Monday, January 31, 2011

NY Times: Taxing Our Patience

The NY Times is at it again-it is congenitally incapable of talking about budgetary matters without calling for, yet again, more taxes on an already overtaxed state: "In the next two months, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature will have to make very difficult decisions about how to close a $10 billion budget deficit — which state offices to shutter, which services and aid to cut, which employees to lay off and which taxes to raise. There are no easy fixes left. Mr. Cuomo has vowed to balance the budget without borrowing or using any of the accounting gimmicks that helped dig New York into this hole. That’s good news. But we are skeptical of his no-new-taxes pledge and his promise to let a surcharge on high earners expire. Extending that one tax until the end of 2012 would add an estimated $2 billion to the budget in the coming fiscal year and $4 billion the following year." (emphasis added)

We'll get to the Times' skepticism in a minute-cause there are some useful tidbits in the editorial that deserve a mention: "Is there room to cut? Yes. New York spends more per pupil on education and more per enrollee on Medicaid than nearly any other state. Salaries and benefits for state employees outstrip the private sector. In some cases, such as parts of the Medicaid program, the services are better and would be worth the investment in easier times. In too many cases, those higher costs are the result of Albany’s profligacy and its eagerness to reward unions and other special interests."

But, as knee jerk dependable as always, there's the grudging acknowledgement of NY State's high tax burden-mentioned in order to ignore its implications: "New York also ranks at or near the top of various surveys of tax burdens. The tax system needs to be reviewed, but there is no way to deal with the budget crises — near-term and long-term — without higher taxes. We need to live within our means. The challenge is to find ways to cut spending equitably and limit the disruption to essential services and the damage to the state’s future. Living within our means also requires finding equitable sources of additional revenue."

Where would a Times editorial be without, "finding additional sources of revenue?" Of course, the paper advocates for the maintenance of the so-called millionaires tax-and does so in the usual telling smarmy characterization: "As we said, New York would get an estimated $2 billion of additional revenue in the upcoming fiscal year if it extended the personal income tax surcharge that applies to couples making more than $300,000 and individuals making over $200,000. (A couple with two school-age children and taxable income of $350,000 would pay $3,500 more. A couple making $1 million, with two children and typical deductions, would pay about $20,500 more.) Wealthy families got a generous break from Washington with the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts. Mr. Cuomo should extend New York’s surcharge for two more years."

"Wealthy families?" Are these folks kidding? Those earning in the $200,000+ range are doing OK, but to describe them as wealthy is ridiculous-especially when a great deal of their savings has evaporated because of market downturns. But what really got us, was the Times saying that these folks caught a generous break when the feds, let them keep more of their own money!

A clearer expression of the paper's world view could not be found. But it also seeps into the discussion of education cuts-where the Times, after acknowledging that we spend way more than most other states, advocates for cutting aid to wealthier districts while holding the poorer ones harmless: "Mr. Cuomo and the Legislature must first acknowledge the historical inequity of education financing — and guarantee that the poorest districts will feel the least pain. For decades, Albany has starved poor school districts while lavishing money on wealthy districts...This year, the wealthiest school districts should bear much of the burden, and poor districts should be protected as much as possible."

This is yet a further example of the Times' redistributionist mentality. The better off school districts are those where the community is already bearing a greater share of the state's tax burden. Depriving their schools of more funds than others, is shifting the wealth of these districts to poorer ones-but with no guarantee that the aid will lead to better educational results.

As the Times highlights, "New York’s average per pupil cost of more than $15,000 is well above the national average of about $11,000. In student achievement, the state trails Massachusetts and Maryland, which spend significantly less. That means New York has two challenges: it must address the quality of instruction and the high costs."

The paper realizes that there is no correlation between high per pupil expenditures and academic performance, but still can't get a grip on advocating for more school choice. In NYC Mayor Bloomberg has just about doubled the ed budget with truly meager-and scandalously meager-returns on performance. Continuing to shovel multi-millions of dollars into this failing public educational enterprise-really a cash cow for teacher sand administrators-does students both rich and poor no damn good. But it sure gives you a good idea where the Times' head is at-right up its high taxed, share the wealth, posterior.

