Friday, March 30, 2007

Bottles Returned

At the eleventh hour the "Bigger, Better, Bottle Bill" fizzled, and was removed from the executive budget in negotiations between the governor and the legislature. Which is, according to our friends over at Urban Elephants, good news indeed. As Scott Sala points out, " would have amounted to a tax on consumers..."

And we concur in this analysis. The executive budget is no place for this kind of legislative initiative and the inherent problems in expansion should be thrashed out in legislative debate in both houses.The focus on unclaimed deposits was a particularly transparent effort to simply tax beverage consumers and transfer the tax money to pet environmental projects at the DEC.

Now we have been involved in this issue for the better part of twenty five years (having served as the chairman of the industry/labor coalition that fought the original bottle law). The issue of the unredeemed is not insignificant. By allowing franchise wholesalers and bottlers to initiate the deposit the state created a powerful disincentive to redeem.

This disincentive allowed these deposit initiators to abuse the system and exploit the retail redemption points. Willingness to redeem became a weapon that was used to coerce independent distributors to purchase exclusively from the wholesalers. Retailers who became container sheds and over redeemed were given a hard time and were never adequately reimbursed for their costs in the over-redemption of containers.

So the nickels are the linchpin in the faulty redemption structure. Escheating them, however, only exacerbates the problems in a system that is badly in need of an overhaul. The redemption process must be separated from the sale process, and the money that is left from non-redemption should be channeled back into making redemption more efficient. Finally, handling fees should be raised and an infrastructure of redemption centers set up so that the deposit system, the most capable recycling method available, can be expanded without crippling spaced-out retailers.

And the Survey Says...

The NY Sun and the NY Times are both reporting today that the DOH has started to do a survey of what people are eating at randomly selected fast food outlets in the city. In order to obtain this information the department is giving free Metro Cards in exchange for customer receipts.

So I guess the sleuths over at the Health Department basically haven't a clue whether or not their regulation on calorie posting will lead to diners making healthier eating choices. As its spokeswoman told the Sun, "Because we are breaking new ground with this initiative, it is crucial that we evaluate our efforts so we can assess their impact."

I'm sure that they hope to find a correlation, but to force local businesses to make millions of dollars of changes (one estimate puts the aggregate number at $46,000,000) to their menu boards and menus without any real solid research evidence to suggest the efficacy of the rule change, is simply irresponsible. It amounts to a $46 million, self-evaluated, social experiment

It's not anything that the FDA would do before approving something as drastic as calorie posting. The federal agency would do exhaustive fact-finding, conduct independent, peer-reviewed research, and would initiate an extensive comment period to get feedback from all of the affected parties.

The NYC DOH didn't do any of this, a waste of time no doubt when you are imbued with the righteousness of the cause of health. The agency undoubtedly believes, just like their brothers and sisters in solidarity over at CSPI, the all of this due diligence is a waste of time, and gives The Industry too much time to use their resources to influence the process.

Indeed, an open review period is not anything that the Stalanistas would ever willingly allow for. The serious question we do have, however, is why the council would simply go along with this. So far we haven't seen any willingness on the part of leadership to subject the DOH rule to the sunlight disinfectant that it surely could use.

Which brings us to this so-called study of the department. The Times reports that, "A department spokeswoman said that the survey was scientifically, but industry representatives yesterday questioned its legitimacy." As Tom Foulkes of NRA told the paper; "'s certainly not going to accurately depict if the program is working."

You know it's been quite some time since we took a doctoral research methods course, but one thing we know for certain. Surveying only those customers willing to participate, for what amounts to basically a bribe, will never pass any scientific smell test. To conduct this kind of test in-house without any attempt to give the research over to independent analysts, is beyond self-serving. It approaches the bad faith dishonesty that we saw when tobacco companies were purchasing scientists in an attempt to downplay the harmful effects of smoking.

It is time for the council to step up and do the kind of oversight that needs to be done here if a system of checks and balances is to have any real meaning. DOH needs to be called in and the entire survey instrument needs to be laid bare for independent evaluation. Once this is done, the entire effort needs to be turned over to folks who have no vested interest in the results.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Recycling Failure

Once again, the city is gearing up to promote recycling, and once again, they simply won't take no for an answer. As the NY Times reports this morning, in a lead that has become boringly boilerplate, "Looking to boost sagging recycling rates..." With the city's municipal recycling program it appears that nothing succeeds like failure.

We've been through the same litany time and time again and it certainly feels stale; "Part of the anemic participation, critics say, stems from the city's ambivalent approach to recycling over the years." Maybe the real ambivalence lies with the citizens of the city who feel none of the burning commitment to the effort that the recycling acolytes demonstrate. As one resident told the paper, "It doesn't make a big difference to me if I recycle or not."

Our respondent may be forced to re-evaluate his nonchalance, however, if the city's determined recycling bureaucrats are given their way. If they are, we can imagine that they will begin to emulate the DOH approach-force people to be healthier! Certainly the Bloombergian Nanny mindset is to fine until they whine.

The Times points to another problem with the program, the existence of hundreds of high rise apartment buildings that are difficult to organize for meaningful recycling compliance. As a Ms. Palermo told the Times, it is difficult to recycle at home because her building doesn't supply bins. But even if it did, would that insure compliance?

One wonders when, if ever, the city will try another approach to waste reduction. When do we simply throw in the towel and say that this entire system is just not cost-effective? If our dedicated environmental saviors have any say the answer is-never. There will always be a reason that lies outside of the assumptions of the program itself that will be blamed for the failure of the rates to rise to a level that Eric Goldstein could be proud of.

Hello, I Must Be Going

Some more commentary has followed the statements by Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott that he's had it with New York City. Errol Louis, writing in this morning's NY Daily News underscores the Walmonster's anti-union policies as a major cause of the company's difficulties in finding a home for its stores in the city: "The opposition to Wal-Mart by organized labor has been understandable, even commendable. The company is notorious for using union-busting tactics..."

Louis, however, goes on yo say that the politicians and labor opponents of Wal-Mart have a "moral obligation" to help low-income New Yorkers to obtain cheaper goods and, especially, fresh fruit and vegetables in neighborhoods that lack good access to them. This is definitely an area where we can all find strong agreement.

We have been arguing all along that the city needs to have a strategy to promote the development of supermarkets in poor neighborhoods. It needs to work with, and this should be a priority of new food czar Ben Thomases, the food industry-business and labor alike-to device a development strategy. As we have pointed out before, Pennsylvania and the Food Trust of Philadelphia is pioneering precisely this kind of innovative development effort. NYC needs to emulate this model.

As Speaker Quinn told the NY Sun this morning, "I think we do want New Yorkers to be able to buy quality goods at low prices." But, as she pointed out, this shouldn't be at the expense of workers who are being exploited. There are many large supermarket chains, and a number of really good independent operators, who are ready to work with the city in the supermarket development effort. Now we need to simply bring all of the interested parties together.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Columbia's Evictions

At last night's West Harlem LDC meeting the community confronted the negotiating designee about its purported failure to draw the line on the use of eminent domain. As the NY Sun reports, numerous speakers told the LDC that it should stand up for the area's local businesses.

