Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cart Hearing to be Contentious

The City Council's Consumer Affairs Committee will hold its first hearing on Intro 665 today, and the meeting will undoubtably be contentious since the city has been mobilizing its health advocacy armies to come out in support of the measure. It always seems that advocates have a great deal more free time to come out than do the hard working store owners who find it really difficult to leave their shops.

That being said, however, there does appear to be room for modifications to the original proposal. As the NY Sun reports this morning: "Unions and small business groups have expressed concerns that the added competition could hurt supermarkets. Council Member Leroy Comrie, a sponsor of the proposal, said yesterday he expects the council to modify the bill to address some of these issues, but that the bill's core goal of providing greater access to healthy food should remain. "I think all of this is something that clearly is workable," he said."

Supermarkets are concerned, but the real vulnerable businesses are the thousands of green grocers and bodegas that sell produce. Green grocers in particular have no other product lines to fall back on if their sales are cannibalized by street peddlers. And why does the city have such obvious contempt for its smallest and most vulnerable businesses?

If Leroy Comrie is correct, and we believe that he is, about the desirability of "providing greater access" to healthy food, than why isn't the city developing a food policy plan that would incentivize the tax paying store owners to expand their sales of fresh produce? How about the reduction or sheer elimination of the licensing fees-levies that can run around $500 a year? How about reducing the fines and violations that have made fruit stands-among other small stores-cash cows for city regulators-to the tune if thousands of dollars per store, per year? How about eliminating the commercial real estate taxes for landlords who rent to supermarkets and green grocers?

Instead we are given the peddler legions, push carts without any location reestrictions that will inevitably set up shop in front of the neighborhood food outlets. Yet the city claims that it is powerless to restrict peddler locations because of the 1943 Good Humor ruling. Here's a brief excerpt from one legal opinion we'ver received on this:
"I think that the overall the best argument is that the city already limits the number of vendors out of a concern for traffic and safety and that this bill’s expansion of the number of vendors is only occurring because of a competing public health concern. Therefore, if there are areas where there is produce and therefore the health rationale doesn’t exist it’s reasonable that the city would not increase permits in that area. An allowable and restricted produce vending area then would be substantially different and not, as is prohibited by Good Humor, solely the result of a desire to protect a class of businesses. Moreover, the stated purpose of the restriction should be to promote the legitimate government interest of balancing street traffic with the need for more produce. Courts are generally loath to dig into actual, as opposed to stated, purposes especially when the class potentially discriminated against (vendors) aren’t constitutionally protected (delineations that are protected include race, gender, disabilities, etc…)"

Location is, of course, only one problem with the bill. The other significant problem is enforcement-something that is almost completely lacking throughout the city. In a thoughtful letter we received from Council Member Gale Brewer, a supporter of the bill. she makes the following sound point:"In addition, I am acutely aware that problems develop between small grocers and vendors around the question of fair practice, as well the inevitable "turf wars" that arise when street vendors attract customers who have traditionally patronized the local store. In my immediate neighborhood, I have moderated disputes, for example, wherein proprietors of small grocery stores have complained to NYPD about vendor violations of the city code, and caused them to be ticketed on a frequent basis. One such practice involves street vendors who park a truck stocked with fruit next to their cart and use it to illegally replenish their display stock all day long.
According to the NYC Department of Health, it is illegal for the vendors to replenish their stock from the truck throughout the day. It is this kind of sharp practice, along with vendor "saturation" strategies and price undercutting, that makes street/store merchant conflict seemingly inevitable. It also suggests the difficulty of striking a fair and workable balance in law among the contending forces."

Brewer, who clearly is knowledgable about the problem says that the city needs, "guidelines on vendor practices that are clear, enforceable, and fair." To which we would add, a dedicated enforcement unit to insure that the guidelines are followed. That addition, along with a greater degree of location restriction, needs to be added to Intro 665 if the measure is to have any equity for the city's small businesses.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Desert Foxes

Not since Field Marshal Rommel have we seen such fierce desert warriors as those who have been conscripted to fight us on the mayor's green cart legislation. Responding to the Crain's piece yesterday, a battalion of food advocates is circulating a petition to counteract our work. Here's how they see it: "To all those supporting the GreenCart legislation - It is critical that calls to Council members, e-action letters (coming to you today), and citywide letter attached have broad support. The hearing is the Thursday @ 10am Council Chambers - please attend if you can. The Crains insider journal reports strong opposition to the bill from the food retail industry - in response our voices need to be load and clear - underscoring the simple fact that bringing healthy affordable produce to food deserts is in the best interest of New York City children and families."

Well, besides the fact that our opponents here could use remedial spelling and grammar lessons, it is clear that the urban myths will continue to be propagated. "Food deserts?" Isn't there anyone willing to do the preliminary due diligence prior to drafting legislation? These folks are so imbued with their own narrative that it seems that it will be impervious to any empirical refutation.

Please get a grip folks! We're certainly not opposing bringing healthier foods to certain areas of the city; although the food desert description of these neighborhoods is quite far fetched. The fact remains that our opposition to the bill is based on its broad brush approach that will end up parking peddlers directly in front of the stores that are selling fresh produce; a fact that doesn't disturb all of our anti-capitalist opposition.

What puzzles us, however, is the failure of the real capitalists that we know are in this administration to take a stand in defense of the local economy. Mayor Mike risks becoming like Bill Gates, a friend of free enterprise only when it benefits him.

The reality here is that the city continues to disingenuously rely on a 65 year old court ruling in its defense of its unwillingness to restrict vendor locations. The real story, as we have already outlined in our previous post, is that Intro 665 reflects the pervasive anti-small business bias that the administration has exhibited over the past six years.


We missed Crain's Insiders post on the counterattack. They did quote the "retail desert" remark of an opponent of ours, but as far as being, "...dealt a blow when a council lawyer told them that the city can’t seek to limit competition by forbidding vendors from operating near supermarkets..," we don't see it that way. The obstacle is not the 65 year old ruling, but the city's unwillingness to re-examine an archaic judicial decision in the interest of protecting its neighborhood food businesses.

Harlem on Our Mind

The controversy over the re-zoning of 125th Street underscores the callous disregard that the city has for small and minority owned businesses. As the Spectator reported last week; "Community Boards 9, 10, and 11 and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer have estimated that the plan would result in the displacement of 71 local businesses and a rise in the area’s average rent."

The city planners, however, aren't content to simple plan for the demise of these businesses. They consistently find the need to first disparage them, a nasty prelude to their physical displacement. As Juan Gonzales points out today in a trenchant analysis of the entire sordid affair: "According to the city's impact statement, the 71 businesses that will be displaced by the rezoning do have "substantial economic value to the City or region ... and do not, individually or collectively, contribute substantially to neighborhood character."

This is the legacy of New York's Burden, a socialite and dilettante who's been given carte blanche to trash and bash the city's smaller, vulnerable businesses. As Gonzales goes on to say: "Imagine working years to build up your tiny business only to have some bureaucrat from downtown declare you have "no substantial economic value to the City or region." You must make way in this Brave New World for the "substantial economic value" of a luxury condo."

We're certainly not surprised at all of this, not after we witnessed the debacle over the displacement of the minority merchants at the Bronx Terminal Market. In this episode, our old consultant friends AKRF, mirroring EDC's disdain for those merchants, claimed that the unique African and Hispanic products would not be missed because, "a similar line of market products could be found with New Jersey wholesalers." This from a New York City economic development agency.

