Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bloomberg and Buttheads

We were extremely pleased this morning to read that Mayor Mike has finally decided to take strong legal action against Indian cigarette dealers. As Newsday reports: "After banning smoking in bars and restaurants, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is now targeting eight Mastic smoke shops, filing a lawsuit yesterday against the retailers on the Poospatuck Indian reservation, claiming they are unlawfully selling untaxed cigarettes.The shops can sell the cigarettes tax-free to reservation residents but not to others, New York City officials said. New York City said the illegal untaxed cigarettes sold at the shops means at least $525 million lost in state tax revenue each year, while the city loses $195 million from city residents making purchases there.
Bootleggers buying and then reselling the tax-free cigarettes from reservations statewide costs taxpayers more than $1 billion annually, city officials said."

Now this is an issue we have been hammering away on for over a decade, and the city's lawsuit follows the one brought by Red Apple Company's CEO John Catsimatidis. As Newsday points out: "The city's lawsuit isn't the only legal challenge to Long Island tribes over cigarette taxes. In 2006 Gristede's Foods Inc. of Manhattan sued the Poospatuck Smoke Shop and Trading Post, the Shinnecock Tribe and Unkechauga Nation in federal court in Brooklyn over allegations that the sale of untaxed cigarettes to non-tribe members had created a black market in illegally discounted cigarette sales."

During the current economic meltdown, it is all hands on deck time. This means that the city and the state can ill afford to disregard these tax scofflaws-no matter what specious arguments they may raise. All eyes are on Governor Paterson who has been exhibiting a case of cold feet on the issue: "Errol Cockfield, a spokesman for Paterson, said the governor will, in coming weeks, meet with leaders of the various Indian tribes and hopes to "reach a resolution to preclude the need for more endless litigation."

Which is, of course, both disingenuous and fruitless. There's no need for any further discussion-and if there's to be "endless litigation," than let it occur after the state enforces the law and the aggrieved Indians file suit. Bloomberg gets this exactly right: "I think the governor should go to the reservations, and say as of tomorrow morning, stop this practice," Bloomberg said. "I think he can make this decision and I'm urging him to do so." Bloomberg said he spoke with Paterson, who he said told him that "he would look into it."

Today's NY Times story is somewhat behind the curve on this issue: "The latest move seeks to go after cigarette retailers, but it could also entangle issues of Indian sovereignty, said Kathryn R. L. Rand, a law professor at the University of North Dakota who is an expert on Indian gambling. “It has legal merit, but I think it’s pushing the envelope a little bit,” she said."

Simply untrue. The issue was resolved over a decade ago when the US Supreme Court ruled, in a unanimous decision, that New York had the right to tax this off-reservation sales; and kudos to then NYS AG Oliver Koppell who successfully brought the action on the state's behalf.

Now we need all of our elected officials to act in concert on this-and collect the money that is going directly into this black market. The time for discussion has long past, and it's a Jerry McGuire moment for the Poospatuck: "Show us the money!"

Let the Voters Speak

All of the calls for extending Mike Bloomberg's term in office begin to remind us of the stench of insider trading. As we have said before, if the mayor was so prescient-and indispensible according to some-why wasn't he on top of this fiscal crisis from the get go? And isn't it instructive to point out that all of the culprits in the economic meltdown are part of Bloomberg's cohort?

Take Hank Paulsen; or, as Henny Youngman would have said, "Please!" Here's a guy, recruited from Goldman Sachs, who never had a clue and whose only interest in a solution seems to involve bailing out his banker friends. Here's Michael Daley's wonderful piece in the NY Daily News this morning: "No honest, hardworking New Yorker can rightly blame those hayseeds beyond the Hudson for balking at bailing out Wall Street. Just stroll past the new Goldman Sachs headquarters going up at the edge of Ground Zero with subsidies it squeezed from us in our desperation to recover from 9/11."

And who headed up GS at the time? "The firm was being run by none other than Henry Paulson when it shook us down for more than $115 million in tax breaks along with $1.65 billion in low-interest, tax-free Liberty Bonds." And as Daley points out: "Paulson assured us the financial system was sound right up to when it began to implode. He predicted a complete collapse unless there was what he called a bailout." And who was the mayor who approved this largess? Yup, that's right, Mayor Mike; doing what comes naturally-supporting his own.

The same good government fella who evicted small merchants from the BTM on behalf of Billionaire Ross and his Related Company-the same company who was given $5 million dollars in subsidies to supplant the Fernandez Brothers on Bradhurst Avenue. The same mayor looking to use eminent domain to evict Nick Sprayregen for Columbia University, and 250 businesses and 2,000 workers from Willets Point so that another fat cat can profit-all in the public interest; at least as it is conceived of by the NYC Partnership (partners with the people?)

If Bloomberg wants another term, let him call for a special election and put it to the voters. If that's not feasible, well, too bad. As the Villager points out, "Let the Voters Speak:" "Some would argue that, given the current financial crisis, it would be a good idea to allow Mayor Bloomberg — a self-made billionaire businessman and tested public servant — a chance to serve another term. Actually, we agree with that logic. That said, who decides on extending term limits? Should it be 52 individuals — the council members and the mayor — or millions of voters? We feel strongly it must be the latter."

Anything less amounts to little more than a putsch. As the NY post story today underscores: "Voters overwhelmingly supported term limits in two voter referendums in the 1990s, including a bid by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani to extend the law for the City Council to three terms in 1996. The measure failed." Time to evict all of the insider traders.

Billionaire Boys Club

As if you didn't need further confirmation that the push to extend Mayor Mike's term was a conspiracy of the billionaires-the assertion of droit du seignior by the city's monied elites, all you need to do is take a quick peek at the front page of today's NY Post. There, in the interest of full disclosure, is Mike Bloomberg wearing a crown!

Why the coronation? Well, because it now appears that fellow billionaire Ron Lauder, the rich dilettante who gave us term limits, is now prepared to make a regal exception for Brother Michael, Here's the Post's breathless take on all of this: "Mayor Bloomberg geared up to seek a third term after the path to four more years was cleared yesterday when billionaire term-limits advocate Ron Lauder vowed to support a change in the law that would allow Hizzoner to run again, The Post has learned. In a surprise move, Lauder said in an exclusive interview with The Post that he would back a one-time extension from eight years to 12 years because he feels the city."

Let's make one thing clear. Whatever Ron Lauder's role in the term limits law may have been last century, he doesn't own the referendum-and it's not up to him to determine what the will of New Yorkers will be on an issue that has already been decided. But the editorialists at the Post, owned of course by the billionaire Rupert Murdoch, are in full and vocal support of the idea; along with the folks over at the News, owned by the billionaire Mort Zuckerman. Adding their voices to those of the NYC Partnership, controlled by the real estate billionaires, Steve Ross and Steve Roth.

Is the picture becoming clearer for everyone? Lauder wants to make a one time exception in the law so that Mayor Mike can continue to-what?-protect his own, and the rest of the city billionaires, class interests: "Because of the unprecedented times, this is welcome news. To me, Mayor Bloomberg's brilliance in the financial sector, particularly Wall Street, would be invaluable." He added, "If it wasn't for the fact of what's happening today in the world, particularly Wall Street, it would be a different story. But we need [Bloomberg's] expertise in New York."