Not everyone agreed, however. As the paper says Susan Russell, chief of staff to Councilman Robert Jackson, wondered "Where would it leave the community if we didn't negotiate?" This is, as we would say, a false dichotomy since it isn't necessarily an either or situation. But we could also point out that the position of Ms. Russell presupposes that her boss doesn't have the power to take a principled stand against aspects of the Columbia plan that he and the community might find objectionable.

We would disagree. If Bob Jackson draws a line in the sand on, let's say, affordable housing, we believe that he should be able to create a formidable coalition of his colleagues in opposition to Columbia, indicating to the university that it would need to change course. Russell's position, however, seems to cede all of the power to Columbia, indicating that if the LDC doesn't negotiate (beg nicely?) it will get nothing. You simply can't negotiate from a position of weakness, which is precisely what Russell (and the LDC?) seems to be doing.

Monsey Wal-Mart Too?

With Lee Scott exhibiting frustration over his company's efforts to build stores in NYC, how do things look to the north in Monsey, New York? As we have been reporting, there is a growing Orthodox opposition to the proposed super center on Route 59.

This opposition is lent credibility by the just completed traffic study done by Brian Ketcham, the Alliance's consultant. As Ketcham points out, "Monsey is not a great site for a Wal-Mart Supercenter...Route 59 cannot accommodate Wal-Mart's huge traffic impacts without extensive expansion at huge costs to taxpayers."

The Monsey community agrees. As is reported in the current issue of the Rockland Bulletin, the members of the Yeshiva Association of Rockland County have organized to defeat the proposed store. Rabbi Schneibalg told the paper that it was important to be "united in trying to convince local elected officials and representatives of the Town of Ramapo that a Super Wal-Mart would be a danger to our community."

The rabbi went on to say that, "Our legal representative {I guess they mean me} stated that a Super Wal-Mart on Route 59 could bring an additional six million vehicles a year into an area that already suffers from traffic congestion." The rabbi also stressed the negative impact that the Walmonster would have on the "heimishe businesses" that are so important to the community. We can't believe that Ramapo hasn't started to get this message loud and clear.

Wal-Mart's "No Mas" Moment

It is really quite remarkable, isn't it? The largest retailer in the world, the great behemoth itself, apparently throwing in the towel in New York City, and telling the NY Times this morning, in the words of its CEO Lee Scott; "I don't think it's worth the effort." As Scott told the paper "I don't care if we are ever here."

Finally, something that the megastore and its opponents can agree on-New York City and Wal-Mart aren't perfect together. This despite having hired expensive lobbyists and PR people, and having spent millions more in self promotion. So the company that has achieved what could be called a leveraged buyout of the entire country of China, a communist country at that, can't manage to build a single NYC outlet. Who would have thunk it!

And who does Scott blame? Well, sniff sniff, the "snobbish elites" in New York are the culprits; "You have people who are just better than us and don't want a Wal-Mart in their community." This is laugh out loud funny, because the guy I keep seeing in all of this is Pat Purcell of Local 1500 of the UFCW, as indefatigable a worker against the Walmonster as anyone in this city or even the entire country. The notion of Pat as a snobbish elite is simply too precious to contemplate.

Than there are all of the snobs of Tottenville on Staten Island who came out by the hundreds in November of 2005, in the worst rainstorm of the year, to demonstrate their opposition to a Wal-Mart in their neighborhood. Scott needs to really get a grip, because his skewed evaluation of the company's failures here are certainly not doing any service to his shareholders.

All of which shouldn't lead Wal-Mart's opponents to get overly jubilant. Scott's remarks are by no means contractually binding and they may be designed as an elaborate feint, meant to generate a fatal complacency among the store's opponents. Already, as Crain's NY Business is reporting, the company is backtracking on its boss' remarks. Now they only were referring to Manhattan, and not the outer boroughs where there interest is still high.

Clearly old Lee Scott has issues in his own shop. What is true, however, is that vigilance needs to be maintained and the grass roots efforts must be continued. We believe that Wal-Mart will continue to exhibit a Freddy Krueger-like quality and reports of its demise in this town must be treated with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Premium Services

In an insightful analysis, the City Journal's Steve Malanga reviews the IBO report on how New York is "The Priciest City" in the country. What Malanga points out, and what most commentators missed, is the extent to which the city's tax burden has grown under Mike, "it's a minor economic issue," Bloomberg.

What's drop dead funny is the fact that the mayor feels that the increased tax burden is necessary in order to provide the "premium" services that New Yorkers clamor for. Now if Mike wasn't so damn rich this kind of statement would likely elicit harsh commentary from a wide range of political leaders. It seems, however, that the Bloomberg net worth is somehow insulating him, and may actually be creating a latent sympathy, because of the fact that a billionaire is defending giving more to the less fortunate.

What is indisputable is that Mayor Mike has done absolutely nothing to make the city more affordable for the middle class homeowner and neighborhood store owner. Nor has he even thought it prudent to look for ways to reinvent government and, in the process, do more with less.

As we have said countless times before, Bloomberg sees the city's citizens as his customers. Providing "premium" services is just another way of keeping the customers happy. The day of reckoning is coming. In all likelihood, however, it will be his successor who will pay the price for his mayoral myopia.

Columbia Held Accountable: Is the LDC Doing its Job?

Tonight, at the Pentecostal Church at 541 West 125th Street, the Coalition to Preserve Community (CPC), will confront the West Harlem Local Development Corporation at a public meeting hosted by the LDC to take input from the community on the Columbia expansion plan. The LDC was set up to negotiate some of the key issues of concern that have been voiced by active members of the neighborhood.

CPC represents an umbrella group made up of many of the most vocal community members who are concerned with tenant and business displacement, and the use of eminent domain to accomplish this for the expanding university. The group will hold a press conference at 6:00pm in front of the church in order to articulate their concerns.

The locals are not only worried about the Columbia development, they are also dismayed by the feeling that the LDC may not be doing its job in negotiating on behalf of the community. As the group's press release states; "Members of the Coalition to Preserve Community will raise a number of issues regarding the accountability of WHLDC."

In particular, the group is incensed that the LDC has not responded more forcefully to Columbia's "it's all or nothing" negotiating stance. In addition, the CPC will be calling for an investigation of any conflicts of interest between elected officials on the LDC and Bill Lynch, recently hired by Columbia to represent the university's interest. It might also call for an investigation of the hiring of Jesse Masyr, a well-known real estate attorney, as the lawyer for an LDC that is supposed to represent the community.

Clearly, the Columbia development is not going to proceed smoothly until there is a more transparent and equitable process put into play. As we have pointed out, the Harvard example of inclusion stands in sharp contrast with Columbia's arrogant and tone deaf response to the local community. It is time for the political leadership of the these communities to take a principled stand on accountable development.

Fine Whine

Congratulations to Councilmember Simcha Felder who clearly recognizes that the city's enforcement mechanism has broken down. Felder, who represents the Orthodox Jewish sections of Borough Park, wants to reduce the fines on homeowners for first time offenses from $100 to $50. In addition, he wants to alter the hours of enforcement to times when homeowners aren't at work.