So the beat goes on, and this time it's luxury housing that is the linchpin of the assault on the existing community: "The city's plan would permit the construction of 2,600 new units of housing along the commercial strip. Only 20% of those new units would be affordable to families earning below $56,000 a year. With average family income in Harlem only $37,000, community leaders want a greater mix of moderate income housing in any plan. Amazingly, the city's environmental impact study for the rezoning claims only 500 residents in the project area "could be vulnerable to second displacement if rents rise."

That's because so many have already been evicted through the gentrification process. But no mention is made of the combined displacement that will occur when this plan and the Columbia expansion plan go into full gear together. We hope that the current crop of African-American elected officials get their satisfaction while they can, because changing demographics and subsequent gentrification will certainly create an inevitable political displacement as well.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

City Food Policy

As a segue to our previous post it looks as if the city, under the direction of Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs and Food Czar Ben Thomasses, is about to create a task force on food policy. The first order of business should be to begin to reconcile the city's developing food policy with its health-based efforts.

As we have been saying, the health-based policy has been contrapuntal to the health of the local food businesses. There needs to be a greater awareness of the business challenges, and an understanding that enhancing the strength of neighborhood food stores and restaurants, and of their distributors, needs to be melded to the goal of a healthier citizenry.

This cannot be done, however, if the city remains ignorant or uncaring about the businesses and their needs. One salient example; if the city wants to promote a "Healthy Bodega" program, a policy to encourage grocery stores to carry more fresh produce, then it can't simultaneously flood these bodega neighborhoods with produce peddlers. It's counter productive.

The primary goal, it seems to us, is to collaborate as much as possible with the key food industry stakeholders, and develop a food/health policy that is both good for health and good for the health of the city's neighborhood economies.

Vendor Bill: Bad Idea Based on a False Premise

This morning's Crain's Insider is reporting on our press conference on Intro 665 scheduled for Thursday at 12:30. As we told the newsletter the struggle won't be easy: “The mayor and speaker have jumped on board, and [the press conference]becomes a difficult sell, even for the
people who feel the bill doesn’t make sense,” Lipsky says." The difficulties, notwithstanding, the bill doesn't make much sense even from the perspective of its most fervent proponents.

If the bill's purpose is to provide access to fresh produce for communities that lack availability, then the city needed to first conduct a comprehensive survey of the communities in question in order to identify where the outlets for fresh produce were located. Instead, using survey data from the Department of Health that found that residents of certain neighborhoods consume less produce than is optimal, the bill's drafters-assuming without proof that the low consumption was the independent variable in determining this low consumption-broadly targeted 43 police precincts for 1500 newly licensed peddlers to flood.

Here are the targeted precincts: Bronx: Police Precincts 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 52;
(ii) Brooklyn: Police Precincts 63, 66, 67, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 75, 77, 79, 81, 83, 90, 94;
(iii) Manhattan: Police Precincts 23, 25, 26, 28, 30, 32, 33, 34;
(iv) Queens: Police Precincts 100, 101, 102, 103, 105, 106, 113; and
(v) Staten Island: Police Precinct 120."

Well it turns out that in many, if not most of these precincts, there are scores of fresh produce outlets operating on busy commercial streets. On Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, to take one example, there are nine outlets. Here's the breakdown: 1) 4 major supermarkets with fresh fruit & vegetable depts located on 5th Avenue-Key Food, C-Town, Associated and Met Food.
2. 2 fruit & vegetable stands - 49th Street & 5th Ave, 60th Street & 5th Avenue
3. 3 new smaller fruit stores - one in the 60's and 2 in the 40's, on 5th Avenue.

Ironically, the city also located a large greenmarket in the Sunset Park area, a market that was relocated after the community objected to its original location right on the Fifth Avenue corridor. As the NY Times reported the story: "Greenmarket, the organization that operates the city's 27 markets, has proposed one for a part of Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets. Community Board 7, which covers Sunset Park, rejected the proposal at its May 16 meeting, saying that the area was already too congested with grocery stores and other businesses."

The Greenmarket folks, just like the DOH experts, have no idea about what's happening in the neighborhoods-relying instead on cooked up data that masks certain ideological assumptions about the local food business. It is much easier to attack the deficiencies of local stores, than it is to tackle the root causes of the health problems that the advocates are striving to solve.

The reality here is that there are thousands of produce outlets within Intro 665 targeted areas. Peddlers with their new $50 a year licenses will not be heading to the hills, so to speak, but will make right for the busy commercial streets; and just like in Manhattan, will set up shop right in front of existing supermarkets and produce stores.

So the access issue will remain unaddressed, if in fact it has any validity in the first place. What the city needs to do, if it believes its own assumptions about access, is to identify specific locations and grant peddling permits for these specific locations. Our suspicion, however, is that the city is in an Emperor's No Clothes position, and is unwilling to empirically test the proposition that underlies Intro 665; fearing that the access assumption is overblown and/or meaningless.

If, as we suspect, the access issue is a false premise than the plan to flood these 43 police precincts is a bad idea. We don't believe, however, that the DOH survey is totally bogus. People aren't eating as healthy as they should. But once we remove access from the equation we are left with needing to determine what underlies the poor dietary choices people are making.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Spitzer and Butthead

In today's NY Post, the inimitable Arthur Katz lashes out at Governor Spitzer for his failure to live up to his promise to enforce the law against Indians selling non-taxed cigarettes. The governor's failure here, and we met with him three years ago when he promised to enforce the law as soon as he was elected, is costing the state big bucks at a time when New York is fiscally challenged.

As Katz points out: "For all his concern over the state's tight budget outlook, Gov. Spitzer is squandering nearly $1 billion a year in lost revenues by letting Indian reservation retailers avoid cigarette excise and sales taxes, in violation of state law." Once again, an elected official exhibits little or no concern for the state's tax paying retailers.

It gets worse, however, when you consider the fact that untaxed smokes increase the likelihood that minors will get their hands on them: "Cigarette taxes discourage smoking, especially by teens. City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden put it this way: "Increasing tobacco taxes is the single most effective way to reduce tobacco consumption, particularly for kids."

NYC retailers are losing $250 million a year to black market sales. Mayor Mike has called this a "minor economic issue." Now the governor joins the uncaring chorus and retailers can stuff it.

Posted Calorie Confusion

In yesterday's NY Post, the paper reviewed the anticipated calorie posting regulation that the Board of Health passed last week. Unfortunately, the paper is as confused about all of this as fast food customers will be if the regulation survives an anticipated legal challenge. Here's the Post's take: "-- Holy guacamole! Is it any wonder that the restaurant industry opposed New York City's new calorie-labeling law? Would you broadcast to diners that a vegetarian burrito at Chipotle can reach 900 calories or that the Signature salad at Cosi with shallot dressing and bread nears 1,000 calories?"

Talk about swallowing the unhealthy DOH propaganda! First of all, the burrito posting will not, because of the myriad combinations of possible burrito selections, be on each item. Even the clueless fast food haters at DOH couldn't require fast food outlets to post calories on every conceivable menu items-the menu board would be out the door and down the block.

Instead the chains of 15 outlets or more will be allowed to post a range for certain items like burritos. So Taco Bell or Chipotle will post the following: Burrito (400-1500 calories). A burrito consumer will simply have no idea what her burrito combo contains; which is precisely why the industry opposes the regulation.

But it gets even better. The Post has a chart that lists some kind of Starbucks Mocha drink at 630. If you check the Starbucks nutrition pamphlet, however, you'll find that the coffee chain has thousands of possible combinations; something that makes the following Post observation absurd: "Some chains make nutrition information available on their Web sites or on eye-straining charts posted in restaurant corners."

