errol Louis optimistically tells us in a column yesterday: "Scholars and pundits will be watching the anti-poverty initiative to see whether the innovative ideas - like giving cash rewards to students and parents for things like getting a library card or attending parent-teacher meetings - really change people's behavior."

Errol needs to carefully look at how all of that mishogos will be evaluated-and who will be assigned the review task. With the mayor's money in play, the house odds are likely to yield predictable results; with independent auditing given short shrift.

What's really fascinating in all this, is how the mayor stands on Rudy's shoulders. The fact remains that Mike Bloomberg in 1993 would have been so over his head in dealing with NYC's culture of political poverty that he would have been a hopeless failure; the city needed a sea change that Giuliani created, a change that allowed a Mike Bloomberg to emerge as a competent technocratic leader in its wake.

The irony, of course, is that Rudy is scorned locally, while Mayor Mike basks in 70% approval ratings while contemplating his own run for the presidency. In yesterday's weekly musing Little Mike Lupica brings home this point with the following snarky observation: "By the way, how is it possible that the murder rate could have gone down with somebody other than Rudy as mayor?"

How indeed? Not to mention the welfare roles that plummeted when the former mayor took a tough approach to fraud, and to the generational perpetuation of a birthright to the dole. Now Mayor Mike comes in on third base and everyone marvels at the triple he hit.

Which brings us to yesterday's front page NY Times story about Bloomberg's search for a new definition of poverty. Why this is front page news eludes us, but it does put front and center the mayor's national aspiration to appear to be an innovative thinker on all many of issues.

Of course, this search for a new definition has a certain political positioning motive. As the Times wrote: "The politics of determining a poverty level are intense because the number largely determines eligibility for numerous federal entitlement programs. And, perhaps as important, it is used by people across the political spectrum as they debate how well this nation cares for its less fortunate."

Yes, there it is-"caring." The mayor as had any number of political epiphanies-the environment comes immediately to mind; and inherent in all of them is the caring motif. Yet in all of these rather banal sentiments we detect the standard stale bromides of a senescent progressivism that continues to look towards expanding the role of government at the expense of middle class tax payers.

Here's the money quote: "Though city officials insist they are approaching this undertaking without bias, it is almost impossible to separate the process from politics. Douglas J. Besharov, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is watching the New York experiment intently and not without some cynicism that the city will come up with a far too generous formula. "It is highly likely they will come up with a higher poverty rate," he said. "It is perfectly safe politically in New York and it certainly is a good P.R. device for the mayor who wants to be a poverty crusader.”

Crusader indeed, but one whose ability to ride his progressive steed is built on the less than liberal notion of accountability and tough love that the former mayor pioneered in a city whose political class was petrified in amber. All we're seeing from Mayor Mike is old whine in better and more expensive packaging. They offer nothing of innovative value for the country.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Gansevoort Redux

In today's NY Times, the paper reports on the press conference held by State Senator Carl Kruger on the plans to redevelop Coney Island. Kruger warned that any plan would have to be subjected to a full state environmental review-before any alienation of the parkland could go forward. As the NY Post writes today: "Kruger produced an advisory opinion from the state Department of Environmental Conservation saying its signoff is required prior to any request made to Albany to engage in land swaps involving parks."

If it feels like deja vu, then you're recalling the fight over the recycling center on the West Side, the one that the city lost because state electeds wouldn't approve of the alienation of the Hudson River parkland. As the Times points out, the intervention of the DEC could well delay this disposition process for a year or more: "The advisory opinion, issued Nov. 30, does not address the Coney Island plan directly, but contends that an environmental impact review, a process that could take a year or more, is required for any change in public parkland to non park use, and must be completed before state approval is sought."

As we pointed out yesterday, and as the Times reiterates today, this throws down the gauntlet to the new deputy mayor for economic development: "It is likely to present Robert C. Lieber, the mayor’s new deputy mayor of economic development, with one of his first big challenges as he takes office on Jan. 8. He has already been deeply involved in the Coney Island proposal in his current position as head of the city’s Economic Development Corporation."

What this means is that the city will have to tread cautiously over the redevelopment of the area, much more so then if just the city council was involved; the state legislature has been much less a junior partner of the mayor than the city's legislature. So, as long as Kruger and others are in his corner, Joe Sitt may very well be sitting pretty.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The More Things Change: Lieber and Small Business

The announcement yesterday that EDC head Robert Lieber was appointed by the mayor to replace Deputy Dan serves to send a consistent message: apparently nothing's going to change down at City Hall in regards to the lack of concern for small business and neighborhood retailers. We hope we're wrong, but there's certainly no indication that anything will be different. As the NY Times reports this morning: "Some within city government said he had not done enough to reach out to neighborhood residents and business owners where developments are planned."

What's new here? Deputy Dan ran roughshod over neighborhoods and small businesses in the service of his real estate friends. Lieber's actions regarding the Willets Point development, and his planning around Coney Island are a clear indication that the more things change with the Bloombertgistas, the more they stay the same. As Councilman Avella told the Times: "In my opinion, the institutional arrogance that has permeated the E.D.C. for years has not changed under him,” said City Councilman Tony Avella, chairman of the council’s subcommittee on zoning and franchises."

In fact, Lieber continues the trend of hiring folks from the financial sector who simply have no clue about what the economic engine is for the city's diverse neighborhoods. In fact, for the past six years economic development-from newsstands and bodegas, to supermarkets and small distributors-has simply ignored the little guys who make up the bulk of the city's aggregate economic activity.

So we'll see if Mr. Lieber is able to break out of this mold now that he's got his own shoes to fill. The Iron Triangle will be a huge test for him, and we hope that Peter Vallone Sr. is right when he tells the Times: "He’s been trying, literally with both hands tied behind his back, to do the right thing,” Mr. Vallone said. “The point is he really is trying, which hasn’t happened before now.”

The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding; but we don't see either the Willets Point or Coney Island ending well for the locals. The mayor, however, continues to believe that those who come from his own insular world are the ones who are best trained to rule. As he told the NY Sun: "His skills and experience in the private sector and in city government will serve him well as he fills some very big shoes here at City Hall." For us, though, those skills and experience amount to little more than a "trained incapacity" to understand and deal with those sectors that don't breathe the same rarefied air as the mayor and his cohort of masters of the universe.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Money in Politics: The Mayor and "Special Interests"

We have been commenting now for some time about the illusion that Mike Bloomberg's wealth somehow places him "above politics," and the special interests that the good government groups characterize as the source of all evil in the political system. It is the weltanschauung that leads to all of the campaign finance laws, and the often absurd efforts to rid the democratic system of lobbyists.