As he told the NY Sun, "It's no mystery why taxpayers have lost faith in an enforcement system that slaps them with astronomical fines for unpreventable tickets." It's certainly not mysterious to the thousands of stores and restaurants, as well as frustrated city parkers, who have to try to do business in a city where municipal agencies view them, not as economic engines, but as pinatas to be beaten in order to raise revenues for the city's treasury.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Barely Managing

In this week's NY Magazine Chris Smith writes about Mayor Mike's second term doldrums and makes the following prescient observation: "What's truly worrisome is that the mayor's recent troubles are rooted in substance, not style. Management expertise is at the core of why he was hired in the first place...And it is managerial stumbles that are threatening to turn his second term into a dud."

What happens when the core rationale collapses, is that the other aspects of a mayor's personality, in Mike's case an inability to articulate any public sense of caring, begin to really grate on New Yorkers. This is why we have cautioned Speaker Quinn to not recklessly ride the Bloomberg wave.

One point on Smith's observation on the potential threat to mayoral control of the schools. He points out that the repeated managerial overhauls, three restructurings in five years, have left "widespread dissatisfaction with Bloomberg's changes..." Smith worries, however, that this dissatisfaction is leading to a nostalgia for the old corrupt Board of Ed; "But allowing the schools to fall back under the sway of entrenched interests would be disastrous..."

Huh? Smith doesn't tell us why the current system is any better than the old "corrupt" BoE, and falls back on the "entrenched interests" boogeyman to make the rather invidious comparison. After all, the "progressives" didn't like the so-called spoils system but historians will point out that the elitist progressives not only couldn't care less about the needs of real people, they also didn't run government all that better.

Still, the appeal of the "above special interests" continues to beguile our bien pensants, even while the evidence of managerial incompetence piles up. As it does our philosopher king will be transformed into the Wizard Of Oz.

Rent Break Not in Store

As the NY Sun reports, yesterday at City Hall a couple of state lawmakers joined with Speaker Quinn in proposing that the city create a "renters tax credit program," designed to give relief to tenants so that property owners are not the only ones benefiting from the mayor's tax breaks. As Quinn told the Daily News, "We need to recognize that property taxes are not just paid by home owners and condo owners..."

What is interesting here is that the Quinn observation, certainly true as far as it goes, avoids the fact that the class of folks who got burned worst by the record increases of 2002 are the city's neighborhood store keepers whose lease all contain pass-throughs for any commercial tax increases. The city hall news conference, however, was packed with tenant advocates and devoid of any beleaguered retailers. The symbolism of their absence speaks volumes about the outlook and priorities of the council leadership.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Recycling Cliches and Expansion of the Bottle Bill

We have already commented on the comical joint mayoral-council initiative that has led to the creation of the city's first Office Of Recycling, a move that we feel confident will prove the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What we now see, however, is the compounding of this policy silliness with the clamor, from the same set of folks that called for the recycling office to be established, for the expansion of the state's bottle law.

What we love about these self described public interest groups is their utter lack of concern for any of the economic costs of whatever policy they happen to be proposing. This lack of concern is equally distributed between tax payers and businesses alike.

On the recycling side there has never been any attempt to conduct a realistic cost-benefit analysis of the city's municipal recycling program. David Hurd, the new recycling coordinator recognizes that the city's department of sanitation's core mission is carting and dumping and this is not conducive to the different programmatic emphasis that the recyclers see as necessary if we are going to see any significant increase in diversion rates.

What will be interesting to see is how the culture clash between the new recycling office and DSNY will be played out, and how the office's educational outreach efforts work to increase recycling in "neighborhoods with low diversion rates." What is undeniable, though, is that the deposit law is successful in precisely those neighborhoods that the advocates always want to"target." It is, as the Marxists say, no accident. Deposits provide an incentive for low income New Yorkers that motivates enough entrepreneur ism to make the activity relatively profitable.

So instead of following Hurd's agenda, "enlisting community boards and local organizations as partners" (who could ever imagine a community board as a partner in anything like recycling?), why don't we enlist the folks and give them the proper motivation. Or is a monetary payback too crass?

But if we do expand the bottle bill why do so under its current structure, one that burdens retailers and discourages redemption because of the disincentives built into the system? Under the current system retailers aren't paid enough to redeem and look to avoid doing so. In fact, a relatively few stores-large supermarkets and beverage centers-do almost all of the redemption work. When was the last time you went into a drug store or a gas station convenience store to get your deposit back?

On the wholesaler/bottler side of the equation, these deposit initiators make money-lots of it-when they don't redeem the containers they initiated deposits on. This is a built-in disincentive in the deposit system. So what does Judy Enck and NYPIRG want to do in their "bigger, better bottle bill?" They want to take these nickels that are retained by the deposit initators and give them over to the ENCON crowd. The disincentive to redeem has just been escalated.

Have they thought this through? The deposit initiators will no longer get to keep the nickels and two things will happen. First, the cost of all beverages will rise significantly as wholesalers and retailers look to find a way to pay for the system. This will amount to a couple of hundred million dollars a year in a hidden tax increase to all of the state's beverage consumers. Secondly, the redemption rate will slowly approach 100% and the unredeemed will vanish. Why?

Once the initiators no longer get to keep the nickels there will be a mutuality of interest between them and various retailers and recyclers to dummy up the redemption rates so that the money stays within the distribution system and doesn't go to the state. I hope that the governor has budgeted a large sum for investigating this system if the expanded bill goes into effect.

Expanding the bottle bill is a good idea, just not under a continuation of the current redemption structure. The deposits should be placed into a deposit bank and a system of licensed collection and redemption agents should be created, along with an infrastructure of free-standing redemption centers (any number of reverse vending kiosks could be set up and function much like laundromats). Under this new structure retailers could freely opt out of the redemption system, but if the incentives are right a significant number won't want to.

What will make this system function at a high level is the setting of a profitable fee structure for both collection and redemption. This incentivizing will create the foundation for stimulating collection at both the redeemer level as well as the collection and recycling level. Once this system is set up, there is no reason that the state cannot add even more items, including paper that could be redeemed in more of a pound-for-pound buy-back fashion.

The expanded deposit system would create the new recycling business sector that the enviros are always saying that they want to see created. It would also allow for the complete dismantling of the municipal curbside program that is, and always will be, a fiscal and environmental failure.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Schooling the Mayor

We remember clearly how Mayor Mike asserted that he should be judged in his mayoralty on just how much the school system improved on his mayoral watch. The verdict? Well, if you believe Andrew Wolf, and we think that he is the most prescient observer of the educational scene that we have in this town, the mayor's tenure is a failure.

As Wolf points out in today's NY Sun the educrats are negotiating with the state DOE to re-jigger the methods by which city high school graduation rates are calculated. As he says, "the city is using some very liberal criteria" in an attempt to get the graduation rate to exceed 50% (it is calculated at 43% now). So, instead of actually trying to get more kids to graduate the department of education in the city is engaged in a cover up effort to paint a rosier picture than the real world numbers show.