When there are hundreds or even thousands of possible offerings, you can't help the small print-unless the city requires that every customer should be mandated to receive a nutrition textbook along with their meal. In addition, the Post misleads further when it starts to add dressing and condiment information to its own chart. The calorie posting will not require this, so a customer ordering a salad will be totally misinformed if he adds a calorie-laden dressing.

The sheer impossibility of practically complying with the posting regulation in a way that will actually aid customers is what animates the industry opposition-along with the cost of compliance. And our friend Lynn Silver's comments to the paper only exacerbates the situation: "Dr. Lynn Silver, assistant commissioner at the city Health Department, said the industry apparently does not want diners to count calories. "We would ask, 'What are they so ashamed of?' " Silver said."

Clearly, Dr. Silver's remarks underscore the basic anti-business animus that underlies these kinds of regulatory forays. Unmentioned by either the Post or the good doctor is the fact that the department of health never conducted any efficacy studies to determine whether calorie posting would actually be used to guide customer choice. In fact, there none-and the current obesity epidemic is almost coterminous with the FDA's requirement that food manufacturers list nutritional information on food packaging.

Folks aren't getting the message, but the fast food haters (hey Lynn when did you last have a Big Mac?) won't stop in their jihad because they have no concern what the unintended costs of their regulations might do to the industry that is the most successful incubator of minority entrepreneurship in the country. They should be ashamed of violating all of their public health methodology guidelines in their ideological pursuit of a health dictatorship.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Gallagher Nifonged?

A state supreme court judge, using the strongest language, threw out the rape indictment of Councilman Denis Gallagher. As the NY Sun reported: "The prosecutor created an unfair inference that in evaluating the defendant's testimony and his credibility, the Grand Jury should apply a more stringent standard than the law actually imposes," the decision states."

What the Grand Jury proceedings remind us of is the railroading of the Duke lacrosse kids by the infamous Mike Nifong; and if DA Brown decides to re-convene another Grand Jury then he better have a damn good reason beyond the simple allegation of the alleged victim. Otherwise the whole thing will look like a politically motivated witch hunt.

We're From the Government-and Our Numbers are Growing

In yesterday's NY Daily News, the paper points out how city government keeps expanding in the face of fiscal challenges. The so-called hiring freeze is described by E. J. McMahon as a "slushy freeze." All of which underscores our observation that Mayor Mike is a big fan of big government, and sees no reason to apply any of his business acumen to either down-sizing or re-inventing.

As we have said before, Bloomberg is John Lindsay with a great deal more money and a great deal less empathy. He's really attempted little that's innovative, and the little he's done in the realm of education has been very Lindsay like in its lack of productivity. We're eagerly awaiting the re-evaluations; but they won't be coming from the liberal salons who excoriated Rudy while reaping the benefits of his Augean Stables cleansing.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Labor Watchdogs

Crain's Insider is reporting that the CLC is monitoring certain key development projects in order to determine the huge benefits being reaped by favored developers-benefits that aren't trickling down to the workers: "CLC Executive Director Ed Ott would not confirm the developers study, but he says “the CLC has made no secret of our concerns with the inequities and lack of labor standards with recent economic development agreements by City Hall. At this time, we continue to maintain an open dialogue to resolve some issues.”

Hey ED, just start with the Gateway Mall on the gravesite of the old Bronx Terminal Market. Related Companies got the goldmine-everyone else got the shaft. It's even being anchored by a non-union box store.

Misplaced City Priorities

AS the NY Sun reports this morning the mayor signed the plastic bag recycling bill into law yesterday. We've commented extensively on the foolishness here, but it's worth repeating that the law is yet another example of the way in which this administration, aided and abetted by the city council, disdains local business.

Regulatory costs and higher taxes keep piling up over the last six years, with no concomitant policies for the growing of the local neighborhood economies. This is particularly egregious when we look at supermarkets in the city.

Manhattan is hemorrhaging supermarkets, as rising rents force out local food stores to make way for drug stores and banks. Now we're finding that other areas of the city are experiencing the same phenomenon. Councilman Comrie tells us that his district in Southeast Queens has lost four supermarkets, Clearly, this is becoming a big problem.

Instead of over-regulating supermarkets and other food stores, the city should be devising a policy to stimulate their increase. Providing healthy food items is a key service that the city feels it must encourage-to wit, the silly green cart and green market efforts-yet the city fails to address the loss of the outlets that do provide neighborhoods, especially those where health issues are most severe, with healthy food options.

So instead of new supermarkets in underserved neighborhood, we get green carts that will cannibalize the business that their already doing-since overhead isn't comparable. Supermarkets and green grocers should be identified as the essential city services that they are. Tax and regulatory relief, grants and construction loans, all should be part of a NYC stimulus package that addresses the health crisis in the correct way: through the building of new markets that provide communities with healthy food.

DEP Oversight

The NY Daily News reports this morning that the DEP has decided to appoint an ombudsman to handle water bill complaints: "The appointment comes on the heels of a massive change to water bills: The City Council voted last month to put liens on properties when owners fail to pay their bills."

That's great news, considering that the agency is clueless, and often simply has no idea who owes what, or if the bills that were sent out to any given resident or business is legitimate. Now, however, in order to really right the ship here, we need for the city to put the entire agency under receivership-its years of malfeasance and nonfeasance should be addressed by a complete housecleaning and overhaul.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Whalen on Frieden

As I have been posting, the city has once again tried to enact calorie posting rules for the approximately 2300 fast food restaurants that have helped to revitalize the city's neighborhood economies. Their proliferation in New York is a dramatic example of the success of minority entrepreneurship; and the health commissioner's failure to recognize this goes to the heart of what's wrong with this misguided policy.

The problem is clearly underscored in a trenchant critique from Dr. Elizabeth Whalen in this morning's NY Post. As Whalen correctly points out: "Though the department claims the rules will promote public health, they're really nothing but a spiteful attack on fast-food restaurants."

The reason lies with the incomprehensibility of the plan to the average fast food customer: "There's no evidence the calorie info is of much use to real consumers. Surveys regularly tell us that most people don't have a clue how many calories a day are appropriate for them. So how does a menu-board warning that a cheeseburger supplies 300 calories help them avoid obesity?" The short answer? It doesn't.

As we've said before, something that Whalen reiterates, this is nothing but an expensive experiment that has no useful benefit-and there's absolutely no epidemiological studies that even hint at the policy's potential efficacy. Whalen's to the point: "The Health Department is ordering restaurants to change how they market food and to bear the burden of the expense and confusion this entails - all without any evidence that the move advances public health. The rules simply represent a penalty on the restaurants."

Doc Frieden, however, really doesn't care in his jihad against local entrepreneurs. He has no clue about the kind of business model at work here and believes, just as the mayor does, that he can compel changes in public behavior through enacting expensive and confusing regulations. Here' his naivete on display in this morning's NY Times: "Dr. Frieden said his department’s research showed that consumers often make faulty assumptions about the calorie counts of items on a menu. But when they have the information, he said, they tend to choose food with fewer calories.
As a result of the regulations, set to go into effect on March 31, Dr. Frieden predicted that some restaurants will eliminate some of their offerings, like appetizers that top 2,000 calories."

First of all, the department didn't do any research-certainly none that would survive peer review. It did some self-serving questionnaires that failed to demonstrate much last summer, and the commissioners prescience about how the industry will respond to his cockamamie rules beggars credulity. If left to their own devices the team of Frieden and Bloomberg would be dictating everything that New Yorkers put into their mouths.