It is, however, rendered as theater of the absurd when a multi-billionaire enters into the arena; now the stacked deck gives way to the casino owner who is able to win consistently because of the control that comes from owning the joint and being able to set the house odds. So it goes with Mayor Mike and his money-something that the intrepid Ray Rivera is starting to look at in the NY Times-continuing with a story today on the three blind mice COIB ruling regarding the Bloomberg Foundation.

Let's remember how the mayor successfully portrayed himself as the "ant-politician" two years ago while running for re-election. As the NY Times told us: "In his speech, Mr. Bloomberg defined himself as a sort of antipolitician who, free from the messy impositions of "donors, special interests, patronage or partisanship," has focused solely on what is best for all New Yorkers. He said that mayors "solve problems not by taking both sides of big issues, but by deciding what's right and then going after it," and that "honest leadership that doesn't waver or blow with the wind."

What all of this rodomontade amounts to is a slick shining of a gullible public; and an incurious media that all too often has played the useful idiot when it comes to the mayor. The tide, though appears to be turning, and the Wizard won't look so awesome when you get to look behind the curtain. The fact remains that Mike Bloomberg continues to pursue one gigantic special interest-his own ambition.

Whether its congestion taxing and a new found interest in the environment, or an educational "reform" agenda that employs scores of public relations staffers to convince folks that the agenda is bearing remarkable fruit in the face of mounting contradictory evidence; it all comes down to advancing the Bloomberg brand.

There's one intriguing line in today's Times story: "He is also a philanthropist whose private giving often involves nonprofit agencies active in civic and neighborhood affairs." Rivera's next step should be to get behind this curtain. Who knows where all of the intersections lead? One thing's for certain: It ain't all about the pursuit of the public good.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Nick's Knock

In today's NY Post Nick Sprayregen lays down the eminent domain gauntlet to Columbia: "I remain steadfast that Columbia has met its match in me. I will not back down; I'll do everything I can to show the ESDC and the courts why eminent domain should not be used here. If need be, I will litigate this matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court."

At the same time, however, Nick recognizes that the re-zoning is a good thing since, "For too long, this area has been subject to an antiquated designation as a manufacturing zone. Thanks to this rezoning, much of West Harlem can now smartly be revitalized into a vibrant mixed-use community." The question still remains: Will the new plan be as good as it can be for the West Harlem community?

The answer to that lies to a great extent with Columbia and the area's elected officials. If a consensus can be reached over a swap of properties, all of the landowners can become part of the revitalization effort-and West Harlem can be at least partially incorporated into the university's expansion vision.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Columbia's Housing Benefits

According to today's Spectator, the amount of money that Columbia has pledged for affordable housing in the CBA doesn't appear to be much more than the original $24 million that it had agreed to invest when BP Stringer had signed on to the deal. That being said, the city has apparently ponied up a large amount to fill in the breach: "The memorandum includes the $24 million Columbia previously announced it would spend on affordable housing and an additional $20 million toward “inclined services” intended to meet other requirements for quality-of-life improvement, Russell said. The City has pledged an additional $150 million separate from the benefits memorandum toward affordable housing in the Community Board 9 area of West Harlem."

If so, then the university has struck a real good deal for itself, since the taxpayers are footing the bill for any new housing in and around the expansion area. We'd be willing to bet, however, that Columbia will be willing to invest even more if the right situation presents itself. Stay tuned on this.

And we're also certain that local elected officials will be in the front lines on the effort to encourage the university to avoid ED and partner in significant housing for the impacted West Harlem community. There's something in the swap deal for all the parties to this dispute.

Billions of Conflicts

As we have been saying all along, the successful portrayal by the Bloombergistas and their enablers that the mayor's wealth obviates any political conflicts of interest, simply doesn't stand up to even a mild scrutiny-something that's rarely been done, which is why Kirsten Danis' column in the NY Daily News yesterday was so refreshing.

Danis focused on the moonlighting that some Bloomberg staffers are doing over at his charitable foundation: "Mayor Bloomberg's closest aide, Deputy Mayor Patti Harris, has been working for his charitable foundation without first getting clearance from city ethics watchdogs. Harris, who earns $227,219 a year on the city payroll, took on an advisory role for the Bloomberg Family Foundation, which the mayor set up last year to give away his billions."

It's clear to us that the mayor's wealth, and his willingness to either give it away or withhold it, can play a significant role in the city's policy deliberations. We've speculated that some of the "good government" support for congestion pricing may have been influenced this way-certainly, as Errol Louis observed yesterday, there was an uncritical rush to support a poorly thought-out policy: "Everyone, especially the civic groups, should have slowed down the debate long enough to educate the public about the actual problem, its consequences and the best ways to deal with it."

What we need now is more of what Danis has offered: a well researched effort to look at the various intersections between Bloomberg the mayor, the mogul, and the philanthropist. The absence of the paper of record in all of this-with Charlie Bagli as a meritorious exception-underscores the power of the mayor at muting the recognition that his own self interest is not coterminous with that of the public's.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Sprayregen's No Custer

In this morning's NY Times, the paper focuses on the last remaining property owners who are holding out against the university's expansion. Nick Sprayregen, Anne Whitman and company are portrayed as the Last of the Mohicans, with a little bit of General Custer as well.

What the paper's missing, is that these holdouts pose a real threat, and if good faith bargaining isn't going to take place, Columbia's plans are gonna be put into a delaying pattern that will frustrate all of the folks who're looking to get to work on the expansion. As Whitman says; “No way Columbia is going to steal this property right out from underneath me,” Ms. Whitman said in August 2006. “Remember that man who stood in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square? That’s me.”

Sprayregen feels the same: "He has vowed that he will spend as much money as it takes to keep the university from getting his property via eminent domain. On one of his buildings hangs a giant banner, reading “Stop Eminent Domain Abuse!” that is visible to riders on the No. 1 subway line through Harlem. “This isn’t about money, I’m fighting them over principle — I strongly believe the use of eminent domain here is wrong,” said Mr. Sprayregen, who said he has finished 20 marathons but has stopped running in order to devote more time to battling the university. “I have the strong desire — and the financial ability — to take this all the way to the Supreme Court,” he said."