In addition, the department is also "closing " schools before the state lists them on the endangered SURR list, and thus avoiding a realistic disclosure of the real number of schools that are failing their students and parents. Well we're not surprised, because the only real expertise Klein has brought to the education effort is a business management one; and the skill set there is an ability to cook the books. Which once again reminds us of Marx, Groucho and his brothers, who coined the wonderful phrase: "Who are going to believe, me or you own lying eyes."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Bottled Up No More?

In today's NY Times the paper takes a look at the renewed prospects for the expansion of the state's current container deposit law, legislation that we were around for at its inception in the early eighties. The prognosis? Much better since the governor and his lovely environmental muse Judy Enck placed the measure within the folds of the executive budget.

What's once again interesting in this debate is the assumptions proffered by our good friends at NYPIRG The organizations not only wants to expand the bill to include non carbonated containers, it also wants the state to escheat the nickel deposits that are now retained by the wholesalers and bottlers. These unredeemed deposits would then go towards funding other environmental projects.

As usual, however, NYPIRG doesn't bother to examine the costs of collection and recycling and prefers to pass these costs along to the beleaguered food retailers and their customers. Why aren't we surprised that once again that organization is taking a position that is hostile to tax paying, employment generating businesses.

NYPIRG knows what a recycling collection and processing system costs. And if the stakeholders in the system aren't able to defray these costs, who will? This is why Senator Bruno and his Republican caucus has always seen bottle bill expansion, along with the claiming of the deposits, for what it is, a whopping and hidden tax increase on New York's beverage purchasers.

What proponents of expansion should be looking to do is to find ways to utilize the revenue produced in the collection system to create a free standing, and self-funding recycling business. There are numerous ways in which the system can be expanded and the collection points removed from their unsanitary presence within the state''s food stores. This would relieve retailers and make the NYPIRG's of the world into pro-business advocates, something they stay up late at night thinking of ways to avoid.

Let's revamp and reform the system. Simply expanding the current poorly constructed edifice is not a good approach and reminds us of Karl Marx's comment about the French socialist Proudhon: "He seeks synthesis, but all he achieves is composite error."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Food Tsar Priorities Examined

In today's NY Sun the paper examines the policy priorities of Benjamin Thomases, the city's first food tsar. As we have mentioned before we are concerned that the main focus of the new food leader will be on the social service side of the food policy equation, at the expense of a greater understanding of the dynamics of the business side of food wholesaling and retailing.

In the story and interview in the Sun Thomases expresses a concern for the availability of healthy food in the city's low income areas and singles out the city's "healthy bodega" initiative as a good policy initiative. We also support this collaborative approach, one that enlists stores as potential partners in the effort to get healthier foods to communities that are less well-served by larger supermarkets.

What seems to be missing, however, is the existence of an effective public-private partnership in this crucial policy area. Thomases needs to be better served by the expertise of the food industry so that the policies developed aren't imposed in a way that makes their successful implementation difficult.

In addition, there needs to be a concerted effort in this regard to reach out and educate low income New Yorkers who may not understand their own nutritional needs. That is why we have been advocating the kind of "hearts and minds" approach that characterizes the Health Corps. If people become knowledgeable than the demand side of the equation will spur all kinds of innovative efforts on the supply side.

Monsey's Mavens

We met yesterday with the all of the rabbis from Spring Valley and Monsey who are the leaders of every Yeshiva in the community. In all, the group, organized by Rabbi Horowitz of the Community Outreach Center, represents over 20,000 school kids and their parents. The meeting was called under the auspices of Rabbi Aaron Berger of Congregation Zichron Yeshaia, and represented the deep level of concern that the entire community has about the coming of Wal-Mart into the Monsey area.

The rabbis were briefed about the status of the project, and were reassured that there was a great deal that they could collectively do if they wanted to stop the entry of the supercenter. In the end, the unanimously decided that they would initiate a letter writing campaign, directed at Supervisor St. Lawrence, from all of the yeshivas. In addition, they were amenable to doing a number of very visible public demonstrations of their opposition to the mega-retailer (a march of mothers with baby carriages was one suggestion that was well-received).

It is coming very close to critical mass time on the Wal-Mart proposal. The project is yet to be certified but the level of community opposition is growing and will soon hopefully reach the point where the supervisor will be compelled to step up and do the right thing-tell the developer that this project cannot go forward and that the plug needs to be pulled.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Recycling Myths

We have been following the recycling/bottle bill debate for over twenty five years. In this period there has been one continual assertion by the proponents of augmenting the municipal curbside recycling program: all we need is more education and New Yorkers will be able to dramatically increase the current modest levels of diversion that is achieved by the current curbside effort.

The assertion has gained additional currency since the city adopted its current SWMP last spring, and in the process established a new Office of Recycling whose mandate is to, well, educate New Yorkers to do more recycling. This is all captured is the current issue of City Limits in an article that is partially titled "Toward a Waste Free City."

One thing is for certain. Hot air will not go to waste as the usual suspects regurgitate the old education mantra. The article cites the comments of City Council Solid Waste Committee Chair Mike McMahon; "I think the city has not done the education necessary...DSNY is great at picking {recycling} up at the curb but they aren't good at promoting it."

Well, since when is a government agency good at promoting anything that requires its citizens to be obligated to do something? We are definitely going to find out if this can be done, since it is precisely the job of the new recycling office to promote the hell out of the activity.

Armed with the results of the Sanitation Department's waste composition survey David Hurd, the head of the RO, plans to go borough by borough and enlist community boards and local organizations as partners. This will "allow his office to identify specific obstacles to recycling in a particular neighborhood..." Of course, identifying the obstacles doesn't guarantee that the recycling bureaucrats will be able to come up with solutions, since the obstacles may be completely resistant to any government sponsored remedy.

In addition, the targeted materials only make up around 35% of the waste stream, so that even if the rate skyrocketed it would not leave the city with any spectacular garbage diversion achievement. Which is something that the intrepid Hurd recognizes when he tells City Limits, "We're going to have to go well beyond the current program." So Mr. Hurd, who hasn't even started and doesn't have a single achievement to point to, is already plotting the expansion of his efforts and, of course, the increase of the resources devoted to his experimental office.

All of this discussion is being done without any factoring in of the impact of the possible expansion of the state's mandatory deposit law, an expansion that would divert much of the cash crop that drives the current curbside program. In fact, in the entire City Limits article there is no discussion of the economics of recycling, since a proper cost-benefit analysis might raise uncomfortable questions for the devotees.

The 600 pound gorilla in all of this is what to do with food waste (around 50% of the trash haul according to the article-an estimate that is probably too high). We can just see the devotees, eyes aglow, looking to mandate the source separation of food waste at all of the 28,000 food establishments-not to mention the thousands of additional food stores all over the city's neighborhoods-unmindful and uncaring at the potential cost to area businesses.

Which leaves us shaking our heads at the utopianism of the advocates. Determined to force people to do the right thing they will propose further mandates on residents and businesses. When these don't work, more money will be requested and more mandates proposed. We wonder whether we will see any courageous elected officials with the fortitude to question the basic assumptions of the devotees. All of which reminds us, sadly, of the boy, the emperor, and the suit of new clothes that was never there.