This is precisely the thinking of those who spearheaded the rise of fascism after the economic collapse of 1929. And how did that work out? Perhaps, four years hence another crisis will occur. Will we need to make more exceptions? Here's the Post's editorial: "Let's face it: The massive restructuring in the financial markets is going to hit New York like a ton of bricks. The traditional up-and-down market cycles seem a thing of the past. Jobs are vanishing; tax revenue is drying up...And Mike has proven himself in tough times: He took office just months after 9/11, when the city saw a massive hemorrhage of jobs and tax revenue. He brought New York City back strong from that crisis; other would-be mayors might not have done so."

Perhaps they wouldn't, but perhaps they would have done a better job at restructuring city government than the ideologically tone deaf Bloomberg. That, friends, is what democracy is all about. The Post disagrees: "After all, it makes little sense to boot someone who's done great work for the city, just because of some abstract notion about changing leaders periodically."

That abstract notion was a referendum voted overwhelmingly into law by the people of New York. Can't get more concrete than that. It's time that the folks let the power elites know that they're not going to be ruled by an economic junta-tough times is no excuse for this equivalent of a coup d'etat.

Whole Foods, Half Baked

Well it looks like Whole Foods isn't gonna be coming to Park Slope anytime soon. According to the Brownstoner (via the Real Estate Blog of the Observer): "The Whole Foods superstore that's been planned for the corner of 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue in Gowanus will never happen, according to a source with close connections to the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the government agency that needs to sign off on the clean-up of the polluted site before any building can begin. Environmental concerns aside, evidently the trend in the supermarket biz has swung away from superstores, our source notes; in addition, in the wake of poor earnings this summer, Whole Foods announced that it would be cutting back on the number of new stores next year. The likely upshot? Even if Whole Foods decided to open a smaller store in Brooklyn, says our source, it's unlikely it would want to use this site. You buying it?"

Lost in all of this was some behind the scenes maneuvering by an unnamed state senator known for working the DEC angle every once and awhile. The Alliance sheds no tears for this anti-union operation; and encourages the city to promote neighborhood markets instead.

Monday, September 29, 2008

News Flackery

We have a suggestion for the good folks over at the NY Daily News editorial board: Just eliminate the middle man! Take today's paean to Mayor Mike, a missive that appears to have been taken without editorial interruption directly from a city hall press release: "Perhaps the most notable aspect of Mayor Bloomberg's latest budgetary belt-tightening is that there was so little howling and squealing in this city of howlers and squealers. The Armageddon chorus let pass the chance to declare that the apocalypse is now."

The reason? Well, it's none other than the mayor's demonstrated acumen: "Today, New York takes pretty much for granted that City Hall can hold the line on expenses without noticeably diminishing services. Bloomberg has done it before, so, hey, he'll do it again, seems the attitude." What a load!

Number one, no one really knows how much will need to be cut, and where the scalpel's blade will do the most damage-it's a little too early for that. But not for the paper's effusiveness that borders on blind sycophancy: "Such confidence is well-placed, given Bloomberg's track record in stretching dollars while maintaining services that are critical to the quality of life. But the accomplishment should not be taken for granted."

But what's fascinating here, is what the Daily News doesn't discuss-the mayor's call for a property tax hike. Shouldn't there at least be some discussion of what will likely be the most contentious aspect of the mayor's budget modifications?

Oh, the possibility is mentioned-en passant, as it were: "Between March 2007 and March 2008, Bloomberg ordered commissioners to make three successively larger reductions in projected expenses. More than $1 billion came off the top in each of two fiscal years. Crime went down, reading scores continued to go up and New Yorkers got $400 property tax rebates, along with a 7% cut in property levies. Now, as the Wall Street financial crisis has only begun to batter the city, that tax cut is in jeopardy."

So where does Mister Zuckerman stand on tax cuts in the middle of an economic downturn? And why does it take a calamity to actually look to significantly rein in government spending? Perhaps the praise here should be a bit more faint.

Not, however, when your wet suit is clouding your critical judgment. So, instead, we get the following: "The mayor believes the city can hit the targets without perceptibly undermining service delivery. Like many others, we have reason to expect he'll make good on his intentions - adding to an enviable record he could bring to a run for reelection in 2009. Which, of course, assumes New York comes to its senses and extends mayoral term limits from eight to 12 years, allowing Bloomberg to seek office once more, as he should, and enabling voters to decide whether to rely on him or go with someone new in the extraordinarily tough times that are about to slam us."

This could have all been accomplished, of course, if the mayor had decided to be straight forward and had simply put the proposition before the voters. Having failed to have such foresight, just as his fiscal prescience wasn't in place to forewarn us on the current collapse, it is not judicious for either Bloomberg, or his fellow editorial plutocrats, to look for a backroom deal to engineer a third term.

Lemmings Refuse to Jump

In yesterday's NY Post, Dave Seifman has an interesting column on the refusal of some of the candidates being supported by Mike Bloomberg to back the mayor's call for a property tax increase: "Every local candidate that Mayor Bloomberg has endorsed in the upcoming election is running away from his call to raise property taxes six months earlier than scheduled.
"I have enormous respect for Mayor Bloomberg's fiscal acumen and was proud to work with him to bring the city out of the 2001 downturn, but without much more information, I can't support raising taxes in the city at this time," said City Councilman Mike McMahon."

The mayor's call for the increase-especially if it comes on the heels of an overturning of the term limits law-is bound to roil every single council district where home owner neighborhoods predominate. The mayor's position is being heralded as both prudent and courageous-and there are those who hearken back to the 2002 real estate tax hike as a profile in courage.

It wasn't. It was a signal that the mayor really had little understanding about the way in which tax policy can help or hurt a local economy-and, of course, its tax paying citizens who foot the bill. 2002 was just the right moment for someone who actually understood all of this, to use the crisis to drastically streamline government and embark on the kind of efficiency program that any good CEO would seek to implement if her company was awash in red ink; instead, the rookie mayor went right to his philosophical wheelhouse, and raised taxes.

And he continues along these lines today. In his weekly radio address (via Liz) he tells New Yorkers the following: "Every single agency is going to have to do more with less. But we absolutely won't let City services suffer. We learned that lesson during the 1970s, when City government was on the brink of bankruptcy and failed to maintain our quality of life. Thousands of New Yorkers fled for greener pastures elsewhere, compounding an already desperate situation for the city."

Those thousands of fleeing New Yorkers were middle class tax payers who didn't want to keep paying for the city's attempt to recreate a municipal socialism on their backs-especially while the really vital city services like fire and police protection were being diminished. Read Ken Auletta's The Streets Were Paved with Gold for an understanding of what really went on; the mayor's obviously no historian, but seems quite adept at at least re-writing history.