But the Times is not simply an obstructionist and, like the stopped clock, is right twice on what needs to be with the state's budget. First on Medicaid: "New York’s Medicaid program— the joint state-federal health insurance for the poor — is expected to spend far more than any other state’s, including the programs in California and Texas, which have much larger populations. In part that is due to the high cost of medical care around New York City. But New York’s eligibility terms and benefits are some of the most generous in the nation. It ranks near the top in providing “optional benefits,” such as dental coverage and long-term care. And it spends more than any other state per enrollee on care for the elderly and disabled."

Of course, the paper shies away from its own observations and concludes that: "Any cuts must try to minimize harm to patients and communities. Unfortunately, cuts in Medicaid could be almost three times as painful as other cuts: if Albany cuts $2 billion, local governments automatically cut at least $750 million and New York will lose $2.75 billion in federal funds, for a total reduction of $5.5 billion." It is precisely this federal spigot, however, that feeds the cycle of fiscal irresponsibility-and leads to the uncontrolled growth of government at all three levels.

Then there is the issue of government workers: "New York will never get its fiscal house in order unless it deals with employees’ extremely generous benefits. By 2013, the average total compensation — salary, pension contribution and health insurance contribution — for a state employee will be $102,000. While private-sector workers pay about 20 percent of the cost of individual health insurance coverage on average, state employees contribute only 10 percent...The state must insist on higher contributions by all its workers to pensions and health insurance, a lower ceiling on the amount of overtime counted in pension calculations and wage increases in line with those in the economy at large."

So, on balance, the Times is making a contribution to Governor Cuomo's reform agenda in spite of its own high tax proclivities. Things are so bad in the state, that even the Times can't stick its head completely in the sand. That being said, we need to steer clear from the grasping nature of the paper's obsession with getting hold of more and more of the people's hard earned money.

Because, even while making a couple of sound arguments for reform, the Times can't seem to help itself-ending its long and winding analysis with the following call: "Mr. Cuomo and the Legislature should also be looking for other sources of revenue. A penny-per-ounce tax on sugary sodas could raise an estimated $465 million in the first fiscal year. This is a no-brainer."

Leaving us with-instead of a soupcon of admiration-a major migraine. The no brainer here is the need to not raise any more revenues-and for the governor to live up to his own campaign promises, pledges that the Times fails to understand form the core of his approach to the state's fiscal crisis. What the paper needs to understand is that government and the citizens both are tapped out-and, lacking the ability to be bailed out by a suspect Mexican billionaire, have simply had enough. Cuomo has drawn the appropriate line in the sand-making the tax advice of the Times happily irrelevant.

Walmart: Trying to Be Inevitable and Edible

In a public relations push that is reminiscent of certain mayoral campaigns Walmart, in an effort to encourage the impression of inevitability, is spending money a la Bloomberg-just like a drunken stockbroker ordering lap dances and bottles of Chrystal over at Scores. Adam Lisberg fills us in over at the NY Daily News: "Walmart has a message for the City Council: you don't matter anymore. It's a provocative stance for the nation's biggest retailer to take, as the Council prepares for a hearing Thursday on Walmart's push to finally open stores in the city. Walmart won't be there. Instead, it's launching a new ad campaign taking aim at the Council, some labor unions and other groups that are trying to block it."

What's the message? Apparently that the city's land use laws should be repealed: ""You don't ask the special interests or the political insiders for permission to use the bathroom," says a mailer going to homes in 10 Council districts this week. "So why should they decide where you're allowed to shop?" Similar ads will air on radio stations and in community newspapers. It's a sharper tone than Walmart has taken before - and signals that while Walmart will pillory its opponents, it won't bother engaging with them. "The key message here is that New Yorkers should decide where they shop and work," said Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo. "Some of the louder voices in the debate don't represent the interests of New Yorkers."