Parking Fines and the DCA

I just received a notice from the city's Department of Finance that it has agreed to reduce my parking ticket from the original $115 to the bargain rate of $90. The reason for the magnanimity was the fact that the agency had been sent pictures that showed that my car had been parked on a street and under a sign that said "No Parking 7AM-6Pm Construction." The ticket on the car was marked at ten minutes after seven. Now as it turns out there is another sign about forty yards up the block that has no parking any time, something that alert city motorist should be aware of even though his car is parked under a sign that is clearly marked for legal parking at the designated time.

So, what we have here is an offer to essentially plead guilty for reading a sign correctly and parking under it. The reason we bring it up here, aside from the personal catharsis, is that the notice of reduction also stated the following:"if you don not wish to accept this reduction and want an Administrative Law Judge to review your case, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DO ANYTHING. You will either be found guilty and you will have to pay the full balance or the summons will be dismissed..."

So there you have it. No possibility of personally pleading your case but an offer to take a "Deal or No Deal" reduction. This in a nutshell is what the city's retailers face on a daily basis from the administrative tribunals run by the various city agencies. It is precisely why the DCA wants to garner additional adjudication power over the retailers that it doesn't license.

This additional power would enable it to try the offender that the agency found guilty of an offense in its own tribunal, one with the same take-it-or-leave-it justice. Otherwise, the city itself has to go into court, where real rules of due process exist, and try to defend its enforcement action. In the past the agency has called this hurdle an undue an expensive hardship. Imagine what it will be for me, or a "convicted" retailer, if the ALJ finds me guilty of the parking offense?

One final note here. In last week's budget hearing on the DCA, the commissioner expressed extreme reluctance with the idea that DCA should assume all of the enforcement authority over street vendors. This is truly news worthy stuff. A city agency that doesn't want to increase its scope of activity and potentially its budget as well. If anything underscores just how difficult the vendor enforcement problem is, it is the refusal of DCA to step up and accept the enforcement responsibility for the problem.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Peddler Patrons

Clearly, as the mini furor this week over our leaked memo underscores, there is a great deal of underlying sympathy for the street vendor. Some of this sympathy comes from the righteous New York support for the hard working underdog, but it is also true that a good amount of the support that vendors garner comes from a deep level hostility in the political class for the rights of businesses.

From what we've seen over the past five and a half years is that the mayor has absolutely no concern for the needs and interests of the store owners who are probably the single largest employment sector in the city. This absence of concern is seen in Mayor Mike's consumer affairs department that to this very day still is trying to enhance its enforcement power over neighborhood retailers. This zealousness is exacerbated by the fact, that when Chairman Comrie asked Commissioner Mintz whether he would support the establishment of a dedicated enforcement unit on vending at the DCA, he was immediately rebuffed.

So Mintz, and his predecessor Dykstra, want to go hammer and tongs against the store owners of this city and are unwilling to unleash a similar bureaucratic zeal against folks who don't pay any real estate taxes or rent as they compete with the city's retailers. Mayor Mike remains mute in all of this, but when he was running he told the Korean Small Business Service Center that the city needed to do more about the plight of small retailers who were struggling after 9/11.

So what did he do when he took office? He raised real estate taxes by 18%, a tax that increased the rent for every single store owner in the city. He also passed a 1800% cigarette tax increase that removed $250 million a year from the bottom line of the city's bodegas, delis, green grocers and newsstands. In addition, his economic development czar went and evicted all of the minority merchants from the BTM.

On the council side we did see a more concerned attitude to the mayoral regulatory overreach. The council wouldn't support the aggrandizement of DCA power. At the same time, it resisted the push for food waste disposers that would have alleviated the garbage disposal problems of the city's food stores. And under current leadership, there is an aggressive push for green markets that do compete with area food stores and a lukewarm attitude to peddler enforcement.

The problem here is that contemporary urban liberalism is activist-oriented and more concerned with social service and union issues than with the legitimate needs of local businesses. This is why it becomes so important for merchants and labor to be part of a coalition on peddler enforcement; there is simply no natural sympathy for the tax payers-whether citizens or store owners.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Racial Diversity and the Vexing Vendors

In this week's New York Observer the paper's Azi Paybarah "exposes" our actions in defense of tax paying store owners against the proliferation of street peddlers. It seems that someone took one of our strategy memos that went out to some of the BID leaders and "leaked" it to the Observer. Why this was so newsworthy is somewhat mystifying.

What is newsworthy, and what Azi fails to emphasize, is the fact that it is necessary to pull out all stops to prevent the store owners and community residents who are fed up with the proliferation of vendors in their shopping strips from being stigmatized as racist or anti-immigrant if they don't want their streets overrun by vendors. This is necessary because there is simply not enough of a bedrock of support in this city for the rights of tax paying businesses-unless of course they are part of the permanent government elite that has carte blanche in the political process.

The needs of local neighborhood store owners is simply not an attractive component of the dominant political narrative, and this is true at both sides of city hall. Health needs, immigrant rights, regulatory necessities to raise money through fines and fees, all take presence over the retailers who employ hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and help to enliven and make safe hundreds of neighborhood shopping areas.

This anti-business bias can be seen in some of the comments to Azi's post on the Politiker blob. As one commentator put it: "Lipsky has no conscience or shame. He is so obviously pro big business, anti minority..." And this about someone who has spent twenty five years defending minority businesses when absolutely no one else would.

But this particular commentator really caught the city's zeitgeist when he went on to say "Who cares" even if these vendors are competing with multi-million dollar food chains, they can afford it. Of course our learned observer wasn't thinking about the more than ten thousand workers who are employed in the Manhattan supermarkets, workers who are losing their jobs right along with the shrinking sales being lost to the street vendors.

And he wasn't thinking about the possibility that some of the very vendors that he extols as hard working entrepreneurs may in fact be nothing more than exploited workers who are being paid, unlike the unionized workers at the A&P, Gristedes or Associated stores, substandard wages with no benefits.

Of course the reality is that the store owners themselves are becoming predominately minority. We have over a thousand supermarkets in the city and over 500 of them are owned by either Dominicans, Koreans or Arab-Americans. Go down 181st Street in Washington Heights where the store owners are mostly Hispanic, the same is true for Corona and Third Avenue in the South Bronx. The way to wealth in this country at the retail level is to raise enough capital to open a store and build that one store into many; just as so many immigrant and minority business people have done, not just in the supermarket industry but in the restaurant business as well. Just ask Louis Nunez who leads the 4,000 strong Latino Restaurant Association.

What is remarkable in all of this is that there is not a visceral understanding of the basic unfairness of allowing people with little or no overhead, folks who are avoiding paying any rent or real estate taxes, to compete against store owners who are playing by this city's over-taxed over-regulated rules. When the city raised the commercial real estate tax in 2002 it amounted to a 25% rent increase for every store owner in this town, It was needed in order to make up a greater than $2 billion dollar budget deficit. Street peddlers coughed up not a penny but continued to freeload on every one else's dime.