One of the most significant variables spearheading NYC's decline was it's confiscatory tax policy, a policy making the city a poor place to do business. As Auletta said: "It was no surprise, then, that the Fantus company, the world's largest business location consultant, concluded in 1975 that New York had the worst business climate of the fifty states" (pg. 64)

Now pardon us, if we're not just a little taken aback by the mayor's current proposal to go to the tax well one more time. After all, wasn't it mayor Mike who, just a short few months ago, said that tax increases wouldn't be necessary even if the city was entering an economic down turn? Here's what he did say, according to the NY Sun's report at the time: "Defying expectations that the city would increase property taxes to help close a projected $3.1 billion budget gap, Mayor Bloomberg will argue today that the budget can be balanced without the pain of a tax hike. In his annual State of the City address, Mr. Bloomberg will propose extending the 7% property tax cut he instituted last year, initially presented as a one-time bonus, an aide familiar with the speech said."

Didn't our billionaire financial genius see the economic train wreck coming down the tracks? Aren't all of these folks bailing out of Lehman, Merrill and AIG his cohort of Good Old Boys? To us, the mayor's lack of foresight rivals that of Mayor Giuliani, who saw fit to put his bunker high up on the 23rd floor of 7 World Trade Center. You mean to say that our financial guru was actually blindsided by the collapse? We're wondering why any one would want to bring this guy back for a third term.

Columbia's Lebensraum

The CU Spectator has a fascinating story about the ESDC/Columbia expansion plan that was recently released. A key point raised in the document is the fact that eminent domain will not be used to evict any resident-at least until after 2018! "The plan’s line on 20 years ahead states, “ESDC would not use its eminent domain power to acquire possession of any legal residential unit prior to 2018.” University officials have consistently stated that Columbia will not seek to acquire any residential properties in the Manhattanville campus footprint through eminent domain—the state’s power to seize private land for the public good."

And after that date? What we've been saying all along-and the handwriting on the wall is right in the environmental review statement prepared for the university-is that the expansion will led to a massive displacement of area residents; some 5,000 folks, as the EIS states very clearly.

But now we're looking at something much more significant-and sinister: a massive removal so that Columbia attains the kind of gentrified lebensraum that it has always sought-never mind it's progressive political posturing: “We never were aware of these dates,” said State Senator Bill Perkins (D-Harlem), who later added, “The fact that they have such a date out there is scaring folks.” This fear has been voiced at recent hearings on the Manhattanville expansion. Community members have focused on whether the ESDC would be justified in using eminent domain to seize private commercial properties in the area and give them to the University so Columbia can build its campus according to the already-approved construction plan."

All of which makes the current Sprayregen lawsuit that much more important-it strikes at the heart of not only a legal monstrosity, but also at the core of the survival of West Harlem; because once Columbia begins its inexorable march you can be sure it will be scorched earth. And even some of the plan's supporters are, as they should, getting nervous: "ESDC Communications Director Warner Johnston explained that the 2018 date is “something we came up with, with Columbia. The project was approved and expressed that they would have 10 years to work with the remaining residents.” Despite the surprise expressed by Sen. Perkins and others, Johnston said, “It’s not a new date.” “We’re trying to understand what the GPP means,” said WHLDC member Susan Russell, who is also chief of staff for City Councilman Robert Jackson (D-Washington Heights and West Harlem). “We want to make sure that nobody gets kicked out.”

Maybe a little late for that concern, but hopefully the clear and present danger will provoke the supportive elected officials to take remedial action before it's too late. One approach that makes sense is for Council Members Jackson and Dickens, is to try to jump start the negotiations between Sprayregn and CU on the swap plan that could generate hundreds of new housing units; after all, there is no new housing in the expansion footprint.

In any event there's no real indication that Columbia has any clear vision of what a university partnership might look like. In this regard the comments of VP Kasdin take on the coloration of farce: “I think there needs to be a shift in the discussion from the notion that Columbia is involved in a transaction to the notion that Columbia has a long-standing relationship. ... Columbia, unlike a private developer, will be in this community and concerned with the health of this community long after construction is complete.”

Without any housing initiative-and in the face of likely widespread residential displacement, both direct and indirect-the Columbia expansion will likely leave the university without any community to partner with.

Slush Puppy

We didn't get around last week to comment on the news stories surrounding the fact that Mayor Mike had his own slush fund for pliant council members. As the NY Daily News pointed out: "Mayor Bloomberg used a secret fund to reward City Council allies with $20 million for their districts - some of it going to questionable organizations, he revealed Wednesday."

Now we aren't really gonna hold are breathe waiting for the spate of vicious attack editorials, much like those concerning the city council's questionable earmarking practices, directed at the mayor. A nice little chunk of change even went to an organization that had come under fire for nepotism: "Some of the mayor's cash ended up with nonprofits later linked to the scandal.
Among them were the North Brooklyn Community Council, run by the wife of Councilman Erik Martin Dilan. Dilan gave $30,000 from the mayor to that group in 2005."

But one newspaper did take the time to chastise Mayor Mike-and it was the NY Times holding his hand to the fire: "Each day, it seems, there is more news about how New York’s politicians — in the City Council and the State Legislature — hand out taxpayer funds as political sweets to friends and allies. The only one who seemed exempt from the game was Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Not quite, it turns out. As Mr. Bloomberg’s administration has reported, the mayor’s office has its own small pot of taxpayer cash to reward favorite city politicians who then reward their favorite local projects."

Well, not really so small, as it turns out, since there is an entire city expense and capitol budget at the mayor's disposal-and trust us, it is definitely used politically to advance the mayor's agenda-as it should be, since the last we looked it was Mike Bloomberg who the people re-elected mayor in 2005. The Times, however, would like to eliminate "discretionary" spending: "This process is far too prone to abuse. Albany, the City Council and the mayor’s office should eliminate all discretionary funds. Recipients should compete for the money as part of a normal bidding process, and the money should be allocated through the normal budgetary process. That is a good deal for all taxpayers."

Now we know that the idea of a "normal bidding process," appeals to the good government types; but this affinity too often misses how normal pure favoritism is in these procurement processes. We do believe that all money allocated should be a matter of public record-with the elected official responsible linked directly to the expenditure-whether the money is allocated one way or another is not that salient an issue.

Check Mayor!

In a column this morning, Liz Benjamin of the NY Daily News reports that NYS Assembly Dems may be in the process of delivering an ultimatum to the mayor about over staying his term welcome: "Assembly democrats may soon push Mayor Bloomberg into the ultimate Sophie's Choice dilemma, forcing him to choose between trying to stay in office for four more years or preserving a key element of his legacy. The more Bloomberg flirts with changing term limits, the less inclined some lawmakers are to reapprove mayoral control of the city's schools, according to one highly placed Assembly Democrat."

Ah, there's nothing like checks and balances, and Liz's highly placed source indicates that there are at least some folks who aren't buying the school nirvana Kool-Aid that Mayor Mike's been serving: "When school control was given to the mayor, there was a thought that he would be in office for no more than eight years," the lawmaker said. "The notion we'd be granting control so that this gang can continue doing what they're doing is not appealing."

The more the Assembly asserts its prerogatives, the more apparent it becomes how little our local legislature does so; and let's not forget that the UFT and Speaker Silver are perfect together: "When it comes to mayoral control, much will rest on the United Federation of Teachers, which is closely allied with Silver. The union hosted his primary night victory party at its Broadway headquarters. UFT President Randi Weingarten has said mayoral control needs "checks and balances," but the union has yet to take a formal position on either mayoral control or term limits."