It really behooves everyone involved to get real negotiations going-and our conversations with all of the key local officials indicates that this will happen soon; with even ESDC apparently interested in avoiding a widely publicized and messy legal battle. As Sprayregen told the Times: "In recent weeks, Mr. Sprayregen said, he has talked with the university about trading his buildings inside the expansion zone for university property outside the zone. Columbia would not comment on Thursday about those discussions."

While it's unfortunate that property rights aren't of much concern to the City Council leadership, the impediment that these intrepid folks pose to the city's vision of progress is the incentive that will generate the kind of dialogue that can only lead to a win for all involved. In the end, we believe the city and Columbia will deal, and the folks of West Harlem just might get a measure of equity as a result.

That being said, the Columbia ED fight will be seen as a tempest in a tea pot when compared to the battle over Willets Point; where over 200 businesses and thousands of immigrant workers are at risk. As the NY Daily News points out this morning: "The battle over Columbia University's expansion plan has ended in the City Council. But the bigger war over eminent domain may be just getting started."

Which is going to put Christine Quinn directly in the spotlight, as she continues her metamorphosis from community activist to, well we're not really sure. As she told the News: "Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) offered that eminent domain "should be used carefully and cautiously, and it should only by used when there is an overriding greater good in the interest of the city." What we do know, is that there's a certain townhouse on 79th Street that will never face the ED bulldozer.

Handwriting on the Willets Point Wall

The just concluded Columbia land use application doesn't bode well for the hundreds of businesses and thousands of workers over at Willets Point. The mayor and council speaker have given the clearest indication possible that private property is no longer sacrosanct in this city-assuming that it ever was.

As today's NY Daily News points out, the city's redevelopment effort at the Point has been long on promises but short on legitimate proposals for those who work and own businesses at what is known as the Iron Triangle: "They promised to take care of everybody, that they would relocate everybody," said Gerald Antonacci, whose family has owned Crown Container, a waste transfer station, since 1976. "It's all smoke and mirrors," he said. "They're going through the motions."

So now, as were about to see the certification of a land use application to rezone the area, we can see that as far as the council leadership is concerned, the problems of the small businesses at the Point are of little or no concern, You see, if the council is willing to rezone the 50 acres without the benefit of a development plan or the existence of a designated developer, it will have effectively ceded its entire land use authority to the mayor's office. It might as well just put up a "Going Out of Business" sign.

We're pretty familiar with the entire scenario; it's a repeat of the debacle at the Bronx Terminal Market, where relocation promises turned out to be empty, and the small distributors were summarily dismissed with small severance checks. This time, however, the businesses in question own the property and can't be so easily thrust aside.

The people of the city need to wake up. The Speaker's statements on eminent domain are chilling and should be a clarion call to all property owners. First Columbia, now Willets Point. When and where will it stop?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Columbia Ex Post Facto

In today's NY Post the paper's story on the Columbia expansion vote brings out a number of interesting points. For the first time there is a direct dollar amount put on the affordable housing initiative: "Councilman Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan), who helped push through what would be one of the largest expansion projects in recent Manhattan history, put the total value of the benefits package at $150 million. He said most of the money would go toward affordable housing."

Well and good, and the inimitable Dave Seifman also points out that the vitriol in the debate addressed the issue of eminent domain, but goes on to say that the issue may become moot: "One official said that only three commercial property owners haven't settled yet with Columbia, and two were closing in on a deal."

Perhaps, he's right but we're a long way from a resolution to this issue; and as an editorial in the NY Sun points out, the abuse of ED is pronounced in NY State. Therefore, it will take a great deal of effort from many of the local elected officials to see the Sprayregen swap through to a successful conclusion. The greater this effort is, however, the more expeditious an equitable expansion will be able to go forward.

The Council's Domain

In the culmination of the Council's vote on behalf of the Columbia expansion, Speaker Quinn addressed the eminent domain issue. As she told the NY Sun: "Let me be clear — I think eminent domain should be used infrequently. It should be used carefully and cautiously and it should only be used when there is an overriding greater good in the interest of the city and I think certainly the possible creation of 6,000 jobs, economic development, job creation — those are relevant reasons and appropriate reasons to use eminent domain."

She is clear here to us. What her statement means is that there are virtually no circumstances involving any large economic development project where she wouldn't approve the use of eminent domain-all such projects involve job creation and economic development, Our issue, and it has been all along, is the need to incorporate a process that addresses property rights and recognizes that they are fundamental to liberty.

That does not mean that, at the end of the day, that ED isn't used; it just means that the potential use of ED is elevated into the center of the land use discussion-something that the Council chose not to do, even while they made very sure to include all of the community benefits as a critical feature of legislative approval. If the use of ED is not germane to ULURP, as we're told repeatedly, than neither is the amount of money that Columbia ponies up for affordable housing.

Which brings us to the community benefits. Does anyone know the process by which CU will be held accountable? Here's the money quote from Metro: "The CBA was still being finalized, and the terms were not disclosed to Council members before the vote. LDC president and C.B. 9 member Patricia Jones said a memorandum of understanding — “the precursor” to an agreement — has been signed in which Columbia would contribute $150 million for affordable housing, job creation, arts programming and historic preservation. The deal will also include a high school and K–8 school. City Councilman Robert Jackson said his community needed jobs, better schools, affordable housing and health care. “These needs will hopefully be met,” he said. “Can I guarantee that? Absolutely not, just like I can’t guarantee I’ll be alive tomorrow,” said Jackson, who had a rep on the LDC. “I believe this is the best plan we can do under the circumstances.”

Can you believe that, with weeks left on the ULURP clock, the Council leadership rushed this to a vote before anyone knows what the deal is, or how it will be enforced? As Council member Barron told the NY Times: “I don’t think we should rush to give Columbia University a Christmas present,” Councilman Charles Barron said before he voted against the plan. “We’re here to support the people’s right to participate in this process.”

Which means that city and state elected officials have a great deal of responsibility here-and as we've emphasized before, the area of affordable housing is the central conundrum because no one knows the size of Columbia's check or where any housing will be built to mitigate the potential displacement of 5,000 local residents.

All in all, however, this was not a good day for the council's vaunted reinvention as an accountable and transparent legislature. It remains for others to take the responsibility of balancing the equities here, and in insuring that the expansion moves forward both expeditiously and fairly.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Columbia Deal

We'll be posting on this more as the parameters of the deal that the City Council has struck become clearer. What has amused us, however, is the extent to which every council member that we spoke to this morning had simply no idea about what was in this deal. Not only that, given the unseemly haste with which the council moved this deal-the fastest we've ever seen a huge project like this go forward, it appears that the West Harlem LDC was left breathless.