So the city's elected reps are the special interests, while the folks from Bentonville, Arkansas are the purveyors of the public good. Who would have thought? New Yorkers will always decide where they want to shop, but it is the city council that decides whether a particular site is appropriate for a certain retail use. Which is why, if you are a department store or a grocery store bigger than 10,000 square feet, and you want to locate in a manufacturing area, you need to get a special use permit or a zoning change-which requires city council approval.

We fought this battle in the nineties against Rudy and thoroughly kicked his ass-fighting for the right of neighborhoods to control what gets sited in and around their communities. But what would Steve Restivo-or, better yet, Bradly Tusk-know about NYC neighborhoods; places that exist only to exploit for the corporate bottom line.

Lisberg goes on to point out that the Walmonster is looking for as-of-right sites that don't require council approval. If so, why the multi-million dollar ad campaign? "The company is looking for sites that don't need zoning changes or government permits - challenges that have successfully kept it out of New York so far.It hopes to open stores far smaller than suburban locations, some the size of neighborhood groceries. And it has convinced construction unions to part company with grocery unions and support them."

Stu Appelbaum of the RWDSU objects to the special interest labeling: "We are in the people's interest. Walmart is a special interest," said Stuart Appelbaum of the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union, which represents grocery store employees. "They're transferring the cost of doing business to taxpayers when we have to pick up the tab for health care and inadequate wages."

Walmart, for its part, wants no part of a public debate-instead looking, once again a la Bloomberg, to present an expensive and unfiltered message to a relatively uninformed public: "Council Speaker Christine Quinn said Walmart's decision to buy ads instead of answering questions at a hearing shows they are afraid."People can run whatever ads they want," Quinn said. "It really speaks volumes that they're not willing to show up in front of government and answer questions." The ad campaign, however, is aimed at winning support in the public mind - not in the Council. To Walmart, the Council and its traditional allies are increasingly irrelevant."

Crain's, with a good reporter reduced to Carl Campanile status, picks up the Lisberg theme: "Walmart is blanketing the media with ads and poll results, arguing that in tough times, people want jobs and cheap groceries. It is wooing construction unions to its side. And it has neutralized opponents' key blocking tool by seeking store sites that don't require government approvals. The retailer's strong hand has led some in organized labor to wonder whether it's time to revamp their opposition strategy and focus on ways to soften the impact of the retailer's increasingly likely arrival."

What sites are those? And, as we said above, if the Walmonster has all of those sites, why spend all of this money-looking to purchase a sense of legitimacy? Crains does underscore that there is a growing grass roots opposition being mobilized against the retail giant: "But most labor, community and small business opponents are far from throwing in the towel. Instead, they're waging an aggressive campaign to make a case that Walmart kills jobs, drives retail salaries down and hurts small business. They're enlisting elected officials and courting community leaders...“Walmart is spending inordinate amounts of money selling false promises to New York City,” said Stephanie Yazgi, director of Walmart Free NYC, a coalition of labor, small businesses and community groups. “If Walmart was inevitable, they would be here by now.”

And Big Wally wouldn't be hawking fruits and veggies either if it were so inevitable: "Earlier this month, against a brilliant backdrop of oranges and red peppers at a Washington, D.C., community center, first lady Michelle Obama endorsed Walmart's moves to lower the price of fresh fruit and vegetables, slash the sodium and sugar content in its house brand and bring stores to underserved urban areas.
“The largest corporation in America is launching a new initiative that has the potential to transform the marketplace and to help American families put healthier food on their tables,” Ms. Obama said."

Except, as we pointed out, Walmart has been one of the biggest contributors to this country's growing obesity epidemic-as a North Carolina research study highlighted: "Here’s what researcher Charles Courtemanche, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, had to say on the findings:
“I think the most obvious story is that Walmart lowers the price of foods and a lot of the foods it has big price advantages on are the processed, inner-aisle types of food that aren’t that good for you.”
Women, low-income families and people living in less densely populated areas are those most at risk of weight gain after a Walmart Supercenter moves into the neighborhood..."