Bloomberg runs real risks if he attempts to stay beyond where the voters felt his term should end-and his chaos-causing actions will reverberate throughout the city's political system, with unknowable consequences for the mayor and the current members of the city council. Having an Amen editorial choir is not enough when the city's chief executive, a product of the financial sector's culture of privilege, may become another symbol of Wall Street selfishness.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Supermarket Coalition Building for East Harlem

As we have already pointed out, there is a growing coalition of community and advocacy groups that are coming together to call for an immediate response from the city on the disappearance of supermarkets in East Harlem. Here's one report on the coalition: "The Harlem Food and Fitness Consortium (HFFC), which includes WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a leading advocate for environmental justice for two decades, and numerous other community groups, is sponsoring a Town Hall meeting on the need for more and better supermarkets in Harlem – particularly East and Central Harlem."

As we have said, the meeting was held, and was a resounding success; now it appears as if we're about to go into Phase II. The coalition, along with the support of Local 1500 of the UFCW, is planning a press conference for next Thursday on the steps of city hall. The presser coincides with the crucial committee vote scheduled on the Uptown Harlem development project; and that's no accident.

The coinciding is designed to dramatize the fact that the Uptown project needs to include a new modern supermarket-and unless there is some direct intervention from the council and the administration, the chances of this happening are nil. You see, there is city owned property in the mix here, and the only way to insure a supermarket's inclusion is to specifically carve out some of this public land for a truly public purpose. If, on the other hand, all of the property is deeded over to a developer, than the cost of the space will inevitably rise beyond the reach of any supermarket.

The right deal would be a direct one-with a local LDC in partnership with the supermarket to develop a carved out site along Second Avenue. The administration's rhetoric on the supermarket retention issue has fallen way short of concrete action; the current East Harlem site is a marvelous opportunity for the Bloombergistas to put their money where their public health mouth has been.

We'll give the task force the final word on why this is all important: "Advocates for increasing supermarket reach in low income neighborhoods, such as Harlem, complain that a lack of real food stores forces neighborhood residents, typically minorities, to do more of their shopping in bodegas. Those stores usually lack healthy foods like green vegetables and fruit, though they have no shortage of pre-packaged snacks and sugary drinks. Residents have to buy what is available, and are forced to make less than healthy food choices."

Michael One Note

It now looks as if the "inevitable" reinstatement of the property tax increase may not be such a foregone conclusion. According to the NY Daily News: "At least 20 City Council members have gone on record opposing Mayor Bloomberg's bid to rescind the 7% property tax cut in January, saying it would cause too much pain to middle-class homeowners."Many people think that raising taxes is a given, but for many of us, raising taxes is a heavy lift on people we have gone back to year after year after year," said Councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx), who is working with Councilman Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) to round up opponents."

Well, good for them. It's about time that someone stands up for the tax paying homeowners-and calls, hopefully, the mayor on his New York Times-driven tax philosophy: "You can't go back and tax homeowners," Felder said. "You can't do that until you try to cut a lot more and try to reinstate the commuter tax." The mayor, however, has a cut-and-run fiscal policy that has never systematically examined the way the government operates; and how it could work more efficiently. Bloomberg's too busy figuring out how to pay kids to learn and incentivize families-through cash payments-to lift themselves out of poverty.

All of these liberal schemes have been a distraction from the hard work that should have been done over the past seven years-when the city was flush. This is not simply putting money aside for a rainy day, which is a good thing indeed. It does mean, however, a greater appreciation for the folks in the boroughs-those who rely on clean streets, functional schools and public safety-who are struggling in the current economic downturn.

The mayor's notion of vital services is more expansive, and his Hobson's Choice rhetoric is misleading: "Bloomberg scoffed at the opposition yesterday, saying the money had to come from somewhere. "They can come up with another revenue source; we're certainly happy to do it. They could, for example, say that their neighborhoods don't need any services," the mayor said."

If Mayor Mike had been streamlining government and cutting the city's tax burden we would have beem seeing a great deal more economic growth post 9/11. Bloomberg, a creature of the financial markets, has simply little feel for the small business sector that does drive the economy; instead, his policies have driven these folks away.

And the real estate tax increase will hurt renters-residents and store owners alike: "Bloomberg will face opposition to raising taxes from outside City Hall, too - landlords and their tenants also fear the impact. "It has a direct effect on rents," said renters' advocate Michael McKee of Tenants PAC. Added Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 landlords, "It's a disproportionate impact, real hard on the small guys."

Given the mayor's economic philosophy, he's exactly the wrong fella to ask to come down to Washington to spearhead any economic recovery. If he does go, however, at least the city might better understand the concept of addition by subtraction.

Wilted Greens

There was a NY Daily News article on the city's Green Cart experiment that we missed while away in August. Apparently, things aren't going so well, and as of August 18th, only 8 peddlers had been designated for all of those poor nabes that lack access to fresh produce: "Special veggie vendors who city officials hope will help tackle the growing obesity problem have quietly hit the streets. But all is not rosy with the so-called Green Carts. One of the eight approved vendors - who have the right to sell fruits and vegetables on the street in poor neighborhoods with specially designed carts - told the Daily News business is the pits. Monawara Sultana and her two daughters sold nectarines, bananas and other fresh produce to customers on East Gun Hill Road in the Bronx yesterday, but the Bangladeshi family said competition in the area makes it tough to turn a profit."

We just can't wait for the Consumer Affairs Committee to do the oversight on this fiasco; eight vendors when the city said it would roll out 500 this year? Why the gap? Are the vendors reluctant to get out into communities because: (1) there are already fruit and veggie stores taking care of the folks; and, (2) Demand for produce isn't overwhelming in certain neighborhoods?

We do know, however, that these veggie peddlers have metastasized all over Manhattan-so is it possible that there's a supply and demand equation at work here? "Spearheaded by Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden and Mayor Bloomberg, the initiative was passed in City Council despite opposition from established food sellers. Frieden argued that poor people are deprived of affordable fresh fruits and veggies; bodegas and supermarkets said vendors would undercut their prices."

Maybe we were wrong about the undercutting, but we also said that the "unmet demand" argument was definitely overstated by the city: "Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs said problems like Sultana's will sort themselves out. "The vendors will find their niche," Gibbs said. "These are new markets they're entering, and in time they'll learn where the demand is and where it isn't."

And perhaps the city will learn that it can't repeal the laws of supply and demand just because it is conducting a feel good social experiment based on a false hypothesis. Meanwhile, we await the first concrete city initiative to promote supermarkets in the city; time's well past for these health firsters to actually put their money where their mouths are.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

East Harlem Update

The Runnin' Scared Blog at the Village Voice covered last night's supermarket task force meeting: "Is it sinister racism or a misunderstanding of markets that shapes food policy in the city's poor neighborhoods? The Harlem Food & Fitness Consortium was looking for answers on Wednesday. Yesterday evening the group held a town hall forum to discuss the dearth of supermarkets in Harlem and other communities like it. Local and citywide food activists addressed a crowd of more than 100 attendees on the importance of expanding supermarket access in their neighborhood, and how that expansion could lead to healthy eating."