So we now have a health policy that is so anti-business that it mirrors the anti-capitalist ideologues at the CSPI in Washington. Here's what their spokesperson told the NY Post this morning: "It's going to get a lot easier to make informed choices at New York City's chain restaurants this spring," said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest."

No it won't, but the health ideologues don't really care. There effort is designed to force folks to be healthy; and if they kill local business in the process? Well. as Lenin said, in order to make an omelet you have to crack a few eggs.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Union Push Back on Intro 665

In today's Crain's Insider, the newsletter reports on the union opposition to Intro 665. As UFCW Local 1500 rep Pat Purcell told Crain's: “It is blatantly unfair that these vendors are able to set up shop directly across the doorway from our employers,” says UFCW’s Pat Purcell. “We’d hope that in this legislation we can resolve this issue before another 1,500 carts hit the streets.”

Apparently, Speaker Quinn doesn't see this as a zero-sun game: "Quinn’s spokesman says the
bill “will create healthy food options for undeserved communities, not competition between vendors and supermarkets.” Really? How does the speaker know this? Has the council or the mayor done any economic impact analysis?

Of course not, and as we've observed, there's nothing in the bill that prevents vendors from setting up shop right in front of produce stores and supermarkets-after all, that's where the pedestrian traffic is. And if they do, isn't this creating unfair competition with stores whose greater overhead costs can't compete with peddlers paying $50 a year! for a license?

As someone once said, every one's entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own set of facts. As we told Crain's: "Lobbyist Richard Lipsky, who advocates for small stores, claims that the very premise of the bill is misguided. He says that where demand exists, stores already
sell fresh produce, and that allowing more vendors won’t create demand." This bill, as currently written, is simply not in the public interest.

Less Calories, Taste Great?

As we posted yesterday, the DOH is once again looking to dictate calorie posting information at around 2300 fast food restaurants in the city. As the NY Daily News reports this morning: "The city Board of Health is poised to reenact Tuesday a bitterly contested rule requiring restaurants to post the calorie contents of each dish on their menus."

This renewed effort fits in with the Department's overall philosophy-use regulations against city businesses, without regard to their fiscal impact, in order to compel changes in the behavior of city residents. While we believe that the current effort, if it survives the expected legal challenge, will do little to achieve health goals, we are convinced that it will cost local restaurants considerable compliance costs. In the end, this social experiment will demonstrate that the costs of calorie posting far outweigh the putative benefits.

If we listen to the health commissioner, however, the department's policy will generate a dramatic change in behavior and a concomitant reduction in health costs: "City health officials expect the regulation to result in 150,000 fewer New Yorkers becoming obese over the next five years and to prevent at least 30,000 cases of diabetes."

On what do they base this wild estimate? Certainly it isn't based on any significant public health research that gives even a hint of the measure's potential efficacy. Basically, the DOH is winging it, with a social experiment funded by the hard-earned dollars of local franchise owners. It's little more than a frontal assault on an industry that has provided more opportunity for minority entrepreneurship than any other in this country.

But that's certainly in pattern for this administration. After all Intro 665, a bill that would flood minority neighborhoods with produce peddlers, is a direct threat to the livelihood of thousands of minority supermarket owners and green grocers who have invested in these communities and are already providing the fresh fruits and vegetables that the Bloombergistas claim are not available in certain neighborhoods.

There are, according to our estimates, over 2,500 local stores providing fresh produce to poor neighborhoods. In the late seventies, for instance, there were only around fifty Korean produce stores. Today there are 1400! Yet, the city simply has no accurate idea where these stores are located. Has it stopped them from proposing to flood the same areas where these stores are operating? You'd think that a simple due diligence would have been done before the sweeping proposal was launched.

We're really not surprised. In his 2,000 word state of the city speech Mayor Mike failed to mention small business even once! His policies over six years reflect this animus-from evicting minority businesses from the Bronx Terminal Market, to raising the cigarette tax and driving $250 million a year worth of business from local bodegas to the black market and the Internet (To which he famously remarked: "It's a minor economic issue").

The mayor is consumed with forcing folks to live healthier lives, but remains indifferent to the health of neighborhood economies that are as important to the well being of poorer New Yorkers. In the original dust up on calorie posting the mayor told the Daily News: " “Anyone who thinks we’re going to walk away from trying to tell the public what they’re eating and what it’s doing to them doesn’t understand the obligation this city’s health department has,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said yesterday. “We have to tell people how to lead better lives.”

God help the businesses that get in the way of the health crusade and those elites that know what's best for the less fortunate among us. It's a slippery slope towards a paternalism that will, if successful, mean bigger government and less freedom.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Fat Chance

Unable to simply take no for an answer, the NYC DOH is back tomorrow to try to create regulations to mandate calorie posting at city fast food chains. As the NY Post writes this morning: "The first-in-the-nation rule would mandate restaurants with more than 15 locations print complete calorie information for all items on their menus. The restaurant lobby has battled the proposal."

Now we have written about how we feel about this before; there is simply no reason to believe that the Department's efforts will do any good, and the costs to local entrepreneurs will certainly be steep. Yet Health Commissioner Frieden sees it this way: "It is unfortunate that we are at the point that the restaurant industry, or parts of it, are so ashamed of what they are serving that they'd rather go to court than put [the information] where people would actually see it."

In our view, it is the reluctance of the industry to put disinformation where people can be mislead that underlies industry reluctance; since calorie information on a fast food menu that is mix-and-match with various items will only create confusion-and that's for the folks who actually understand what the calories really mean. In the end, we believe that the courts will knock this reg out as it did the first one that the city tried to implement last year.

Schooling the Scholars

Just when you thought that the Bloombergistas had reformed the city's school system into a Valhalla of educational achievement, along comes more evidence that the entire achievement here is based more on spin than substance. As the NY Sun reports this morning: "In what is likely to be the area's largest education-related rally in months, about 600 parents are expected to gather today in Lower Manhattan to demand an overhaul of the city's public middle schools."

Overhaul, you say? But what for, when the changes that have been wrought by the educational elite at Tweed have made radical breakthroughs in the historic underachievement by city school kids-particularly Black and Latino youngsters? Apparently, this is another example of how Klein's hype fails to match the reality in the schools.

The protest is being led by the Coalition for Educational Justice, and is being staged to debunk the Bloomberg PR campaign: "The event is timed with the release a new report disputing Mayor Bloomberg's claims that racial and economic achievement gaps have closed under his watch.
"In a crucial part of the school system — the middle grades — the gap is not closing," the report, from a group of parents across the city, the Coalition for Educational Justice, says."

This is just another sad case of how Mayor Mike has successfully bamboozled the larger public, and a salient example as well of the lack of real media scrutiny behind all of the mayoral hoo ha. But as Chico Marx once said, when interrupted in flagrante delicto by a husband; "Who're going to believe, me or your own eyes?"

Charter F(l)ight?

In yesterday's NY Daily News, Kirsten Danis speculates on the mayor's state of the city comments about launching another attempt at charter revision. Everyone remembers, of course, the great failure of the mayor in 2003 when he attempted to institute non-partisan elections (which reminds us that the mayor's current quixotic attempt to inculcate a national version of bipartisanship has already bombed on Broadway, so it's unlikely to be any more successful as a road show).