Oh, so now it wants the folks to eat healthy-quite a convenient and self serving turnabout from the Walmonster. And shame on FLOTUS for colluding with this corporate crony.

Later in the Crains piece we get to the underlying rationale to the Walmart money blitz-they have their sights set on the Gateway Estates site in East New York: "The only spot Walmart is known to be considering is the 630,000-square-foot Gateway II shopping center off Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, a project the council approved in 2008. The site is owned by The Related Cos. and would give Walmart plenty of room to build its preferred 120,000-square-foot supercenter."

Well, it's actually 180,000 sq. but what's an additional Pathmark sized footprint when you are planning to flood East New York neighborhoods and the Belt Parkway-in a tribute to Mike Bloomberg's carbon footprint reducing charade-with 30,000 or more additional cars and trucks every week. But Crain's does let the cat out of the bag.

The goal here is really multiple super-sized super centers that will denude neighborhood shopping strips and choke the city's road ways with tens of thousands of additional vehicular trips that will require NYC tax payers to spend hundreds of millions of capital budget dollars that it doesn't have for infrastructure that will barely mitigate the extra trucks and autos multiple Walmonsters will generate.

All of which gets us to the Walmart multi-million dollar misdirection-a campaign launched by the venal Brad Tusk and the equally avaricious Doug Schoen. Walmart has its site on East NY, and perhaps a number of other permit restricted sites in the city. What the company will find out, however, is that its air war will not be effective-and when the Walmart Free Coalition gets its troops on the ground for any particular site fight it will be-unlike the faux inevitability that the gullible media toadies would like us to believe-simply, game over!

So, our advice to the press is, try to focus on the real Walmart objective here, and don't get caught up in the company's three card monte game. If it does, than Lisberg's observation might become both quaint and moot: "So Walmart sees no downside in ignoring the Council and its traditional allies. If Walmart wins this battle, they'll have proved the strategy works."

Ah, stay tuned for sure.

Master of the House-But Not the Best Innkeeper in Town

There is a brewing controversy over the future of Tavern on the Green-with Donald Trump and the restaurant union, Local 6, believing that they can save the famed eatery; while NYC's famous inn keeper, Mike Bloomberg, is skeptical. The NY Post has the story: "Tavern on the Gone? Mayor Bloomberg raised that possibility yesterday, when he said that the shuttered Tavern on the Green restaurant in Central Park might never reopen -- at least not in the splashy form that made it famous to generations of wedding and bar-mitzvah celebrants. "Tavern on the Green at the moment doesn't exist," the mayor declared on his weekly radio show. "Whether it'll ever come back, I don't know."

About the things the mayor doesn't know, there are entire encyclopedias written-but as far as Tavern is concerned, this is what we would categorize as a no-brainer. You have one of the world's savviest entrepreneurs pledging to bring the eating icon back and save 400 union jobs in the process-what's so difficult about the mayor simply saying, "Make my day?" Instead, we have the continuous affront of the tavern site being overrun by mobile food carts-a wonderful libretto for the Bloomberg comic opera.

The Post captures the Bloomberg hubris in all of this: "In New York, of course, Bloomberg pretty much is the government
And right now he's "getting in the way" of Donald Trump's effort to restore and reopen once-iconic, now-shuttered Tavern on the Green.
Bloomberg prefers a clutch of food trucks, and Bloomberg intends to get his way. Never mind that Trump apparently has the backing of the restaurant workers' union. And that he also has a pretty good track record when it comes to reviving faded Central Park projects -- as he proved back in the '80s with the Wollman Rink."

Bloomberg, seeking to become a latter day Zagat, doesn't think a high quality restaurant will work on the site-ignoring the fact that, absent the past few years, it made a ton of money for a long time: "Bloomberg doesn't think a reincarnated Tavern will work. "It's not clear you need another big sit-down, touristy kind of restaurant," he said yesterday. But who elected him king of the free market? Trump is willing to put up his own money. So why does Mike Bloomberg insist on "getting in the way of everything"? Because he's Mike Bloomberg."