While we don't always agree with the underlying views of those who see the dearth of markets as some sort of racist conspiracy, the absence of supermarkets is a real problem-and we see the rising cost of real estate as the crux of the issue: "James Subudhi (pictured) of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, which helped organize the event, said that the market argument is a fallacy, and that the lack of healthy vegetables in Harlem and elsewhere can be attributed to three reasons: "Classism, free markets, and racism." Subudhi offered the numerous street vendors that peddle fruits and vegetables along 125th Street as proof."

This LA Times piece is more on point, and it's a situation that impacts both supermarkets and bodegas: "Across the city, a food crisis is unfolding in low-income neighborhoods, as one-third of New York's supermarkets have closed over the last five years, according to a recent city report. Most New Yorkers don't own cars; having a nearby store is important when grocery shopping means traveling by foot, cab or subway. Well-to-do residents who don't live near a supermarket can pay extra to order groceries online and have them delivered; poor residents must turn to the closest bodegas. "The sales have been down for the last nine months," said Jose Fernandez, president of the Bodega Assn. of the United States, which claims membership of 7,800 of New York's 11,400 bodegas. A weakening economy and rising rents and food prices have forced many to close, he said; the number of bodegas in New York has decreased by nearly 1000 from two years ago, according to his organization's most recent tally."

Whatever the reason, however, the compelling need for a government intervention is indubitable, since the issue is a public health challenge: "Advocates for increasing supermarket reach in low income neighborhoods, such as Harlem, complain that a lack of real food stores forces neighborhood residents, typically minorities, to do more of their shopping in bodegas. Those stores usually lack healthy foods like green vegetables and fruit, though they have no shortage of pre-packaged snacks and sugary drinks. Residents have to buy what is available, and are forced to make less than healthy food choices."

And, as we said in our previous post, a government solution is at hand. The proposed redevelopment of 125th-127th Streets on Second Avenue could be used to insure that a new market is available to the East Harlem and South Bronx community. This should become the number one priority of Council member Viverito, BP Stringer and let's not forget the mayor and health commissioner who have made this a putative priority of the administration without devoting any real resources to some immediate remedy.

To Market, To Market...

Last night there was a meeting of the Super Market Task Force of East Harlem, a community that is badly in need of new supermarkets but has instead been experiencing a loss of food stores as rising rents have forced out six markets-with an additional half dozen or so threatened with closure as their leases expire in the next few years. The crisis is a subject of a DOH report: "Supermarkets offer the widest variety of foods and healthy choices—but are less common than bodegas and are dispersed unequally through the neighborhoods. In East and Central Harlem, there are 2 supermarkets per 10,000 people compared to 3 supermarkets per 10,000 on the Upper East Side, which allows Upper East Side residents more opportunity to purchase healthy food. This finding supports other research indicating that supermarket density is associated with higher-income areas and areas with a lower proportion of black residents."

There is, however, one immediate solution at hand-the 125th-127th Street redevelopment project in East Harlem which comes to the City Council for a vote next month could include a new supermarket right on Second Avenue-but a certain degree of flexibility will be necessary in order to make sure it can happen. It certainly won't happen if the city just hands over the entire parcel-as it appears likely-to our friends over at Vornado Realty and Distrust.

And while we have a particular animus against Vornado for its efforts to evict an existing Key Food fro a shopping center it owns in the Bronx, the difficulty here transcends the poor citizenship of the real estate giant. If Vornado, or any other company, is designated it will seek the highest rent possible for a retailer on the site-probably $45 per square foot or more; a rent that no market could afford to pay.

There is a good alternative, and we have spoken to Council Member Viverito about this. The best method for guaranteeing a new market would be for the city to take a chunk of the city owned land and set it aside for a supermarket. By reducing the land acquisition costs to zero-after all, this is a public health crisis, the building f an affordable supermarket could get done on the site.

In fact, the city could emulate the original Pathmark deal on 125th and Lexington where a community partnership was devised between the supermarket and Abyssinian Church. This should be seen as an imperative since the recently released DCP report on the dearth of supermarkets in certain low income neighborhoods has made this-supposedly-a major city priority: "Three million New Yorkers live in neighborhoods with high need for grocery stores and supermarkets. Neighborhoods such as Central and East Harlem and Washington Heights in Manhattan; Bushwick, Bedford Stuyvesant, East New York and Sunset Park in Brooklyn; Corona, Jamaica and Far Rockaway in Queens...show the greatest need for full-line supermarkets."

It's time for the city to put up or shut up. All this lip service about the need for new supermarkets has not been met with any commensurate action. In fact, the failure to even consider a supermarket as a vital component of this proposed project is all telling. The land on Second Avenue is available and would be ideal for a new market-let's get busy Mayor Mike.

Error of Commission

As expected, the City Planning Commission voted to support the administration's plan to redevelop Willets Point. The lone dissenter was our old friend Karen Phillips, an appointee of Betsy Gotbaum. Here's Eliot Brown's take at the Observer: "The Council has about two months to act, and typically takes much of that time for negotiations with the administration. Willets Point is the most contested large-scale project to come before the Council in years, as a majority of members have signed onto a letter of opposition to the plan in its current form. A Council defeat would kill the project, and would be an unprecedented step for a project of this size in the land use approval process."

Which makes the following exchange between some of the EDC folks and one of Hiram Monseratte's staffers all the more amusing. When the fellow in question bumped into the EDC contingent, they supposedly regaled him with all of the encomiums that were heaped on the project by the various CP commissioners. It kinda reminds us of a time-quite long ago sadly-when, as a teenager I bumped into a friend who had just come from a maiden voyage, so to speak, at a brothel. When asked how it went, he told me: " The woman told me I was the best lover she ever had."

Such is the naivete of our good agency folks, who better be prepared for the more critical response that they will receive from council members. The council is particularly concerned about the abuse of eminent domain: "Also on the table is the use of eminent domain—never very popular among Council members seeking reelection or higher office—which the city has said is needed to guarantee that the entire 61-acre site can be assembled and developed. The existing landowners have vehemently resisted the plan, particularly the eminent domain aspect of it, and have been fighting back with a constant stream of rallies, lobbying and campaign donations."

Not to worry, apparently the Bloombergistas have all of this potential displacement under control. According to NY1: "The mayor's office has announced an initiative to provide training and job placement for displaced workers." Reminds us of the relocation charade that went on with the Bronx Terminal Market merchants. Not anything to inspire confidence.

As Monseratte told the NY Sun this morning: "The current Willets Point plan sets a precedent for community planning by decree, rather than discussion. The City Planning Commission's vote is further proof that the Administration is more interested in steamrolling this process rather than accepting the community's many pleas for collaboration..."

Which means, as the NY Daily News reports, that a showdown is definitely on the way: "The controversial plan to turn Willets Point into a glitzy megadevelopment got the green light Wednesday from the City Planning Commission, setting the stage for a final showdown in the City Council.The potential for the city to use eminent domain to acquire private land in the gritty industrial zone is expected to fuel fierce debate in the Council, which now has 60 days to cast a make-or-break vote on the project."

Monseratte continues to make the abuse of eminent domain a major issue: "Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-Jackson Heights), who has led opposition to the Willets Point plan, called the Planning Commission's vote a "rubber stamp." He faulted the commission - and the administration - for ignoring concerns of the Council majority, who want eminent domain off the table, more affordable housing and a relocation plan for the 260 businesses at the so-called Iron Triangle."