As the Spectator reports this morning, "Although community advisory groups will form to direct the LDC as part of the agreement, local resident and LDC member Maritta Dunn said a more detailed agreement could have been reached were it not for the possibility of a Wednesday Council vote. “We’re not all pleased,” Dunn said. “We consider it a starting point to move forward. …We really feel that a lot more could have been done and handled differently.” Indeed, and the fate of the property owners could have been brought into the negotiations if council leadership had even a soupcon of concern for the rights of property ownership.

We're awaiting the details of the deal, and the amount of money that the university will be pledging for affordable housing. As the Observer has reported the LDC, " trying to finalize beforehand a set of pledges for the school to make on issues such as affordable housing, education and job training."

This is crucial because it will impact the negotiations between property owner Sprayregen our client in the battle, and the university. As we said at the hearing last week, it does no one any good if Columbia's housing pledge cannot be implemented because there's no identified space to build. We remind everyone that the EIS has stated that the expansion will put between 3,000 and 5,000 residents at risk of displacement. We're wondering how the city council deal will address this issue, or if it will even bother.


As Liz is reporting, City Hall has announced a deal on the Columbia expansion that is the epitome of vacuity. Reporters we have talked to are shaking their heads trying to figure out what has actually been negotiated-although Crain's is reporting that, "Despite community opposition, the university has completed the land-use approval process with most of its plan intact, making only a few concessions. If that's the case, and we're by no means certain that it is, than what to make of the Speaker's comments in the release?-"After working with Columbia University, Community Board 9, community advocates and local elected officials, we've come up with a plan that will both preserve and improve areas of West Harlem," said Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn."

What community activists is she referring to? The drug addicts who were bused in to the hearings because there was no real grass roots support for the plan? And what about the displacement issue? Nothing in the vacuous release gives us even a hint. But, as Crain's goes on to report, the political process now shifts to the state where the issue of eminent domain will come front and center: "Next, the university must submit a general project plan to the Empire State Development Corp., which has the final say over whether properties can be taken by eminent domain, against an owner's will. However, that may not be necessary. The three business owners who were refusing to sell to Columbia resumed talks with the university last Friday."

Perhaps their right; but the ED issue should have been front and center in the council's truncated negotiation, since property rights are as much a community benefit as anything else. It now appears as if no one's property is safe as long as the City Council is in session.

More A La Cart

The City Room posted a story on the carting legislation, and the myth making continues- "...and fresh food is less accessible in low-income neighborhoods." Jennifer Lee's story does, however bring out a very interesting point, one that policy makers need to heed: healthier food costs more, something that the NY Times reported on a few weeks ago.

The Times story told us: "Healthy eating really does cost more. That’s what University of Washington researchers found when they compared the prices of 370 foods sold at supermarkets in the Seattle area. Calorie for calorie, junk foods not only cost less than fruits and vegetables, but junk food prices also are less likely to rise as a result of inflation." So we're not only facing a demand problem, but an income one as well.

The folks in low income areas need to find ways to stretch their food dollars, and they can't do this in a healthy way: "The survey found that higher-calorie, energy-dense foods are the better bargain for cash-strapped shoppers. Energy-dense munchies cost on average $1.76 per 1,000 calories, compared with $18.16 per 1,000 calories for low-energy but nutritious foods." With no food subsidies here, how will the peddler proliferation have its intended healthy impact?

The professor who did the University of Washington deserves the last word, and it's really food for thought: "If you have $3 to feed yourself, your choices gravitate toward foods which give you the most calories per dollar,’’ said Dr. Drewnowski. “Not only are the empty calories cheaper, but the healthy foods are becoming more and more expensive. Vegetables and fruits are rapidly becoming luxury goods.”

The Supply Cart Before the Demand Horse

The Mayor and the Speaker announced yesterday the introduction of legislation that would license an additional 1500 fruit and vegetable vendors in so-called underserved areas. As the mayor's press release states: "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Speaker Christine C. Quinn today proposed legislation that would increase the number of food carts that sell fresh fruits and vegetables only. The carts will be located in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs where access to fresh fruit and vegetables is limited."

This is, as we said when interviewed today on Bloomberg radio, a bad idea built on a false premise. Despite what the mayor said today, "Access to healthy foods varies widely throughout New York City, and in many lower-income neighborhoods, supermarkets are few and far between. There is demand for fruits and vegetables in these neighborhoods, and this regulatory change will enable the market to meet that demand," said Mayor Bloomberg," all neighborhoods of the city do have supermarkets that sell these fresh food items.

The focus on the bodega, however, creates the false impression of a fresh food desert. Bodegas are convenience stores, and while they should be encouraged to sell more fruit and vegetables, this effort, which we have supported wholeheartedly, contributes to the false hypothesis-it's little more than a urban myth.

In addition, the proliferation of these vendors has the potential to not only compete on an unlevel playing field with tax paying stores, it also can become a health hazard in and of itself. As we have seen with vendor enforcement in Manhattan, the entire concept is an oxymoron. Who exactly is going to enforce the health and safety rules when the thermometer climbs in the summer and produce carts are sitting unairconditioned in the streets of the South Bronx and Harlem?

And who's going to examine the status and working conditions of those folks manning the carts? We have seen how many of these carts are being operated by employees, with few benefits if any, and abysmal working conditions. It all has the potential for chaos.

And for what? The other false premise here is that there's a pent-up demand for these healthier offerings, a demand that's being obstructed by stupid store owners, businesspeople who have no concern for the health of their customers. As the mayor told NY1: "The Green Cart legislation has the potential to deliver a product into the market that people want, while also improving the health of an estimated 100,000 New Yorkers,” said Bloomberg. “Over the long term this could save about a hundred lives a year.”

Really? Where's the evidence of this? In neighborhoods where the demographics are changing we can witness the gentrification of the bodegas, and the stocking of healthier products. Stores adapt to the new customer demand; and supply the new products that the newly arrived are clamoring for.

In the absence of the demand this is all a very intrusive experiment, one that will take away from the city's meritorious efforts to get bodegas to be "healthier." As we told the NY Sun: "A lobbyist for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, Richard Lipsky, a critic of the plan, said the proposal doesn't take into account a lack of demand for fresh produce in parts of the city. The produce carts would be in competition with stores he represents. "It's putting the supply cart before the demand horse," Mr. Lipsky said. "If you don't generate the demand, putting more sources of access out there will not address the problem."