Bottle Bill and Recycling

In yesterday's Crain's Insider the newsletter posted an item from the Hugo Neu recycling company; the firm that was lionized when it announced that it would be handling all of the plastic collected in the city's municipal recycling program. Well now it seems that the company has some serious doubts about the so-called "Bigger Better Bottle Bill."

The doubts arise naturally from the fact that the BBBB will remove thousands of tons of recycled plastics and aluminum from the curbside program and will cost Hugo Neu an estimated $1.2 million a year in lost revenues. All of which is not really surprising to us since we have been commenting for awhile on the difficulty, if not the total incompatibility of trying to maintain dual recycling systems.

When it comes down to it the curbside program is grossly inefficient and is maintained more to satisfy the ideological impulses of the environmental lobby than for its recycling effectiveness. As NYPIRG itself admits, a deposit system is a more efficient collection methodology than the municipal program's $300/ton collection cost.

What deposits are not good at is being fair to the city's beleaguered store owners who simply lack the storage space for the current system, let alone the proposed expanded one. The solution lies in using a deposit-based system that takes the cans and bottles out of the stores and into free standing redemption centers. In order to make this kind of a system work, however, it is essential that redemption fees are adequate to support the creation of the recycling businesses that would emerge with such a system.

Clearly, this kind of an approach would be job creating as well as recycling efficient. What stands in the way are the folks at NYPIRG and their assorted allies who can't seem to fathom anything that would relieve local store owners of any of their burdens. The bottom line: the state cannot support a dual recycling system that erodes the effectiveness of both methodologies.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Back Peddling?

Yesterday's preliminary budget hearing on consumer affairs at the city council shed some light on just how much the issue of peddling is a contentious problem for law makers. In a meeting last week with Consumer Affairs Chair Leroy Comrie, we were told that the councilman would support the effort to create a dedicated vendor enforcement unit at the Department of Consumer Affairs. At the hearing yesterday, however, Comrie seemed to back peddle after Commissioner Mintz testified that the DCA was reluctant to take on this enforcement role.

The DCA's reluctance underscores the extent to which the issue of vendor enforcement is a thorny one, so much so that no one wants to step up and defend the rights of tax paying store owners and risk the wrath of the "immigrant community." Under the current enforcement scheme DCA, DOH and the local police precincts are all responsible for enforcement and, as a result, enforcement is not vigorously pursued.

On the other hand, Commissioner Mintz had no such reluctance a few weeks ago when he testified before Comrie's committee and asked for greater enforcement authority over local stores. In this case he was asking that the council approve a bill that would give the DCA judge and jury status, thus obviating the inconvenience of forcing the agency to have to actually prove a case against a store owner in a court of law.

In yesterday's testimony the commissioner told the council that DCA was busy educating local police precincts on the intricacies of the vending laws, and this program was a "success." This is total buck-passing since the police don't want to divert their resources from crime fighting and therefore approach vendor enforcement as a chore to be avoided at all costs.

Which leaves us with the position of Chairman Comrie who appeared at yesterday's hearing to both support the dedicated enforcement unit and to advocate caution and delay since the DCA wasn't supportive of the idea. We also heard from others that the chair was cautious because he was concerned that the immigrant community might take great exception to the initiative.

In the next few weeks we will be traveling all over Queens to meet with merchant and civic groups on this issue. We want to see if the council will be supportive of the principle that the commercial streets of the city belong to the communities and businesses that pay the taxes. In the process we are hopeful that Leroy Comrie's position will be clarified and he will side with our growing vendor enforcement coalition.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Bloomberg, Rats and Fast Food

In a current posting by our friends at the Gotham Gazette, Josh Brustein takes alook at the war being waged by the Bloomberg Administration against the fast food industry in New York City. The article also looks at the Department of Health's overzealous over-reaction to the Taco Bell rat scandal and the trans fat ban and calorie labeling proposals that the agency passed last December.

Brustein makes a couple of interesting points. On the rats, he cites the comments of Chuck Hunt of the NYSRA and Councilman Joel Rivera, on the need to take a new look at commercial food waste disposers. As Rivera said; "It will help decrease the cost of carting garbage...At the same time we get to mitigate the issue of rats." Rivera feels that the public health controversy should help to reinvigorate the policy discussion on disposers.

There are also some interesting observations on the Rivera bill that would ameliorate the harshness of the DOH menu labeling regulation. As Brustein points out the bill would reaffirm the jurisdiction of the City Council in an area that has essentially been usurped by an unelected Board of Health. In addition, he highlights the fact that it is by no means assured that the regulation will have any effect on the obesity epidemic in the city.

As he says, "...there is no guarantee that the recent steps by the city will actually improve New Yorkers' health...If listing the amount of calories in foods led people to make better choices, than Americans would have gotten healthier in the years since the rules were put in place requiring packaged food to list nutritional information...Instead, Americans have gotten fatter."

Unfortunately, none of this legitimate skepticism has gotten through to the council's leader who tells the Gazette, "I don't have any particular interest in changing what the Board of Health has done." Nor, we might add, in meeting with the industry that employs 100,000 New Yorkers to find out just what it is that they object to in the Board's ill-considered regulation.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Bodega Gentrification

We were sent an interesting item that was first run on WNYC radio about the impact that gentrification has had on the way that bodegas are doing business in one Brooklyn neighborhood. What struck us was how adaptive the store owners are in response to the changing demands of their customers. This adaptive behavior is telling, given the level of silly discourse we sometimes hear about the marketing practices of these neighborhood groceries.

The reality is that the stores respond to demand but they don't create it. Getting bodegas to sell "healthier" products is a function of the creation of a higher level of demand. Which is exactly why we have begun to create a collaborative effort with the Health Corps and the Bodega Association working with the DOH's "Healthy Bodega" initiative. We anticipate that the HC volunteers will help the local stores generate a higher demand for healthy snacks and beverages.

Which is what we see happening organically in the grocery stores in Cobble Hill where Wolfgang Puck soups have replaced the Campbells' cans on the shelves. As WNYC observes: "Solmarz {a local store owner} says when his customers suggest new products, which they do every day, he researches them, gets samples from suppliers, and watches to see whether they sell in his store...He goes to Manhattan on his days off to see how stores there are stocking their shelves."

What we see here is a dynamic relationship between customers and store owners. If we can impact the demand side of the equation then we can push store owners to change product lines; but remember, space in small stores is limited and owners can't simply experiment willy nilly with new items that may linger on the shelf collecting dust. That's a sure fire way to bankruptcy. The key is consumer education and demand.

Council Goes to Bat Against the Mayor

Well it finally happened. The Council, which has stubbornly adhered to the mayor's policy agenda, has at last taken a stand against the city's chief executive. As the NY Post reports this morning, the legislature is poised to pass a ban on metal bats this Wednesday over the mayor's determined opposition.