So now we'll see just how much skill the mayor can exercise-and whether the chip of term limits will be played-in order to get this shot in the dark approved: "Last month, 31 council members signed a letter that expressed "absolute opposition" to the plan. The council vote will vote on the issue in November, and in the coming weeks the deputy mayor for economic development, Robert Lieber, will continue negotiations with local business owners and Mr. Monserrate." At this juncture, it doesn't appear likely that the plan will pass without major changes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Where There's A Willets, There's a Way?

Today the City Planning Commission will vote, hold on to your hats folks, in favor of the Willets Point redevelopment project-institutionalizing the concept of the rubber stamp. In the NY post this morning, a strong advocate for the development, citing environmental reasons, makes her case: "The City Planning Commission will vote today on the Bloomberg administration's plan to transform the Willets Point peninsula. The proposals would turn what's probably the most polluted 60 acres in New York into a mixed-use development of housing, offices, retail space and parks, plus a hotel, school and perhaps a convention center. The plan has generated great controversy, but it fully merits the commission's OK."

No one we know would argue that the Iron Triangle isn't environmentally challenged. And we agree with Vitullo-Martin when she points out: "Kevin McCarty, director of environmental investigations for HDR Engineering & Architecture, has been studying the site. He says that businesses "are operating like it's still 1950 and you can paint cars in the street and dump whatever you want on the ground." Worse, he notes that even if businesses wanted to comply fully with current environmental regulations, they couldn't - because the infrastructure isn't there to contain and recycle the waste. "All this bad stuff goes right into the bay," he says."

Let's be very clear. The fact that the area's operating as if it were the 1950s, is only the result of the fact that the city's been treating Willets Point as if it were still the turn of the last century-having allowed the area to deteriorate by conscious neglect. So, in effect, we're at the point of blaming the businesses who have been systematically victimized by decades of neglect.

The argument, therefore, that the environmental hazard of Willets Point demands that the existing businesses must scram, is inequitable in the extreme-and Vitullo-Martin fails to even address the unfairness of the state's eminent domain laws that will leave the businesses with little legal redress. Here's how she sees it: "Seth Pinsky is the president of the city Economic Development Corp., which is overseeing the project. He says the EDC is trying hard to avoid eminent domain by analyzing what every owner has now and asking them what they need. It has settled with several owners and thinks it will be able to come to terms with most."

Frankly, Vitullo-Marin should be a little less sanguine about the official pronouncements of EDC. We saw how this agency gave the bum rush to businesses at the old Bronx Terminal Market. Why? Because they could; there was little of the political will we see on the Point operating in that most dysfunctional of political environments. In fact, the one real champion of the Bronx wholesalers was Hiram Monserrate of Queens-the very council member who's leading the opposition to the Willets Point eminent domain scheme.

So let's take EDC spin for what's it's worth-absolutely nothing, especially if the zoning is approved and the council's leverage is deeded over to the city and its repo agency. And what of all of the jobs lost? "Most of Willets' 260 or so companies are very small; together, they pay about a million dollars a year in taxes. But they also employ some 1,700 people - no minor matter in a city that has seen manufacturing jobs fall by two-thirds over the last half-century."

And most of the businesses that employ the bulk of these immigrant workers are renters, unable to even partially benefit from compensation reached through eminent domain negotiations. Which is why the City Council needs to say no to this development.

All of the discussions and negotiations at the Point needed to have been done before any ULURP process was commenced; and the designation of the developer and a project plan needed to be proffered at that time so that the council would have some idea about what it was actually voting on-besides the eviction of thousands of workers and hundreds of businesses. Once the council cedes this over to the city heaven help the folks at Willets Point; just ask the Terminal Market merchants.

The First Cut is the Deepest

As we pointed out yesterday, the city is now being forced to cut its budget basically on the fly-having avoided the more creative approach of really reinventing government that could have been ushered in after 9/11 when the city's sense of crisis was most severe. Instead, we get the more pedestrian budget cutting dance that Mayor Mike began yesterday. As the NY Times highlights: "With an eye on Wall Street’s turmoil and New York City’s fragile economy, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ordered city agencies on Tuesday to cut spending by about $500 million this year and $1 billion next year. The cuts are to be made across the board, affecting agencies including the Police Department, which must cut costs by $95 million this year, and the school system, which needs to trim $185 million."

All of which is merely prelude to the tax hikes that are soon to come: "The timing of the announcement suggests that Mr. Bloomberg may be seeking to soften the political fallout of a possible 7 percent property tax increase, which he disclosed on Monday. The spending cuts, aides said, showed that everyone, including government, will feel the pain from a slowing economy." You'll notice, there's no indication from the mayor that it's really risky-not to mention bad economic policy-to raise taxes during an economic downturn.

In fact, the mayor's basic approach is very much in line with standard liberal approaches that see maintaining government as the priority over encouraging greater investment in the private sector. As we have pointed out, it is the billionaire financial serves guys like Bloomberg and Buffet who are the least likely to adhere to a low tax, more economic growth philosophy-since this sector is least likely to be impacted by property or income tax hikes.

But if we remember clearly, when Freddy Ferrer supported a small tax on Wall Street investments. Mayor Mike was quick to oppose the so-called "transfer tax," citing the way it would hurt NYC's economy. No such luck with other forms of taxation-like the real estate fees- that cripple small store owners; or the summonses blitzes that hurt homeowners and businesses alike.

Instead Bloomberg takes a "principled" stand in favor of strong cutting measures now, and higher fees later, to support the maintenance of a government service infrastructure that remains the same from when John Lindsay was mayor. As the NY Post points out: "At a town hall meeting last night on the Upper East Side, the mayor said the city faces "tough times" that will force him to reduce expenses and raise revenues. "It won't make me popular, but that's the job," said Bloomberg. "It's going to be annoying, but it won't be so painful that we're cutting any services. We're just going to have to learn to do more with less."

This do more with less sounds all well and good, but it reflects the failure to really undertake a government reform program that would reduce the size of government because it reflects the fact that society as a whole does better when government does less-the "more" in this case being what the businesses and citizens in the private sector are able to do with less of a tax and regulatory burden. This , however, goes against the tax more crowd at the editorial page of the Times, and with our good buddies over at the Drum Major Institute who see higher taxes as the true sign of higher civilization.

Here's the DMI point of view: "With the Wall Street bailout about to push our federal deficit over the brink, it is time that Americans and politicians face up to reality and acknowledge the relationship between taxes and the ability of government to protect and strengthen our country. For, as Mayor Bloomberg pointed out, if we don't, what kind of country will we be handing to our children and grandchildren? "

We are facing some hard economic times; and if we follow the Drum beat we'll soon be back in the fiscal morass of the 1970s. It is the private sector that supports the ability of government to provide the basic services that some folks need and others require. When will NYC stop its golden goose-killing policies? Perhaps when we have a mayor who's truly an innovator, and who understands that business is not only Wall Street finance and billion dollar real estate companies.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tax Chickens Coming Home to Term Limits Roost

As the NY Times reports this morning, plan are being made to raise the city's property taxes-and the timing couldn't be more of a potential perfect storm since discussions are continuing around the controversial move to rescind term limits. Still, the economic climate for most city homeowners is no a propitious one for another round of tax increases-in spite of the sage advice of the NY Times editorial board: "In 2007, with the city on better financial footing, he and the City Council agreed to a 7 percent tax cut for homeowners. But this year, in May, as the national economic downturn began to take its toll, Mr. Bloomberg said that he doubted that the city would be able to continue the tax cut beyond July 2009. The prospect of higher property taxes can hardly be welcome news for residents reeling from skyrocketing fuel costs and a weakening housing market."