The NY Daily News and the NY Post also covered the "green cart" legislation, with both papers citing our skeptical observations. Here's the News citation: "Efforts to get bodegas to carry low-fat milk have been successful, but the corner stores aren't as good at stocking fruits and vegetables, officials said. Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist who represents bodegas, said that's because customers aren't buying the heart-healthy food. "The real problem is the lack of demand," he said. "If the demand was high, the stores would be well-stocked."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bridges Don't Toll for the Times

In yesterday's NY Times, the paper editorialized against any tolling of the East River bridges as part of the mayor's congestion pricing plan. As the paper said, and as we've commented before, the idea could only further galvanize opponents: "For much of the last century, the idea of charging tolls on four bridges over the East River has been political hemlock."

The Times does admit that the plan has some merit, given the complexity of the mayor's taxing scheme, but it points out that Brooklyn and Queens commuters are only a small part of the problem: "A study from the Independent Budget Office last week showed that commuters who drive into Manhattan’s main business district come mainly from outside of the city. Fewer than 19 percent of drivers were from Queens, and only about 11 percent started their drives in Brooklyn. That means the vast majority who crowd the business district are not regular users of East River bridges."

It goes on to point out that the vast majority of those coming in to the city are not New Yorkers, and that New Jersey residents are effectively not charged, given the fact that their tolls off set the congestion tax. It also indicates that cabs are also an issue-as we have also pointed out in the past. The Times' solution? "Taxi drivers would be exempted, and so, in effect, would be drivers from New Jersey, who would be able to deduct the fee for crossing the Hudson River, which is being raised to $8. As it tweaks the mayor’s plan, the panel might reconsider these exceptions."

As usual, the Times leans in the direction of even greater tax levies on folks living and working in the city. It even goes on to adopt some of the opponents suggestions about government placards and on-street parking. Talk about piling on!

The reality here, as we've said, is that all of this tinkering is little more than the congestion tax's death rattle. or as the philosopher once said: "He seeks synthesis, yet all he achieves is composite error." Yet, in spite of this the NY Sun observes this morning, and we've not seen this anywhere else, that Shelly Silver has thrown the mayor a life raft of support on his congestion tax. The plot definitely thickens here.

Healthier Foods in the Neighborhood

In yesterday's NY Daily News, the paper's Albor Ruiz highlights today's HealthCorp press conference on the DOH's "Healthy Bodega" initiative. As he points out, "Small, friendly and convenient, bodegas are veritable community institutions. Yet when it comes to shopping for healthy food, your friendly neighborhood bodega is not the first place that comes to mind.
That could be about to change."

The change may be occurring because the obesity epidemic has become do severe in low income neighborhoods that something drastic needs to be done-and the HealthCorps, in conjunction with the Department of Health is intervening. HC's approach is to be the catalyst for community change, and that's why it is enlisting community groups from all over the city to make people more aware, and to make store owners more responsive to the need to change eating patterns now.

As Dr. Mehmet Oz, HealthCorps' founder told the News: "I am not that old - I just turned 46 - but when I was training as a surgeon, I don't remember anyone younger than 50 with these kind of problems," said Oz, a celebrity author frequently featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." "But in recent years I have seen more and more 25-year-olds with clogged arteries. And I began to think how I can make a difference." His answer was HealthCorps, an innovative program designed to educate children about healthy living. Funded in part through a grant from the City Council, HealthCorps has coordinators in 28 high schools across every borough."

City Council chair Joel Rivera captures the essence of the bodega campaign: "One of the best defenses against obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease is to snack on fresh fruits and vegetables," Rivera said. "Yet many New Yorkers still do not have many healthy food choices readily available in their community." So the word needs to go out, and communities like Make the Road by Walking need to involve their communities so that change can occur.

Ruiz has it right, and the DOH finally has understood that it's the hearts and minds that need to be changed: "With obesity, hypertension and diabetes growing at alarming rates in the city, it is more important than ever for every community to have access to the healthy food choices Rivera talks about." Change can happen, even if it's one bodega at a time.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Traffic Tax LOBOtomy

In this morning's NY Sun, the perspicacious Andrew Wolf deconstructs the congestion plan and finds, what else, a scheme to tax New Yorkers. But, as he points out, the plan manages at the same time to do its taxing of the locals while sparing the out-of-towners: "The plan, as currently conceived, will deduct the cost of tolls from the congestion levy. This is called "The-New-York-Politicians-Reward-New-Jersey-and-Punish-New-Yorkers" plan. Eventually a savvy driver from upper Manhattan or points further north will cross the George Washington Bridge into Fort Lee, fill his gas tank with lower-taxed, bargain-priced Jersey gasoline, and return to New York having saved $10 or so."

To make a bad situation worse, something that is real easy when the Billionaire's club gets together, the tax hits the city middle income drivers hardest: "If Jersey drivers are winners, who are the losers? According to the city's Independent Budget Office, it will be middle class residents of the city's outer boroughs, those earning in the neighborhood of $40,000 a year. I submit that they are as entitled to shop in Manhattan as much as the smirking New Jerseyan."

Which is why all of the tweaking in the world will amount to little more than, in Richard Brodsky's words, "putting lipstick on a pig." Or, to mix the metaphor: "if it walks like a tax, and talks like a tax..." Well, you get the picture here. Fee fie fo fum, this is a tax that's headed to the dustbin of history.

Swap Stories

In the first meeting with Columbia, West Harlem property owner (and our client) Nick Sprayregen outlined the proposed swap he's been working on that would allow him to retain ownership of his properties in exchange for a move into space owned by the university across Broadway. Without revealing any details, the initial encounter was "productive," and in all likelihood further discussions will be held next week.

Clearly, the swap plan has gotten every one's attention. As the Spectator reports: "Sprayregen has yet to negotiate with Columbia directly, but has come up with a land swap plan that he raised during the hearing. The swap would offer desired buildings to Columbia so the University would not have to use eminent domain to acquire them. Jackson offered his assistance to Sprayregen and Siegel to promote the idea of a property swap, but criticized them for not bringing the plan to him directly."

The main point here is that Jackson, someone who has until this point indicated no real public sympathy for Sprayregen or grass roots community concerns, clearly understands the way in which the swap idea has any number of community benefits-while at the same time giving the university and the council legitimate public interest cover.