Clearly, Mayor Mike is up to something here. Here's Danis' take: "Mayor Bloomberg slipped a bomb disguised as a wonky policy moment into his State of the City speech. About halfway through the address last week, Bloomberg said he planned to set up a charter review commission that would spend 18 months doing a "top-to-bottom review" of the way city government works." What's Bloomberg up to?

Danis feels that there's a good chance that the mayor will take a shot at the vestigial offices of Public Advocate and the borough presidents. But that fight, popular in some good government quarters, may be merely a smokescreen for something more insidious: "Even the threat of getting rid of some of the city's high-profile offices could win the mayor support for what he really wants: putting his stamp on the way government works day-to-day - permanently -- and changing the way land use and development projects are approved."

Well, well. Just how do you think Mayor Mike would want to reform the land use review process? Make it more accountable, kinda of like mirroring the Brodsky proposal on accountable development? No, that's unlikely from someone who has no faith in the voice of any impacted community.

If reform of land use is on the upcoming charter revision agenda, then it will more likely take the "streamlined and efficiency" direction; an approach that will further enervate the ability of the people to be heard. The Manhattan Institute's critique of ULURP comes to mind here. Well, we welcome the mayor if he decides to enter into the land use waters; it will expose his Father Knows Best mentality and ultimately, just as with non-partisan elections, it will be rejected by the voters.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Bloomberg's Delusions

In yesterday's state of the city, Mayor Mike exhibited the kind of hubris that has endeared him, well, not to us. Speaking of the city he inherited from Rudy Giuliani (as the NY Times reports) he told his gathered flock: “Keeping New York City and America at the front of the pack begins with an openness to new energy, meaning immigration, and new ideas, meaning innovation,” he said. “That’s how I built my business, and that’s the approach we’ve brought to a city government that was insular and provincial, and married to the conventional.”

Whoa Nellie! This is the classic case of the guy who's born on third base thinking that he's hit a triple-on top of a complete lack of gratitude for the one person who is solely responsible for his improbable election. It appears that Mike's starting to really believe his own BS.

Which gets us to his rhapsody on immigration. As the NY Sun reports, he assailed those politicians who are embracing "xenophobia." We can see all of the batons twirling over at the Drum Major Institute, not to mention all of the huzzahs at the Times from the open borders crowd. Here's the Sun's lede: "Calling on the leading Republican presidential candidates to open their eyes to the contributions of immigrants, Mayor Bloomberg used his State of the City speech to denounce the nativist sentiment that has infected the Republican field and to lay claim to the title of America's mayor."

Fat chance of this. Now we're not going to rehash the nefarious dishonesty of conflating a concern for borders with anti-immigrant sentiment, but we are going to say that Mayor Mike has done absolutely nothing for the immigrants who exemplify the American dream in this city-neighborhood entrepreneurs. Instead, he raises their taxes, over-regulates their stores, let's a flood of non-tax-paying peddlers cannibalize their businesses, and promotes large box stores at their expense. No, Mike only praises immigrants in order to bury them later under his pro big boys economic development policies.

For us, the next two years can't go fast enough. And the thought of his national aspirations actually has us in stitches. This somnambulist couldn't inspire a room of cash-hungry applicant for one of his charitable grants. Kirstin Danis captures this in her commentary on the mayor's speech. At the end, the mayor remarks on how a baby in the audience had slept through his entire speech: "At the end of his 50-minute address, Bloomberg marveled that a newborn baby lying in her mom's arms onstage had slept through the entire speech. "Why should he single out the baby? We were all asleep," one audience member joked."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Anti-Cart Attack Coalition Forming

The opposition to Intro 665, a bill that would allow an additional 1500 push carts on city streets, is generated significant opposition from a diverse set of constituencies. As of now, it appears that two of the largest locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers-1500 and 342-will be joining with Local 338 of the RWDSU to oppose the measure because the labor folks believe that it will threaten union jobs, while possibly creating a class of exploited workers.

Labor opposition is important because of the political influence it has at the council. What makes it even more significant in this case is the fact that Local 1500 played a pivotal role in Speaker Quinn's ascension to her leadership post. Labor's concerns may open up the process for some significant changes in the proposed law.

Joining with labor are a wide array of business folks-from independent and chain supermarkets concerned about unfair competition, to Korean green grocers who have established fresh fruit and vegetable outposts all over the neighborhoods that the legislation targets (areas that are allegedly bereft of available fresh produce). In addition, we expect that a number of Hispanic chambers of commerce will also lend their support to the opposition.

Finally, there are the community and civic groups-some on the East Side of Manhattan, but others from all over the boroughs-that are concerned with pedestrian safety issues and the quality of life threat that they believe is posed by a peddler proliferation. This is an issue of pedestrian safety that Councilman John Liu, chair of the council's Transportation Committee, should jump all over.

Intro 665 targets a number of key low income areas for its cart attack. This is done by police precinct. Here's how it breaks out:
"Fresh fruits and vegetables permits, in addition to being designated for use exclusively in a borough as specified in subparagraph (a) of this paragraph, shall be designated for use exclusively within the police precincts specified below and shall be subject to the same time and place restrictions for vending in such areas as other food vendors:
(i) Bronx: Police Precincts 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 52;
(ii) Brooklyn: Police Precincts 63, 66, 67, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 75, 77, 79, 81, 83, 90, 94;
(iii) Manhattan: Police Precincts 23, 25, 26, 28, 30, 32, 33, 34;
(iv) Queens: Police Precincts 100, 101, 102, 103, 105, 106, 113; and
(v) Staten Island: Police Precinct 120."

What this means is, that within these precinct neighborhoods there is no restrictions on the locations along commercial strips where peddlers can set up; and if a certain location in front of a large green grocer or supermarket is a real pedestrian traffic generator, then we might expect that multiple numbers of carts will gravitate to take parasitic advantage of the prime location: all in the name of an access that Intro 665 claims these neighborhoods lack. There's more rotten than the fruit in all of this.

Tax Talk

Perhaps it is the fact that, as Councilman Lew Fidler told the Post, the mayor is running for president and doesn't want to do while raising taxes. But whatever the reason, the mayor's decision to rule out a tax increase in the midst of a budget deficit is good news given the fact that he's shown little sensitivity to the bloated nature of municipal government over the past six years.

And guess what? Mayor Mike's even talking about trimming government spending: "In October, as revenue projections were lowered, Bloomberg ordered agency heads to come up with $1.5 billion in savings over two years. He also instituted a temporary hiring freeze, which has since been lifted." As the NY Times reports: "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, squeezed by rising costs and sharply falling revenues, plans to cut spending rather than raise taxes to balance the city budget next year, according to an aide familiar with his thinking."

Of course, more should be done but that would entail an inclination and will that doesn't exist in the current administration. Here's the way the NY Sun depicts the mayor's attitude: "The mayor always said that we have to keep a constant eye on whether we can afford these tax cuts and, based on where were are right now, they're still alive and moving forward," a source who said he is familiar with the mayor's thinking and the speech's content said. "The mayor feels that he can propose this in part because when the storm clouds were still distant on the horizon he started making hard calls about cutting government spending."

All well and good, but what's missing is the reinventing government attitude that looks to make service delivery more entreprenuerial and efficient. Interestingly, the man who made billions in business doesn't see government through anything that resembles the same private sector lens. Wondering whether we can "afford" a tax cut typifies the pro-government mindset.

Bloomberg's problem here is that, having eschewed a reform government approach in opting for whopping tax increases in 2002, he has foregone six years of opportunity. He's left with a "beg the unions" strategy that at this late stage of his mayoralty will be difficult to effectively implement: "Bloomberg officials have remained tight-lipped about what or how much would be cut, but the aide said that Mr. Bloomberg would try to save money within the government and would look to labor unions for help."