As we have said time and time again, we're in this situation because of the failure of the current mayor to understand the need to rein in the cost of government-and to truly appreciate just how much the city's tax and regulatory policies impeded the growth of business here. Coming from the financial services sector, an area that is fairly insulated from the city's taxing and regulatory arm, Mayor Mike has never really understood (or cared to any degree about) small business or other economic growth centers that are impacted because of how expensive it is to operate here.
It is why, for instance, that immigrant supermarket operators-one of the city's remarkable success stories- are opting to open stores in the south; but Bloomberg has remained oblivious over the course of his tenure, prattling on about how "high end" the city is, and will always be.

This incapacity is the focus of Nicole Gelinas' prescient piece on New York's "debt disaster" in this morning's NY Post. Gelinas warns how current city debt will be exacerbated if we raise taxes in response to the current revenue short fall: "But as debt service consumes more and more of shrinking revenues in the next few years, our leaders will be tempted to call it an "uncontrollable" cost - and hike taxes. In that case, people likely won't come to New York to take advantage of lower private-sector costs, because public-sector costs - taxes - will be so high, relative to cities like Houston and even Boston. The tax base would then further erode, as we wait for the ghost of Wall Street to re-appear. And all of that debt will have done us little good."

So now we come to a point where the days of wine and roses are ending and the mayor is being falsely lionized-by self-serving acolytes in the press and in the world of big real estate-as a savior in troubled times. In our view, we're facing some tough decisions because Bloomberg came into office in 2002 with no clue about how government works, and with a big government philosophy that exacerbated his ignorance. So it's a little late now to be innovative, leaving the current, in Mayor Mike's view, Hobson's Choice: “I said we will look at all the different possibilities, but I think the solution is a combination of expense reduction, which nobody is going to be happy about, and revenue enhancements, which nobody is going to be happy about.”

And the current economic downturn, when coupled with the hosannas for him from the press, seems to give the mayor a sense of droit du seigneur “I don’t think that this will be contentious, or at least very contentious, even though it will be a difficult time because I think the City Council really does understand that we are living in a different world than we did a very short period ago,” he said. “New York City has an awful lot going for it. We want to make sure that we don’t jeopardize or reduce or remove all our advantages.”

In the Bloomberg world view, our "advantages" are related to the "vital" services that government provides-there's no concept of how reducing the size and scope of government-and lowering the city's tax burden-can generate business and increase revenue. The real 24 dollar question is how the coming tax hike will play into the term limit debate; potential opponents for incumbent council members are already lining up, and over turning the popular will will not enhance their popularity.

As the NY Sun points out: "A candidate running for an open seat currently held by Council Member James Gennaro in Queens, Michael Simanowitz, said yesterday that he has yet to decide if he would remain in the race if Mr. Gennaro runs again. According to Mr. Simanowitz, incumbents who vote to extend term limits could find their seat harder to hold onto given the popularity of term limits with voters. "Any sitting council member who votes to change term limit laws is going to be a target — I have no doubt." Mr. Simanowitz said."

And any sitting council member who does so, while at the same time raising the property taxes on already over burdened homeowners, will face an electorate in an anti-incumbent mood that just may moot the entire term limits repeal.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Perversing Course

In today's City Room Blog, Michael Barbaro muses on the NY Daily News editorial in favor of a third Bloomberg term. As he points out, this is an extreme about face-or in our view, simply a sign that true love and rationality are quite like oil and water: "In a stark reversal of its longtime stand on the issue, the editorial board of The Daily News said that the city’s term limits law should be changed to allow Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to seek a third term."

City Room takes us back to the good old days when the News was inveighing against the whole idea as "shameless." Quite the right word for the editors themselves, don't you think? "The News has strenuously opposed revising term limits through legislation in the past. In a 2006 editorial entitled “Council Pushes the Limits,” the newspaper called a plan by members of the Council to tweak the law “shameless.” “Just what part of “no” doesn’t the City Council understand?” The News editorial said. “Repeatedly, it has urged the voters of New York to reject term limits, and repeatedly the voters have refused. But the Council keeps trying an end run around the public. Pitiful. Shameful. Shameless.”

Indeed it is, but the shameful shoe is on another foot here-and City Room rightfully points out, as we have also commented, that the News fails to address the issue of just how the limits should be rescinded: "The News did not say exactly how term limits should be changed – through legislation in the City Council or by a public referendum. That question has become central to the debate over revising the law, since New York City voters approved the existing rules twice, in 1993 and 1996. At this point, lawmakers and legal experts say, the most logical route is through the Council."

Not logical, more like expedient, since the voters will appears to be fairly immutable on this topic. Shamelessness appears to be epidemic when it comes to the lack of concern for the people's voice.

The Daily News' Hallelujah Chorus

It really comes as no surprise that the NY Daily News would be in the forefront of the campaign to convince Mike Bloomberg to over turn the term limits law-after all, the editors have been a regular Hallelujah chorus for Mayor Mike. So in today's paper we get the following panegyric: "Michael Bloomberg must stand for reelection to a third term as mayor in 2009. Run, Mike, run...Bloomberg and the city have both benefited handsomely from his service. For his part, the mayoralty transformed a once little-known businessman-billionaire into an internationally prominent public figure, one who was seriously and deservedly discussed for the presidency. And he must forge on."

Be still our hearts! But they do go on: "Put simply, Bloomberg knows what he's doing. And there's every indication that he's as fresh as the day he was inaugurated. It would be folly under these daunting circumstances to deny voters the chance to consider his vast experience and remarkable record when choosing a chief executive next November."

But that's a folly that the voters must be the ones to decide to change-but the News elides this serious obstacle: "To enable that, the law limiting mayors to two consecutive terms must be amended to give voters the choice to extend Bloomberg's leadership for four more years, should they so desire." Amended? The only way to properly do this is the same method used to encat it in the first place-a referendum.

The News ends with this rather amusing ditty: "Term limits were a good government reform. They were aimed at opening a political system stacked in favor of incumbents - a City Council and borough presidents who hung on forever. But mayors were never part of a permanent government." What exactly does this mean? And the concept of the permanent government has been quite nicely undermined to mean the rather mediocre governing class, instead of those power brokers that Newfield and DuBrul so exquisitely excoriated-and who Mike Bloomberg represents in almost a caricature of a Thomas Wolfe novel.