In his statements at the hearing Jackson, as well as Council member Dickens, made it clear that Columbia needed to do more-particularly in the crucial area of affordable housing: "City Councilman Robert Jackson, D-Washington Heights, and City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, D-Harlem, raised questions about what Columbia has done to meet the needs of the community, particularly regarding affordable housing. Kasdin explained that the University is committed to providing housing for residents in Manhattanville, especially for those in the CB9 district."

Enter Sprayregen and labor with a plan that addresses the housing issue, but in addition, removes potential legal roadblocks to a full speed ahead for the university and all of its construction jobs. The timing is indeed right.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

For Whom the Bridge Tolls

As we expected, the congestnoscenti, seeing all else falling apart, are looking to toll the bridges. As the NY Times reports this morning: "The chairman of the state commission studying ways to reduce traffic in Manhattan is increasingly pushing a measure certain to prompt opposition in the rest of the city: charging tolls on the four East River Bridges..."I’ve made it pretty clear that I think the bridge tolls proposals might be part of a solution that this commission’s going to look at before it’s over,” said Marc V. Shaw, the commission chairman, after a meeting of the panel on Monday."

Shaw, a long time advocate of bridge tolls and a revenue enhancer from way back, is apparently looking to throw a hail mary here and see if he can get his pet idea into the mix. Of course, this is exactly the proposal that Konheim and Ketcham have been promoting as a much less unwieldy and more cost-effective alternative to the mayor's plan.

But, as we have said before, the call for tolls is the last gasp of an expiring policy proposal. As the Times tells us: "A public official who helped develop the mayor’s congestion plan questioned the wisdom of trading it for something equally controversial. “I feel like its Groundhog Day,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak for the administration and asked not to be named. “We’re back to where we were during the Koch years. Is that sort of the death knell for congestion pricing?”

So, as entropy is about to envelop the entire congestion tax scheme, we are back to the "good old days" of Koch and Dinkins, with bureaucrats promoting tax raising schemes to mitigate financial chaos. This is one back to the future scenario we can live without. But we'll leave you with a quote from Shaw that underscores the mentality behind the permanent government scheming that is the foundation for the congestion tax concept: “Last time I checked, nobody likes to have revenues raised,” he said. “People like to have spending done, and that’s the tension of government.” Time to release the tension.

Swap Meet

Yesterday's Columbia hearing down at the City Council didn't reveal much that was new, but a couple of things did stand out. As the NY Post reports this morning, the university blinked when it comes to going after the historic Cotton Club; after implying that it would look to take the club out as part of its expansion. As the paper says, "Swing can always be the thing at Harlem's famed Cotton Club - Columbia University said yesterday it won't seek to raze the club as part of its northward expansion."

What this means to us is that Columbia probably has more ability to be flexible if the exigent circumstances are present. Clearly, it appears that Columbia wasn't willing to get into a spitting contest with an African-American institution. So, if pressed, accommodations can be reached with the all-or-nothing mentalities on the Heights.

Which brings us to the discussion at the hearing over the proposed Sprayregen swap. As the Observer wrote last night: "Nick Sprayregen and Columbia University, who have been staring each other down over the ownership of four properties in West Harlem, are going to talk again tomorrow, Mr. Sprayregen said...“I want to keep my properties where they are,” Mr. Sprayregen told The Observer today outside of a City Council public hearing on the expansion. “Failing that, I would entertain a swap of a few properties across the street so that I can remain in the community. But besides that, unless they want to first take eminent domain off the table or are forced to, I do not want to negotiate my removal.”

All of which did generate an interesting interjection by Council member Jackson at the hearing after we had outlined the swap concept. Jackson stated that he would look forward to using his good offices to in effect act as an honest broker between Sprayregen and Columbia-which suggests to us that the idea has a lot of political resonance, since Jackson has been an apparent supporter of the university, and his staff has not been overly friendly to Nick.

As the Insider reports this morning there are talks scheduled today between Sprayregen and Columbia, and labor's eager to see a deal between the parties: "Nick Sprayregen, the largest property owner in the way of Columbia University’s 17-acre expansion, is again talking with
the school about a trade. He proposes swapping three buildings, including the current home of his Tuck-It-Away Storage, for two parcels of land that the school owns just outside the eastern edge of the site. The Central Labor Council, eager for more construction jobs, is trying to bring
the parties together."

The idea makes a great deal of sense since it would alleviate the potential lengthy eminent domain battle, one that the elected officials would like to avoid, a fight that would slow up the construction job generation that labor's interested in. And it would remove a costly delay that the university can't relish. Of course, at the same time, it would provide the housing that everyone seems to want, even while actual sites to build have yet to be identified by the housing cheer leaders.

And we do believe that if the idea gets political traction, as well as university support, all of the remaining property owners will come on board the swap train. As we told the Insider: "Speaking on behalf of Sprayregen, lobbyist Richard Lipsky says any deal could include the other two holdouts: Anne Whitman, owner of moving company Hudson North American; and the Singh family, who own a gas station on West 129th Street."

The full details of the plan are still being tweaked,as we told Council member Dickens when she queried us at the hearing. Dickens was concerned with the affordability equation, and we told her that the degree of affordability in the potentially 1,000 units, depended on the degree of public sector support as well as the level of cooperation from a university that has already pledged tens of millions for housing-something that Congressman Rangel called appropriately, "a good start." Clearly, however, the endgame has started.

"Figures Don't Lie,but..."

As Liz reported yesterday, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, in a letter to Congestion Commission Chair Marc Shaw, blasted the hot-wiring of data collection for the determination of the best methods to reduce congestion in the city. As Brodsky wrote: "I simply don’t understand how we can function as a Commission when the basic descriptive, position-neutral data is being manipulated and distorted by the City. I came to the Commission with a position opposing congestion pricing that goes back over a decade. But I said then, and I say now, that we need the Commission to be fair and credible, and we need to deal with both congestion and mass transit funding. I don’t mind losing an argument. I do mind a process that makes a fair debate impossible."

This concern of Brodsky's goes back to the basic issue that we have raised from the very beginning: all of the assumptions that have gone into the mayor's 6% solution are based on calculations that have not been independently vetted. The opacity and disingenuousness of this entire process hasn't changed-it's only gotten worse as support for the tax erodes.

It now turns out that the "Independent" Budget Office is acting more like a cat's paw for the city-and the need for a forensic accounting team has become more acute. All the while, however, the public is passing judgement, and more and more it is knowingly smelling a rat.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Traffic Class

The just released IBO report on the congestion tax plan has caused considerable discussion-particularly on the issue of the class impact of the tax. As the NY Daily News reports this morning, in a headline that captures the essence of all this: Congestion plan would hit middle-class commuters hardest, report says-"Middle-class motorists who don't live in Manhattan will get hit the hardest by Mayor Bloomberg's congestion-pricing plan, a report out Tuesday revealed."