Let's hope that this is not the last issue that the Council feels compelled to take a firm stand on against the mayoral druthers. And let's further hope that the next time it hopefully does so, it is on a policy of somewhat greater significance than the baseball bats used by our youngsters.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Taxing Fairness

The NY Post goes after State Senator Jeff Klein today for his proposal to work out a deal with the Indians to split the tax revenues from the sale of cigarettes on the reservations and through the Internet. While we agree that the proposal is much to complex, and the "deal" here should simply be that New York State enforce its tax laws, it is unfair to go after Klein who has been in the forefront of trying to get the state to do the right thing. '

That being said, the governor should simply announce that the tax will be levied on the wholesalers and if the Indians want to get a rebate for sales to other Indians on their reservations they can simply apply for the rebate. As to the threat of Indian violence? This should provide the governor with a perfect Dirty Harry moment: "Make my day!"

Mayoral Myopia

More and more, we see the media focusing on the personal shortcomings of Mayor Mike when it comes to exhibiting basic empathy for distressed New Yorkers. From our vantage he demonstrates the classic liberal attitude (think of the old Progressive movement types) of placing a general concern for People over any attachment to the feelings of real human beings (more in line with the populists). It reminds us of a line from Managing Mailer, Joe Flaherty's wonderful memoir of the 1969 mayoral campaign.

When Mailer, and his running mate Jimmy Breslin, were visiting a liberal democratic club on the Upper East Side they presented the group with a proposal that called for giving people greater control over their everyday lives. The response from some "blue-haired matron" was the following, and we paraphrase: "But Mr. Mailer, you don't understand, it's all about what we can do for them."

This kind of an attitude is generally hostile to listening to the points-of-view of the folks who are the object of any particular policy. It goes hand-in-hand with an elite paternalism that elevates expertise over any grass roots input. All of which is embodied in the mayor's approach to reforming the education system. Hiring one of the biggest parent critics of the reform effort-for $150,000 per year-doesn't change this basic approach, certainly not at this late a date.

We can see this growing crescendo of criticism in today's papers. Errol Louis' column is representative of the questioning of the mayor's aloofness. When asked about why he didn't stay in the city and take care of, well, the spiritual needs of his citizens he replied; "I'm not a firefighter and I'm not a doctor, and I can't find housing for people, but I have people in place to do that..."

Louis goes on to say, while not attributing the sentiment directly to the mayor, that all of our efforts at "enriching ourselves" can isolate us from our less well-off neighbors and leave us "hopelessly isolated, emotionally and spiritually poor." This is the genesis of all of the "tin ear" commentary of how the mayor's aloofness is "grating" on the city. Given this political turn it may not be long before directly confronting the mayor will be seen as a smart political move; and slavishly following in his path the kiss of death, and a quintessential mistake.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Tin Ear, Tone Deaf

Can you imagine if the series of crises and snafus that have plagued the mayor recently had happened in his first term? Remarkably, the mayor has been extraordinarily luck until now and his inability to encompass the human side of leadership never became a big political liability for him-until now.

So after the snow fall-parking issue and the school bus fiasco the mayor travels down to Miami instead of staying put here to demonstrate a small bit of solace for the folks who are grieving after the horrific fire in the Bronx. As the NY Post editorializes this morning the mayor is a gifted administrator but he is "a deeply flawed mayor. Time and time again over the past five-plus years, Bloomberg had demonstrated an appalling inability to connect with the people of New York in times of crisis."

You can even here this in the language that he uses to defend himself when challenged. As the NY Times story this morning highlights the mayor "testily" responded to a reporter's question about his absence from the city, after he had attempted to joke about his Florida trip as a kind of spring break, "Mayor's Gone Wild" adventure.

One thing is for sure here. The people have concluded that their current mayor cannot be expected to exhibit any compassion, as the latest Q-Poll mayoral approval numbers seem to indicate. The next set of candidates are likely to be held to a different standard since these things do appear to be cyclical. Mayoral aloofness can get old fast and we would bet that the next mayor will have more of an engaged passionate persona than Cool Hand Mike.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Bloomberg to the Rescue

As Jill Gardiner points out today in the NY Sun today Mayor Bloomberg is continuing his tireless quest to protect the robustness of the city's financial markets. We applaud the mayor's steadfastness in this regard but continue to point out that Mayor Mike never exhibits the same kind of concern when it comes to the taxes and regulations that threaten the profitability of the city's neighborhood retailers.

Maybe its unfair but we can't help but think that it's not only the importance of the financial sector to NYC's economy that drives the mayor so hard. After all, these are his folks and they work in a place where the mayor made his considerable fortune. We haven't, for example, heard any rachmones from the mayor about how the city's commercial real estate tax hike hit all store owners right in the center of their rental pocketbooks. And we haven't heard that the city, flush with cash, is going to rebate the taxes to these beleaguered retailers.

So much for all of the "above politics" rhetoric that we have heard used to describe the mayor's immunity from the special interests. As the mayor's spirited defense of "his boys" underscores the mayor is the apotheosis of the special interests that nurtured his meteoric rise to billionaire status.

Back to Schools

In today's NY Post, in a signal that 2009 is not so far ahead of us, Comptroller Bill Thompson takes Mayor Mike to task for a failure to do what he said that he should be judged on: improve the school system. Clearly, education is going to be a signature issue in the next election cycle and a credible candidate is one who will have to, not only criticize the mayor's record, but also offer some reasonable policy suggestions on how change can be made for the better.

Which brings us to the Speaker, who has been rumored to harbor mayoral ambitions At some point she is going to have to differentiate herself from the mayor on a wide range of issues, or risk being labeled the Deputy Mayor for legislation. Quinn's support of the DOH menu labeling rule is a case in point.

It's not that she couldn't reasonably come to the conclusion that the rule made policy sense; even though we feel the whole idea is an unwarranted intrusion into the lives of New Yorkers. It's that she immediately jump on the DOH bandwagon without allowing the legislative process to unfold, thus undermining her majority leader in a rush to embrace the mayor and his curious public health agenda.

This is quite a posture for the leader of a legislature, and it will be interesting to see how she maneuvers in the next couple of years. Standing in the mayoral shadow is not a place to run for office from, particularly so since we think that the Bloomberg will be off the rose once the next election cycle begins.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Look in the Dark, You See My Face

There was a hit song in the fifties that went: "Peek-a-boo, I'm watching you. Look in the dark, you see my face. Don't try to hide, I'm everyplace." The long-ago lyrics were brought to mind as we read the NY Post editorial this morning on the omnipresent Dr. Frieden.

There seems to be very little that escapes the good doctor's purview when it comes to public health. As the Post notes, however, the recent rat crisis has had one positive outcome: it has diverted the commissioner into doing, well, what the mandate of the Department says he should be doing, actually working to protect the public health in a way that doesn't intrude om the ability of individuals to make personal decisions on how they want to lead their lives.

There is also a downside in the doctor's diversion. That downside is the blindsiding of restaurant owners who are having their places shut down by inspectors who are eager to avenge their boss' embarrassment in the wake of the Taco Bell rat fiasco. As the Post notes there isn't a restaurant in the world that could survive a rule book inspection by someone looking to avenge his Superior's public humiliation.

And the fact is that these inspections, and the tens of thousands of other forms of municipal harassment, are little more than a way for the city to appear good to an unaware public, while raking in tens of millions of dollars from overburdened businesses. The reality is that there is no restaurant or supermarket that can do anything to avoid a notice of violation if the inspector is motivated to write one up. The rules and regulations are too complex and voluminous for any business to ever be in full compliance.