No, if the term limits are to be repealed, we need to follow Chris Smith's lead in New York Magazine:
"Which is one reason the mayor should act now if he’s serious about running for a third term. Giuliani’s personal popularity was soaring after 9/11, but his attempt to extend his stay in City Hall failed because it appeared to be (and was) blatantly anti-democratic. Bloomberg faces a similar hurdle: Even those who’d like to see him stick around are made queasy by the notion of changing the rules this late in the game. So Bloomberg needs to do it as transparently as possible. Sure, it would be easier for him to quietly back a City Council bill making the limit three terms instead of two, but that would smell of sneaky insider deal-making. Bloomberg should do it the hard way: He should ask that a referendum be placed on this November’s ballot. Calling for a vote of confidence would be sort of British, and essentially make this fall a one-man mayoral primary—certainly not a fair contest, but a good test of whether the city really wants him for four more years. Third terms are historically treacherous; Bloomberg could use a clear public mandate going in."

Getting the issue before the voters in a little over a month doesn't seem realistic; but perhaps a special election in January would do the trick. In any case with a property tax rise on the horizon-see today's NY Post story-it would be appropriate to ask the voters if they'd like to change the law on the mayor's behalf. After all, he told the Post: "Anybody that is in city government and hopes to run for office a year from November will have had to stand up and be counted on balancing our budget," the mayor said last week in a reference to council members he's going to ask to vote for higher taxes."

So let the fun begin, and let the mayor's Amen Chorus among the Best and the Brightest step up to tell their lessors just why Mayor Mike's continuance in office is actually good for all of us, and not just for the favored few.

Eminent Domain Fight in Albany

As the NY Sun writes this morning, a shift in political power in the New York State Senate could mean that the state's eminent domain laws could be amended so that property owners, who now really don't have many statutory protections, could be given more legal rights to fight eminent domain abuse: "A Democratic takeover of the Senate in November could result in changes to the state's eminent domain law, possibly complicating several of the city's largest development projects. State Senator Bill Perkins, a Democrat of Harlem, is calling for a moratorium on the use of eminent domain and said he is willing to push for more restrictions on the use of eminent domain, provided the political climate is right in Albany. "I don't know of too many other issues where you have such diverse and pervasive outrage," he said yesterday in an interview."

Currently, New York is one of a handful of states that has seen no movement for change in the post-Kelo environment. 43 states have changed their eminent domain laws since the Supreme Court's ruling on Kelo threw the ball back into the states' legislative courts: "With the Republicans holding a one-seat edge in the Senate, a changing of the guard in Albany could lead Mr. Perkins and Assemblyman Richard Brodsky to lead the charge to change the state's eminent domain law. "I think the Democrats taking control will mean a lot of important things and I would hope eminent domain would be one of them," Mr. Brodsky said."

As we have been saying in a series of posts today, the NY State law needs to be changed in order to initiate a level of fairness when property owners are threatened: "A land-use attorney, Michael Rikon, said an effective alteration of New York State's law would not be easy. He said the obstacles are myriad, ranging from vague definitions of "public purpose," which can be used in certain instances to justify seizure of privately owned property, to whether "economic development" is justifiable cause for land seizure. Mr. Rikon said the process of designating an area as "blighted" is flawed and added that there are too few procedures to allow private property owners to effectively challenge the state. Mr. Rikon, who said he favors changing the law, said that under the current law, "Every home can be shown to be worth less than a site for a Costco."

Mayor Mike, however, believes that the use of ED is an essential tool-but, according to a spokesman, only as a "last resort." What we're seeing, though, is that there seem to be a great many instances where the last resort is seen as an easily available alternative; and it's always the small business owner who's store or property is resorted to in the name of having it over to some better heeled business firm or institution.

Senator Perkins remains optimistic that some change can occur: "Mr. Perkins said he would be meeting with Governor Paterson this week to discuss the findings of a hearing he held last week examining the possible use of eminent domain for the proposed $7 billion expansion of Columbia University's campus. He said Mr. Paterson was "supportive" of his work on eminent domain, but said he had not discussed specifics with the governor." Much may hinge, however, on what happens on November 4th.

American Dream Denied

The abuse of eminent domain often has a harsh personal impact-something that is brought home in Timothy Williams' story yesterday in the NY Times: "The two gas stations sit at the western end of 125th Street in Manhattan, anonymous amid rows of vacant factories and lines of cars edging toward the highway. Even for service stations, they are modest: One has peeling green paint; the second, chipped red paint and an attached car wash. Each has only a few pumps.
But for Gurnam Singh, the businesses represent a quarter-century of hard work."

What the Singh's story represents is just how inequitable the entire ED process is, with property owners negotiating on the most unlevel of playing fields-with a government gun to their heads. In this context the comments of Columbia University are revealingly perverse: "Ms. Fountain said the university had dealt fairly with each of the businesses it had had discussions with in Manhattanville during the past several years. “Columbia University has successfully negotiated the acquisition of over three dozen properties in five years within the old Manhattanville manufacturing area,” Ms. Fountain said. “Many of those who sold their properties to Columbia have testified at public hearings about Columbia’s fairness and ongoing commitment to resolutions supportive of sellers’ continuing business and employment interests in New York. Columbia has a longstanding policy of not commenting on negotiations, though it is worth noting that the remaining two business owners are being officially represented by legal counsel in their discussions with the university.”

Of course this statement amounts to little more than "crackpot rationality," a term coined by C Wright Mills: "Crackpot rationality is reason unhinged from a larger religious and moral context..." As is the notion that Columbia treated all of its property negotiaions fairly, especially when the taking of someone's property without their consent is concerned.

Here's the more likely version: "The family said that one Columbia official in particular, Philip Silverman, the university’s vice president for real estate, had been “disrespectful” toward them. They said Mr. Silverman told them the state would simply take their property if they refused to sell. “He’s treating me like, ‘This is an Indian family — we don’t know anything,’ ” Mr. Singh said."

Now it's perfectly clear that the area in West Harlem needs gas stations-particularly because of its location right next to the highway. So why hasn't the city intervened here to accommodate both Columbia and the Singhs? The reason is that the city is merely the university's cat's paw, or perhaps partner is a better term. This goes to the core of Norman Siegal's legal arguments on behalf of Nick Sptayregen and the Singhs: a true public plan would have (or should have) sought to accommodate competing interests. Instead, the city simply adopted Columbia's vision-this is not a public plan by any manner of definition.

And in the process, an immigrant family's dream gets shattered: "These properties are the bread and butter for our family,” said Amar Kaur, 16, Ms. Kaur’s daughter. “If we lose this, it would be equivalent to losing everything we have in our lives. My parents have put blood, sweat, tears and time for the past 25-plus years to be where we are at in society today.”

The Singhs came to West Harlem when economic times were tough. as was the neighborhood: "At the time, crime in the area was high, and many drivers took their chances with an empty tank rather than stop at the Singhs’ stations, which were robbed at gunpoint with regularity, Mr. Singh said.“Everybody was scared to come here,” he said. “There were many, many holdups. What can I do? I risk my life all the time.” In the early 1990s, his brother was fatally shot during an armed robbery at the Queens gas station."

And now Columbia and the state of New York wants to simply eradicate all that the Singh family has built. We'll give Nick Sprayregen the last word on this travesty: "They are a prime example of the American dream,” said Mr. Sprayregen, who owns a storage building that abuts one of the service stations. “It would be a terrible signal to other immigrants who look at America as a golden beacon if someone could lose everything they’ve worked for because someone more powerful covets their property.”

For more on Sprayregen's position see his website-http://mylandismine.com/; and this article from the Spectator.