As the NY Post says this morning, however,: "The IBO also reported that the median salary of city residents who drive into the proposed congestion zone is $41,209, compared with $32,379 for the city's mass-transit commuters. "These findings largely counter concerns that congestion pricing would disproportionately affect workers less able to afford additional commuting costs," the report said." They do?

Sounds like a straw man to us. No one has said that the commuters who would be impacted by the tax are less affluent than the mass transit riders-only that they were middle calls folks, which the IBO report clearly indicates that they are. Yet the truth gets stood on its head when the NYC Bicycle Club gets into the act: "That's precisely what Transportation Alternatives, the advocacy group eagerly pushing congestion pricing, was waiting to hear from a nonpartisan authority. "It really turns the argument we've been hearing again and again [about hurting the middle class] on its head," declared the group's spokesman, Wiley Norvell."

Say what? Someone making forty thousand a year isn't middle class in this city? Well, we've seen young Mr. Norvell and we can surmise why he might feel this way, but it contradicts what we all know about what it costs to live here. As our Walter McCaffrey told the Post: "It [the study] doesn't necessarily come to the conclusion they'll be able to pay another $5,000 a year tax," McCaffrey said of the better-off drivers." Indeed!

As Assemblyman Brodsky tells the News: "This report is further proof that the mayor has come up with a regressive bad idea that will keep the Chevolets out of Manhattan but not the BMWs," said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester), an outspoken critic of congestion pricing." And Assemblyman Lancman tells Newsday: "The IBO's new report illustrates the unfairness in Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing proposal, where drivers from New Jersey, who represent a quarter of all current commuters, will not pay any additional fee at all, but New York City's already underpaid teachers, firefighters and cops will pay a disproportionately high share of the new fees," said Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Queens)."

From our vantage point, the data generated by the IBO report loudly contradicts some of its apparently ideologically-driven conclusions. A tax is a last resort in an already over-taxed city; and those who propose these taxes so cavalierly are either flying way below-like our buddy Norvell-or way above-like the NYC Partnership-the tax burden radar.

ED Seeks Council Viagra

In today's NY Sun, the paper reports on the first City Council hearing on the Columbia University expansion plan. In the Sun's take the issue of eminent domain may roil the entire expansion plan: "A fight over the use of eminent domain is shaping up at City Hall, as the City Council approaches a vote on Columbia University's plan to expand its campus by 17 acres in Harlem."

Perhaps, but unfortunately our take is that the taking of people's property will not be the salient issue at play-except for a handful of council members-as the expansion plan gets evaluated during the city council review process. Tony Avella, among all 51 members of the body, is the only council member who is certain to oppose the project on the eminent domain grounds.

The area's local representative, Council member Jackson had this to say to the Sun: "Columbia has said they are willing to negotiate with the remaining land owners," Mr. Jackson said, suggesting that the issue may be resolved without legal action. "I'm hoping that a consensus can be reached." The key here will be the extent to which the university exhibits good faith.

As we stand at this hour there are some discussions going on behind the scenes on a number of key fronts-and they all involve the proposed swap of properties that has been advanced by our client Nick Sprayregen. The swap proposal is important because it addresses some of the key deficiencies of the expansion plan.

With all due respects to the salience of the ED issue, the expansion proposal's most prominent failure lies with its inability to confront-and to mitigate-the issue of direct and indirect displacement; an issue that lies at the heart of the EIS, and is therefore directly correlated to the land use process. What is Columbia doing about the potential displacement of 5,000 local residents?

This is the issue that should concern Messrs Jackson and Dickens, the lawmakers whose constituents will be the ones in the path of the CU bulldozer. And it is precisely, the swap plan that addresses this in at least a partially effective manner. If through the swap, we can build almost 1,000 units of affordable and workforce housing than there will be at least partial mitigation of the gentrifying tsunami that's known as Columbia expansion.

In the next few days, the shape of the negotiations will become clearer, and we will see if the elected officials and the university are able to advance this concept for the good of all of the stakeholders. We're cautiously optimistic.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Angotti on Doctoroff

Tom Angotti has done a superb analysis of the Doctoroff legacy for the Gotham Gazette. It should be read alongside our post about the departure of Deputy Dan. Angotti's money quote addresses the blurring of the line between public and private when the public sector becomes part of the billionaire's club: "The more serious question for city policy – and this is clearly a legacy question – is whether Doctoroff has successfully blurred the lines between public and private sector to the point that public officials at the highest levels no longer have to be held responsible for representing anything that might be vaguely denoted as the “public interest.” Doctoroff’s close personal ties to the CEOs of the city’s largest developers, who have benefited from rezonings, tax relief and subsidies from the city, may not strictly violate any laws, but when the discussions that matter and lead to policy decisions are made in the board rooms and not the community boards, the temptation to act in the interest of private developers is great."

Fare Congestion Confluence

The MTA and its political overseers are the gift that you keep on returning (or giving, if you're looking at this from the opposing position on congestion). With the congestion tax making death rattle noises, it appears that the mayor and governor really want to just put it out of its misery-since both of these scions have just signed off on a fare increase. As the NY Daily News reports: "Mayor Bloomberg backed MTA fare and toll hikes Monday from the other side of the planet - disappointing those at home who hoped he'd save the fare."

And the fare increase appears to be eroding the little legislative support that the congestion tax had, with Straphangers Russianoff and State Senators Sabini and Skelos railing against the increase, and underscoring how it makes it extremely unlikely that the legislature will support any congestion tax. As Sabini tells the News: "I certainly think there is a limit to what we can ask of New Yorkers in order to get to work," said state Sen. John Sabini, ranking Democrat on the Senate Transportation Committee. "I don't think it helps, let me put it that way," the Queens pol said."

The MTA's reputation is in tatters, making the chances of handing the agency a blank congestion tax check extremely dubious.

A Plethora of Ideas

The NY Times is also weighing in on all of the congestion alternatives: "You wouldn’t be able to hail a cab in Manhattan below 86th Street, where cabs would be allowed to pick up passengers only at taxi stands scattered throughout the area. You wouldn’t be able to drive in Manhattan on the 5th, the 15th or the 25th of every month if your license plate ends in a 5. And parking on the street would cost you as much as parking in a garage. These are some of the proposals under consideration by the state commission evaluating how best to combat traffic in Manhattan. The ideas may seem fanciful, futuristic or simply far-fetched."