And what is the mayor doing about all of these burdensome regulations? As the NY Times reports this morning, he is uniting with key Republican lawmakers to fight the closing of tax loopholes for some of the city's largest financial companies. Not that they might not deserve the defense, but where is the mayor when the little guy is threatened? Generally, he's the one in the forefront of the threatening.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Inspector Cluelessness

The NY Sun goes after the commissioner of "mental hygiene" today in an editorial that questions the need for any health inspectors at all. It first points out, and we agree wholeheartedly, that the department is insinuating itself into areas of personal choice where New Yorkers are perfectly capable of making up their own minds. Then the Sun asks: "Is it really necessary for government employees to be patrolling the city's restaurant kitchens?"

The paper feels that the private sector, along with "savvy New Yorkers" are more than capable of policing themselves, and that the whole inspection racket is a waste of money. In the Sun's view, the city would be better off if the DOH laid off all the inspectors and returned the cost of the whole inspection operation "to New Yorkers in the form of a tax cut."

We're not sure that we agree totally with this libertarian viewpoint, but we do agree that the city could save a lot of money if it dismantled most of the inspection army in almost every enforcement arena. The savings, however, wouldn't just be in the form of a tax cut from the reduction of government bureaucracy, it would come from a reduction in the cost of goods and services ("burdensome regulations") at the city's liberated retail outlets.

Disposing the Rats

In today's NY Sun the paper's Grace Rauh, new on the city council beat, writes on the issue of food waste disposers and raises the question of why this potent garbage disposal methodology isn't being used to help food stores and restaurants cope with the persistent rat infestation that has caused such a stir over the past two weeks. Some of the responses from the relevant city agencies was unintentionally amusing.

The crux of the comedy devolves from the disconnect that appears to exist between the various city bureaucracies that, at one time or another, are charged with dealing with food waste and the rat problem. The DEP has been given direct responsibility for developing a policy on food waste disposers and, as we have commented, appears to have an animus towards their use that transcends the empirical evidence of their supposed impact on the city's waste water treatment facilities.

It has been the intransigence of this agency that has stood in the way of getting the city council to initiate the pilot program envisioned by Intro 133, a measure that at one time had 33 co-sponsors. Given this bureaucratic obstinacy, and the opposition of a few environmental elitists, the mayor and the speaker struck a deal to put off any discussion of disposers until 2009 at the earliest.

All of this is given a new sharp relief, however, with the exposure of the public health crisis generated by the rat infestation at local food outlets. Now, as the Sun article highlights, we really need to take a second look at the use of FWDs to address the rodent invasion. But the article underscores the bureaucratic confusion. A spokesman for the DOH acknowledges that"rodents are on the prowl for food and are attracted to garbage," but he said that we wouldn't comment on the use of disposers "and said questions would be best directed at the Department of Environmental Protection."

The Sun goes on to point out that the indoor storage of garbage is a direct result of a 2003 Department of Sanitation program called "Operation Dumpster." A spokesman for this agency said that the program "was designed to keep dumpsters off sidewalks and to reduce smells on the street" (and prevent the visible rat activity that freaks folks out). In other words for public health reasons. The spokesperson wasn't asked what kind of impact the indoor storage of garbage in food preparation areas would have on rodent infestation, but it takes little imagination to hazard a guess here.

It is left to Luis Nunez of the Latino Restaurant Association to make sense of this "emperor's new clothes" situation: "We have tons and tons of solid, wet garbage...Garbage in restaurants is the no. 1 prime reason why you begin to have a rodent or roach infestation." In the case of this city, however, the concern for flora and fauna in the estuaries trumps the real seriousness of the health impacts of vermin infestation all over New York's neighborhoods.

It would seem that a mayor who has made public health his top priority, regardless of the costs, would see the imperative of bringing the food waste issue to a proper resolution. Instead, the one public health measure that would actually help business is resisted and the rat smorgasbord continues unabated.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Fatheads Indeed!

In today's NY Daily News the paper editorializes in favor of the DOH rule to require fast food chains to post calorie counts on their menu boards. What disappoints us here is that the News Editorial Board has always been open about learning about both sides of an issue, and one of its best editorialists did in fact sit with us. Apparently he was unable to convey to the entire board the subtleties of the issue.

What is it about this particular issue that leads certain editorial writers to lash out in such ill-informed invective? You'd think that with the time some of these folks have to just sit and think about issues, they'd manage to at least get the basic facts of a controversial subject right.

You might think that, but you'd be wrong. In the case of the News' editorial we once again are confronted with folks who do not have even a rudimentary understanding of how the DOH rule will function in the fast food environment. To wit: The News talks about the fact that the regulation will be applied to the "caloric content of standard menu items," when over 60% of the items ordered in fast food outlets are not standard at all-they are customized.

The fact of customization means that they chains will be allowed to post a range (something that we have commented on before). This range will be thoroughly confusing and will not give the customer any real idea of the calories being consumed. This confusion is exacerbated by the fact that the calorie content of the dressings and condiments (not a charged menu item) wil not have to be listed, giving the customer who orders a 170 calorie salad a totally false picture if a, let's say, creamy Italian dressing is added.

The News, however, is not content to simply misconstrue the essence of the DOH rule. The paper also needed to caricature Joel Rivera, the sponsor of a more reasonable industry-friendly bill Rather than deal with the rationale behind the Rivera bill, failing to point out, for instance, that it requires point-of-purchase posting, the paper pointed out that the councilman was the same one that the News awarded its "Knucklehead Award" to when he proposed a zoning restriction on fast food outlets. To which it adds-"Enough Said"(as if this sarcastic obiter dictum was the final word on the state of political rectitude). Lots of self-absorption here.

So Rivera is ridiculed when he proposes limits on the fast food industry and is similarly chided when he advances industry-friendly legislation; and the News calls Rivera a knucklehead? The only piece of semi-information that the paper offers is he fact that patrons typically underestimate the number of calories that they are consuming when they eat at fast food outlets. The News goes on to say that, "...people make healthier choices if they know how many calories they are consuming."

Of course, what the News doesn't tell you is that: (1) most consumers don't know how many calories they should be eating, or (2) even what a calorie is- making this costly experimental "education" of fast food customers a charade. The paper also fails to point out that nutritionists are moving away from simplistic calorie information and the ill-informed consumer who needs around 2,000 calories a day might be tempted to consume 5 or 6 Hostess Snowballs a day, confident that he is meeting his daily allotment.

Behind all of this sarcastic derision ("dependent on peddling cheap calories to repeat patrons..."), is the fact that our editorial elites maintain a core animus toward fast foods. After all, "peddling" is the common adjective used in conjunction with drug dealers. So the 2300 outlets that employ around 100,000 New Yorkers and generate millions of tax dollars to the city treasury are ridiculed by folks that, we dare to say, never started a business and never contributed, as hundreds of fast food franchisees have, to the economic renaissance of many of the most blighted of the city's urban neighborhoods. Enough said!