It's late in the day for a renewed examination of the size of government, and how the bloat effects the middle class tax payers and the businesses that support the government services. As late as it is, however, it's better late than never as we head into the next election cycle.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Proleterian Produce

A post on the Clinton Hill blog (courtesy of City Room) makes an unwitting mockery of the attempt by the City Council to insure by fiat (Intro 665) that low income New Yorkers eat fresh fruits and veggies. The blog in question does a neat pictorial on the proliferation of chi chi groceries in a neighborhood that heretofore was a lot more pedestrian in its food tastes. As the Clinton Hillers say: "Oh boy, people. We’re on the cusp of an insane explosion…of chi chi grocers!"

What this shows is that when the demand takes off, the supply will be right there with it: "And finally, just a shout-out to the slightly dank but decently-stocked Associated on Waverly between Lafayette and Greene, which has been increasing their inventory of organic foods and “green” cleaning supplies."

The demand, however, cannot be manufactured; and it serves no purpose to flood neighborhood streets with peddlers who will cannibalize existing produce business being done at tax paying stores. These peddlers will undersell the stores because of the lack of significant overhead, forestalling the kind of positive economic and health-oriented development that we're witnessing in Clinton Hill.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Caveat Vendor: Freeriders Protest Permits

The legion of street vendors who, for a relatively small permit fee, take millions of dollars a year from the cash registers of tax paying store owners, aren't satisfied with the number of permits the city gives out for vending. This, as the City Room blog points out, is in spite of the fact that the mayor and the speaker are supporting legislation-Intro 665-that would increase the number of fruit and vegetable peddlers by 1500 in two years.

As the City Room blogs: "In the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished category, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg came up with a plan to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income New Yorkers, and he got hit with rotten tomatoes from city street vendors...Rafael Samanez, the director of the advocacy group Vamos Unidos, said an extra 1,500 cart permits, under the city’s proposed Green Cart legislation, is far too low for the demand of street vendors. “The city has failed to meet the needs of thousands of low-income workers,” he said."

This nonsense simply has to stop. The city's neighborhood stores have been whacked with rent increases of greater than fifty percent ever since the mayor and the council raised real estate taxes in 2002. This, along with the high costs of health insurance and the increased enforcement activities of myriad city agencies, is driving stores out of business in the very neighborhoods that Intro 665 wants to flood with peddlers.

Driving along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn today we saw scores of vacant store fronts. When is this administration and the legislature going to protect the interests of the small businesses that employ hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers? Senor Samanez needs to be cognizant of the hundreds of thousands of store workers-many of whom are recent immigrants-who will be out of jobs when vendors with no overhead compete directly with stores paying high rents and high taxes. The pool of consumer spending revenue is a finite one, and the proliferation of peddlers creates a very real zero-sum game.

And the Times goes on to say; "Mr. Samanez said the scarcity of permits means that even licensed food vendors must work outside the law to earn a living, skirting police enforcement while operating their carts without a license." No, they don't have to break the law, they can work for good union wages at many local supermarkets; where, if they save their money they can open up stores, pay taxes, and contribute directly to the city's upkeep.

As far as Intro 665 is concerned-a hearing is scheduled for January, 31, 2008-it continues to generate a spewing of erroneous information. Here's the latest: "Anthony Hogrebe, a spokesman for the City Council, said the purpose of the plan “is to get fresh fruits and vegetables into neighborhoods that lack access to healthy foods.”

No just where is that neighborhood? All through the low income neighborhoods of Brooklyn that we drove through today we saw supermarkets and green grocers. Under Intro 665, a bill without any geographic restriction within the targeted neighborhoods, a peddler can set up right in front of the very stores that are selling fresh produce. In fact, there's nothing to stop a multitude of vendors from doing just that. Which gives you a good idea why it's said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The final indignity here comes from the vendor advocate: "Mr. Samanez’s group said there is a current waiting list of 2,500 people seeking cart permits and estimates another 9,000 vendors are operating without permits. The group said the city has maintained the current limit, of 3,000 food carts and 853 merchandise carts, since 1979."

So, as we have always suspected, the city-with 9,000 illegal carts already in the streets-is simply unwilling to enforce the law; and now wants to add to the Marrakesh atmosphere with more peddlers. The assault on legitimate businesses, communities, and union workers needs to stop.

More Housing: Spitzer's Plan

More details are emerging on the Governor's $400 million affordable housing proposal. As the NY Times writes this morning: "The governor’s proposed Housing Opportunity Fund, in addition to the state’s regular funding, would more than triple the amount normally allocated for affordable housing, according to Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat and the chairman of the Assembly Housing Committee."

This is a sharp departure from the Pataki era, where all affordable housing was folded into the 80/20 incentive plan that critics say benefited developers more than those in need of housing. As the Times points out: "During much of Mr. Pataki’s tenure, nearly every developer building rental apartments who asked the state for tax-free bonds got them as long as they agreed to set aside 20 percent of the units for low- and moderate-income tenants for 20 years. The 80-20 program, as it was known, meant millions for developers. But critics said the program overly benefited developers of luxury projects that were out of reach for poorer residents."

Let's hope that the initiative gets full legislative support so that a full range of needy New Yorkers, the middle class along with the truly poor, get housing opportunities in a city that is becoming less hospitable to the less than wealthy. We're also sure that some of this money could be put to good use in West Harlem where affordable housing needs to move front in center to mitigate the Columbia expansion effort.

(C)ommunity (B)ogarted (A)way

In yesterday' Metro Patrick Arden focuses on the questionable manner in which Community Benefits Agreements have been promulgated in NYC: "Community benefits agreements have dampened opposition to projects elsewhere, but they’ve spawned controversy here as politicians have hammered out 11th-hour CBAs just before crucial votes. This New York style of deal making worries California attorney Julian Gross. “The entire future of the community-benefits movement could be threatened by CBAs being sidetracked and taken over by developers and electeds who want to steer and channel the community participation,” he said."

All of which means to us that the entire process-along with ULURP itself-needs to be re-thought; something that the city's Central Labor Council has begun to entertain. As it stands right now, the devising of CBAs has become the domain of elected officials whose participation not only dampens real community participation, but may also threaten the legality of the agreements that are negotiated: "“The whole thing works better democratically when electeds don’t try to pressure community groups to support projects based on the electeds’ views on what projects are good,” Gross said. When politicians are involved, critics charge, CBAs are weaker — not just in benefits extracted but also in legal protections."

Of course the problematic nature of CBAs in NYC are given a new meaning by the Columbia situation, where the supple Jesse James Masyr was brought in to supposedly represent community interests in West Harlem: "A Memorandum of Understanding was signed by Columbia University and community groups last month on the same day the City Council approved the school’s $7 billion expansion plan. While the MOU lays out the framework for negotiating a future Community Benefits Agreement, it lacks a CBA’s binding power.
At the request of the city, attorney Jesse Masyr agreed to represent pro bono the community coalition, the West Harlem Local Development Corporation. He had been on the other side of a CBA, representing developer the Related Companies in the Gateway mall project at the Bronx Terminal Market."

In the case of CU, it is still somewhat perplexing that the City Council hurried the deal through with weeks to spare before the ULURP clock ran out-something which is unprecedented in our experience with the politics of the land use review process. Here, there is no longer any political leverage for even a putative community to extract substantive benefits from the university. All that remains is the good will of Columbia-a thin reed indeed for a community faced with severe displacement.