All of which underscores what we have been saying ad nauseum: try any number of creative things before you tax the public more. And with all of the vitriol being leveled at the MTA isn't it ridiculous to give the agency another revenue stream? We're back to Melinda Katz's call for a more global approach to the problem.

More and more it looks as if the whole tax idea is about to die the death of a thousand cuts. Which means to us that it's time for a transportation alternative.

Congestion Tax Reduction

As we have been saying, but perhaps our prescience has been drowned out by the din being made by the gotcha ad hominen chorus, the scheme to tax motorists is trending toward obsolescence. As the NY Sun reports this morning, the congestion commission is seriously considering alternatives to the original plan to tax motorists entering the CBD.

And wouldn't ya know it, the floated alternatives sound an awful lot like those that the anti-tax folks we represent have put forward: "With a showdown over Mayor Bloomberg's traffic tax looming, a commission studying his congestion-pricing plan yesterday considered alternatives that could reduce traffic jams on Manhattan's busiest streets without charging motorists."

Just as we've pointed out, the tax may not only be an anathema to the outer borough middle class, it may also be unnecessary to achieve the mayor's 6% congestion solution. What's being suggested? "Increasing the cost of on-street metered parking to $4 an hour from $1, raising taxes on garage parking, setting up taxi stands, and reducing the number of government-issued placards were some options laid on the table yesterday."

Yikes, what about the charge of hypocrisy that's been leveled against us? It seems that we have been arguing against interest if press reports are any indication. What this means is that there are times when we all have to make sacrifices in the public interest, and we're ready to join Straphangers at Russianoff's next press conference to save the fare (a change of perspective, no?).

All kidding aside, what this all may very well mean is that congestion taxing is about to be added to the pantheon of majestic Doctoroff failures, at least if the sour grapes remarks of Kathy Wylde to the Sun are any indication: "The proposal drew some criticism from supporters of Mr. Bloomberg's congestion-pricing proposal, which would charge drivers $8 to enter and drive in most of Manhattan during peak hours. "My assumption would be that if you raise the price of taxis, you'd get a lot more people getting in cars," the president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, Kathryn Wylde, said."

All of which seems to indicate that our bicycle riding friends are set to return to their usual Tour de Farce of advocating the return of the horse-drawn buggies of a by-gone age. Their days of useful idiocy are about to be over, and once they are, their current putative allies will shake them off like a second snake's skin.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Conflicts for a New Political Reality

Over the weekend there was a fascinating story in the NY Times about the blurring of lines between Mike Bloomberg the mayor, and Bloomberg the billionaire. The piece touches on some of the things that we've been saying about the alleged way in which Bloomberg-and many in the media-sees himself as above politics.

The belief does have some validity if we examine this issue from a traditional perspective, one that looks at political conflicts in the manner of the tawdry wheeling and dealing of Tammany Hall. Mayor Mike doesn't operate on the down low like some low rent George Washington Plunkitt. The Times story, however, reveals how the mayor's business interests-this time with Verizon-could have influenced the city's negotiation with the telecom giant:

The conflict's potential emerged when Deputy Mayor Dan Docotoroff left his post to take over at Bloomberg LLP. As Councilman Avella told the Times: “He’s got all this confidential information in his head from the Verizon negotiations that he is taking over to Bloomberg L.P., a company that is part of the greater telecommunications field,” said City Councilman Tony Avella, who has been pushing for more openness on the Verizon negotiations."

The story was particularly prescient about the useless role of the city's Conflicts of Interest Board. According to the paper the movement of Deputy Dan off to Bloomberg LLP, and all of the mayor's dealings with his company, was vetted by the COIB: "Mr. Bloomberg’s aides say that since taking office in 2002, the mayor has fully complied with an advisory opinion issued by the board that aimed to keep the mayor’s role as majority owner of his company from conflicting with his public role as mayor."

Of course, the COIB has no ability to accurately evaluate anything that Bloomberg wants to do since the board, as the Times points out, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the mayor who appoints all of its members: "And the board has limited power to police the agreement anyway. It does not provide continuing oversight of its agreements or conduct regular audits. It can begin investigations, but does so only when, based on a tip or other information, it believes that an agreement has been violated."

All of this is reminiscent of the COIB's "action" around the alleged conflict between Deputy Dan and Related's Steve Ross. The capsule here? The board made a fairy tail ruling that the two friends didn't have any conflict since their dealings preceded Dan's entry into government. This in spite of the fact that Ross headed NYC 2012, the Bloomberg administration's-and Doctoroff's-first major policy initiative. Doctoroff then went on to hand Related numerous key development plums, including the absolute giveaway at the Bronx Terminal Market.

The reality is that the Bloomberg reach is so extensive, and opaque to the normal ken of the average reporter, that it's almost impossible to uncover the extent to which his wealth, political power, and personal self-interest intersect-to the detriment of what others might deem to be the public good. This can be seen to some extent, as we have commented before, in the areas of education and congestion pricing.

The educational mythos, propagated by an enlarged PR staff down at DOE, is aided and abetted by the mayor's philanthropic muscle and the system's outsourcing carrots. Groups and individuals are reluctant to speak out. and when they do-as in the case of Diane Ravitch-the mayor unleashes the hounds.

In this morning's NY Sun we catch a glimpse of this with a story on the apparent demise of the educational watch dog group known as the Educational Priorities Panel. Here's the money quote: "Because the city is contracting out a historic number of services to community groups, many groups are either loath to criticize city policy or incapable of raising any funds with which they might criticize, they said. Observers said difficulties faced by the Educational Priorities Panel, a 30-year-old coalition of advocates for the city schools whose dissolution goes into effect this month, reflect both trends."

It's impossible to really know the extent to which Bloomberg's private giving influences all of this; just as it is difficult to determine whether the mayor's charitable giving is funneling money into the advocates of congestion taxing. Even where a charity is not getting money directly from Bloomberg there's always the expectation that it might, a presentiment that may very well guide the pattern of dispensing largess.

So the mayor, about to launch a possible presidential bid, may very well be using all of his wealth and influence to control the flow of information and the formulation of certain policies that will put this potential run in the best light. It is certainly hard to divine where the public interest may lie, but we're fairly certain that it is not always coterminous with Mike Bloomberg's self-aggrandizement.