Which means that there needs to be substantial changes (especially as community benefits agreements begin to supersede the environmental issues in ULURP) in the way the city conducts its land use business. The CLC is leading the way; a path we all should be following.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Housing Front and Center

There's a small article in today's NY Post that highlights Governor Spitzer's concern with housing. In this case it's middle class housing: "Trying to rally support for his plan to spend $400 million on middle-income housing, Gov. Eliot Spitzer yesterday visited a Brooklyn housing project that he lauded as an example of affordable housing for working families."

The key here, of course, is that affordable housing is not just for the very poor. The housing crisis in the city affects the working families, many of whom are city workers like teachers and police. AS the governor said: "The city, at the end of the day, will not survive" unless affordable housing is provided. "New York City is not just Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue."

Which brings us to the Columbia situation. The land swap plan being developed by Nick Sprayregen envisions a mix of affordable housing that includes not only poor people but the working class as well-folks being priced out of Manhattan who will be further exiled as more gentrification is spurred by the university's expansion. Things should start to come to ahead this week.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Recycling Inconsistency

In this morning's NY Sun, the paper writes about the electronic recycling bill that is sponsored in the City Council by Bill DeBlasio. As the paper says: "Electronics manufacturers would be required to set up recycling programs under legislation being considered by the City Council." Did you notice that? It said the manufacturers would be required to set up!

Remember our commentary on the plastic bag recycling? There, the manufacturers are held harmless-reduced to spectators while local stores do the heavy lifting. And yet, that Intro 640 whisked through the legislature with the speaker wielding the whisk broom. How to account for the discrepancy?

Well, it turns out that the mayor doesn't like to hold computer companies responsible for their trash; so the speaker puts her environmental creds on hold even while 45 of her colleagues are listed as the E-recycling bill's sponsors. This hypocrisy won't stand greater scrutiny and the speaker is going to have to step up and do the right thing,

Sprayregen at the Barricade

In this morning's NY Times, the Public Lives column focuses on the resistance to Columbia's expansion by our intrepid client Nick Sprayregen. As Nick tells the paper, “I would have never thought four years ago that I would get involved in a civil rights issue; I had never before considered myself as part of a minority that was being stamped upon.” He does now. “This is about the powerful growing more powerful at the expense of those who have less. Columbia is not a public university; what they’re doing by threatening to use eminent domain is as unethical from a business perspective as anything I’ve ever come across. Property rights abuse is running rampant, but what’s unique in this instance is that eminent domain always seems to be used against the down-and-out, people who can’t afford to fight back in a meaningful way. I can. But I think it’s anti-American that I’m probably on the losing side.”

Ironically, the recent City Council vote for the expansion plan has actually generated a great deal more support for the compromise swap proposal that Sprayregen has proffered to the university. Without going into great detail, since negotiations are delicate at this stage, everyone who has stood against Nick now is looking to become part of a compromise that avoids the battle that Nick is ready to wage.

And it only makes a great deal of sense, since it will create the kind of win-win situation that will do much to reduce the acrimony that the expansion plan has created. In the next few weeks, as the details of the plan emerge, we foresee a coming together of the sides that will allow Sprayregen to stay in West Harlem; and enable hundreds of local families to find affordable housing as well.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

NY Times Also in the Bag

We almost missed the expected editorial reaction of the NY Times to the plastic bag recycling mandate-it was buried in the City Room blog: "Some municipalities already have such programs, but none is as sweeping as the measure passed today by the New York City Council. It would require plastic bag recycling for stores of at least 5,000 square feet or stores belonging to chains with more than five locations in the city."

Sweeping in what way? The Times, typically short on any understanding of the law's details (why ask the retailers?), fails to address the incentive issue-at least the Daily News touches on the problematic nature of customer participation in the promotion of a greener planet. If the bags don't come back, and there's no reason to think they will, then what?

We all know that the bags can be recycled, and the Times' information-"What will become of these bags? They can find new life pressed into durable composite lumber, like that used in decks and boardwalks. Or they could be made into more plastic bags, and presumably re-recycled indefinitely"-is not new. But if the bags are thrown out, which they will by the millions, none of these scenarios will come to be.

The only certainty? The stores will pay, and the next council will address the law's failure with more restrictive measures that will make doing business in this city more expensive than anywhere else.

Daily News in the Bag

The NY Daily News came out this morning and, quite predictably, endorsed the City Council's Intro 640, a bill that mandates that around 2,000 local stores must recycle plastic bags. As the paper tells us: "There's a market for the plastic. The going rate is about 25 cents a pound - maybe enough to finance an industry that will make the rounds of stores, gather and resell the bags."

We're encouraged to find out that there's a potential gold mine here-but we'd feel more so if we knew that all of the editorial writers were quitting their jobs en masse to get into the burgeoning gold rush. The truth here is a bit different. There's no gold in them thar bags, and to believe there is, is to to be mislead by a plastic bag industry that told the City Council that plastic bag recycling would become a "profit center" for local stores.

Sure, just like the bottle bill is? In that piece of legislation all of the third party collectors charge the distributors a fat fee for collecting and recycling beer and soda bottles; not wanting to base their business chances on the fluctuating value of the containers' recycling value. We're certainly not holding our breathe for any stampede of recycling entrepreneurs here.

In addition, the News suspends its disbelief here rather too gullibly; and misleads its readers when it says; "The bill puts the onus on bag makers to get the job done." Perhaps they should read the bill where they would find that there's no such onus-all of the onus, in this case the fiscal burden, is on the stores. They are the ones who are left literally holding the bag.

And as we told the NY Sun: "A lobbyist for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, a coalition of small businesses, Richard Lipsky, said yesterday that the bill remained flawed and misappropriates the penalties. "If, in fact, these bags are harmful to the environment, then the people who manufacture and sell them should have some obligation to pay for the recycling process," Mr. Lipsky said. "There is no such obligation in this bill."

What the Council continues to do is to find new burdens to saddle local stores with-while doing precious little to enhance their profitability as the city heads into what looks like a financial down turn. It appears that our legislators, most of whom have almost no business experience, have little concern for the folks whose entrepreneurial efforts pay their salaries; and finance the goods and services that they deem to be essential.

And what will the bill actually accomplish? Well, with no deposit incentive we simply can't see that the bill will put even a small dent in the estimated 1 billion plastic bags that are sold in the city each year. Whole Foods rebates its customers 10 cents for each bag returned; yet the store's return rate is minuscule. Without the incentive the whole experiment is doomed to be an expensive (to the stores) failure.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Plastic Bagmen (Women) for Lobbyists

At today's Stated City Council meeting the legislature voted Intro 640, a bill that mandates plastic recycling in stores, into law. As the Council press releases states: "Council to Be National Leader in Environmental Protection, Votes on Groundbreaking Plastic Bag Recycling Bill." Groundbreaking, that is, only if you're digging with a plastic spoon.

What Intro 640 actually does, however, is to represent the interests of the Plastic Bag Alliance, an alliance of five bag manufacturers who account for over 90% of all of the plastic bags manufactured and sold in this country. The bill absolves theses multi-billion companies of any fiscal responsibility for the collection and recycling of the product that only they make money on selling.

Instead, in what amount to a counter intuitive move, the council places all of the fiscal burden for implementing the recycling measure on the local businesses that pay taxes to the city and employ tens of thousands of New Yorkers. As we told the SI Advance: "Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist representing several major supermarket chains, contended it places too much burden on individual stores. "The bill still is lacking in equity in terms of the responsibility that falls on the shoulders of retailers versus the lack of responsibility that falls on the shoulders of manufacturers," Lipsky said."

If, as the Sanitation Committee chairman says in the council press release, “The flood of used plastic bags is clogging our streets and natural areas with litter, while causing a serious depletion of natural resources,” said Sanitation Committee Chair Michael McMahon...," than why wouldn't the council obligate the bag profiteers to play a more substantive role in the recycling of the harmful product? The answer friends lies with the lobbying power of the Bag Alliance; and we're supposed to believe that the council has cleaned the lobbying Augean Stables?

Clearly, as those in the know will tell you, this bill takes brotherhood to new heights. And equally raises the level of hypocrisy emanating from the right side of City Hall.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Peddle to the Muddle

Intro 665 has been introduced at the City Council and the measure, which could add 1500 street vendors to the five boroughs, needs a great deal more work if it is going to make any public policy sense. As we have said before, "As far as false nostrums are concerned, the idea that the poor of the city are obese because they lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables ranks right up there; the problem is not availability but desirability-people must be educated so that demand is generated for the produce."

That being said, why is Intro 665, as it's currently drafted, such a bad idea? In the first place," the bill is based on the untested assumption that availability holds the key-with "lack of access" as the mantra of the advocates. If this were truly the case it would mean that policy should be directed at those areas where access is lacking. The Intro 665 appears to do just this, but appearances are deceiving.

The areas targeted are based on a Department of Health survey that found that only 12% of residents in certain communities "regularly consume" vegetables. This doesn't, however, tell us a thing about access. In addition, the bill's rationale is also built on the evaluation of the city's bodegas, and the fact that these convenience stores don't generally sell fresh fruit and vegetables.

This really amounts to somewhat of a non sequitor. Convenience stores don't generally sell this kind of produce. The second rationale is based on a finding that areas such as East Harlem have 30% fewer supermarkets than an upper income neighborhood like the East Side. This doesn't really tell us much, and it's certainly not any basis for spreading a peddler proliferation over the low income areas of the city.

Even in the bereft East Harlem there are at least 16 supermarkets, including a large Pathmark that was built after a great deal of controversy. The people of East Harlem, just like those in all of the comparable neighborhoods in the city, have plenty of access to fresh produce. But if you're really concerned by all of this, than the response should be more supermarkets, not peddlers who might well take away business from the store owners.

Which brings us back to Intro 665. The bill contains no geographical restrictions whatsoever. This means that a peddler could, and we would say will, set up his stand right in the front of stores that are selling fresh produce. What possible sense does this make? In addition, if you want more fruit stands, than store operators should be given first dibs on the spots in front of their businesses-not someone who will set up shop, for $50 bucks, in front of a supermarket and compete with the tax paying business.

As this Intro proceeds we will discuss some of the enforcement weaknesses in the legislation. Suffice it to say, that the bill would open up a Pandora's Box, with uninspected and unhealthy produce being peddled all in the name of healthier eating. And in the end, it's doubtful to us whether the expressed goals of reducing obesity would ever be properly addressed.

Is the Bloom Already Off of the Rose?

Well it certainly didn't take long, did it? Just moments into the Bloomberg blitz, labeled cutely by the NY Sun as the "Norman Conquest," it now appears that the air around the independent run by Mayor Mike has been seriously deflated by the euphoria surrounding the rise of Barack Obama.

As the NY Times tells us this morning: "But even as the mayor gathered on Monday with the seasoned Washington hands on the campus of the University of Oklahoma, the surging presidential campaign of Senator Barack Obama seemed to steal energy from the event and set off worry elsewhere among Mr. Bloomberg’s supporters." We're not surprised. When a genuine political phenomenon comes along, energized by a charismatic political figure, the sober competency of the mayor really hasn't any chance of catching fire.

The Sun also appears to have cooled its ardor a bit: "It's hard to think of anyone who has called for Mayor Bloomberg to get into the presidential lists more often than this newspaper, but if the dirge that issued from Norman, Oklahoma, and the so-called Bipartisan Forum is a sign of things to come, it's hard to see the point." Indeed it is.

As the Sun goes on to point out, echoing our critique of the "bipartisan BS, "The fact is they are behind the curve now, while Senator Obama is galloping to the fore. It strikes us that unless Mr. Bloomberg moves with some decisiveness and joie de vive, his latest demarche is going to meet the kind of fate that was met by his proposal for non-partisan elections in 2003. It went down — as Davidson Goldin reminded us in a column yesterday — to a crushing defeat by voters in New York who, it turns out, love partisanship as much as the rest of the country does."

Now that would be a first, the mayor exhibiting a joie de vive-something that we've failed to observe in all of his six years of soporific speech. People want to be inspired by their leaders and on this count, Mayor Mike has to be counted out. If, however, the Obama craze begins to peter out, as folks start to get a close look at where the neophyte actually stands on the political spectrum, there may be room for a competent, unexciting grown up. We'll just have to see.

Monday, January 07, 2008

CBA Yanked

In today's NY Times, the paper's Timothy Williams takes a hard look at the community benefits agreement that was crafted when the deal to build a new Yankee Stadium was struck two years ago. We're far from shocked to see that, although benefits were supposed to flow as soon as construction began, so far no money has been allocated- and the "community group" in charge has yet to meet: "But nearly 17 months after construction began, as workers race to complete the new Yankee Stadium by opening day 2009, none of that money has been distributed, and the group responsible for administering it has never met."

What we have here is the flimsiest semblance of a CBA: "The agreement for Yankee Stadium was unusual, however, because it was not negotiated or signed by community members. It carries only the signatures of four elected officials, who said they were acting on behalf of the community, and a representative of the Yankees." Who're they kidding?

This CBA is no different in substance from the one that was "negotiated" over the dead body of the old Bronx Terminal Market, a market discarded when a deal was struck to evict long time merchants in order to make way for the new Gateway Mall. At the time we labeled that deal the Carrion Benefits Agreement, in honor of the creative role played by the Bronx BP, and the fact that many of the community reps bailed on the agreement before it was signed-in protest of the rigged nature of the negotiations orchestrated by our old friend Jesse James Masyr.

In fact, when the Gateway CBA was signed, Yankee president Randy Levine told Dave Lombino in the NY Sun that his CBA deal would be: "much more significant" than a $5 million agreement signed last week between the developer of the nearby Gateway Center mall, local elected officials, and some community representatives." At the time, the Sun's Andrew Wolf saw through all of this: "To ensure the continued support of Bronx public officials, a scheme has been concocted to have the Yankees set up a $28 million trust fund to be run by "an individual of prominence" selected by a group appointed by Bronx political leaders. Would it surprise anyone if the "individual of prominence" dispenses the largesse to the groups that pledge fealty to the party bosses?

And so it went. This is clearly a race toward the bottom; and the panel set up on the Yankee CBA has yet to be even be incorporated. Council member Foster, an opponent of both the stadium project as well as the mall deal deservedly has the last word: "Councilwoman Helen Diane Foster, who represents the High Bridge neighborhood and who opposed the stadium, said she had neither been briefed nor been asked for an opinion on the board. She said she had sent letters requesting information to Mr. CarriĆ³n and to council members Ms. Baez and Ms. del Carmen Arroyo without response. “I have no idea how people were selected to the panel,” she said. “It concerns me, but I’m also wise enough to know that a lot of people are hinging careers on how great this deal is, so I’m not surprised we haven’t had this conversation.”