And just who is this Mike Bloomberg? Well, that's a good question considering how the mayor kvelled over the Chinese communists ability to get things done when he visited that country. As the Post opines: "The sight of China's successful high- speed rail last year seems to have overwhelmed Mayor Bloomberg. According to Esquire magazine, Bloomberg -- who was in China for an international climate summit -- visited a state-of-the-art rail platform, where he complained about what he called the reason similar systems haven't been built here: "In America, the ultimate capitalist system," he said, "government is getting in the way of everything."

Revealing that beneath the capitalist raiments, lurks a pure bred autocrat-someone uncomfortable with the messiness of democratic procedures. James Taranto in the WSJ, citing at length the same Esquire piece, riffs along these lines:
"It's an astonishing moment, and a clarifying one--one of the most successful businessmen in the world, and certainly the most successful executive-cum-politician in American life, the leader of a city so important that its police force is bigger than the armies of most countries, expressing something close to envy for one of the most ruthlessly planned economies in the world, a system that still treats its people as disposable bits of an immense machine, where the government doesn't get "in the way of everything" because the government is everything."
Which leads Taranto to observe: "The word "capitalist" has two distinct meanings, which those on the left like to blur. Bloomberg is a capitalist by occupation, which is to say that he is a business tycoon. But he is not an ideological capitalist. He does not believe in freedom."

This is, of course, unsurprising to us-we have observed just how committed the mayor is to government qua government-as long as it is a government that he is in charge of. And no one has been more promiscuous in the use of the mechanism of eminent domain than Mayor Mike-underscoring further the extent that, as Taranto points out, "he doesn't believe in freedom."

But make no mistake about it, the Tavern kerfuffle is all about Mike Bloomberg's overweening pride-a point that Steve Cuozzo made last week in the Post: "You don't have to love Donald Trump to cheer the news he's struck a "deal" with union boss Peter Ward that could reopen Tavern on the Green. You can even hate Ward's greedy Local 6 and be glad. But their pitch puts Mayor Bloomberg in a pickle more delicious than anything from the "gourmet" food trucks in the former Tavern courtyard. Having destroyed the old Tavern for no good reason, Bloomberg is now torn. Letting Trump revive the place from the ashes would embarrass him, as Ed Koch was when Trump saved the Wollman Rink from City Hall's incompetence in the 1970s."

At the same time, it would dramatize the contrast between government bureaucratic boneheadedness and the creativity of entrepreneurism: "It would accomplish at a stroke what the city failed to do in two years of pipe-dreaming, proposal-soliciting, finally choosing a new operator -- and then sabotaging him."

The city's failures with the Tavern are symbolic then of the larger endemic incompetence of the Bloombergistas-and, along with the snow storm and CityTime fiascos, we see the mayor's image of managerial acumen toppling the way that the statue of Saddam Hussein did upon the fall of Baghdad. Our only regret, is that the mayor's fall from grace didn't happen a couple of years earlier-to spare us from this last term stench.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Dangers of Monopoly Schooling

There is a big battle being waged over placing a charter school within the confines of Brandeis High School on the Upper West Side. The NY Post objects to the objectors: "Do middle-class parents deserve good, free public schools for their kids? That's the question the city's Panel for Educational Policy will answer Tuesday, when it votes on whether to let a new charter school -- the Upper West Success Academy, run by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz -- share available space at Brandeis HS on West 84th Street in Manhattan. A thumbs-up would be a huge step toward finally giving these folks real options for their kids. Options, that is, that don't require spending massive sums for private schools or having to move to the 'burbs."

Who are objecting and what are their objections? The Post tells us: "Alas, the teachers union, which sees charters -- and Moskowitz, personally -- as a threat to its monopoly, has folks scared out of their wits about the plan. It's also got its army of bought-and-paid-for pols riling up neighbors. The stakes, you see, are huge: If charters -- public schools that are generally not unionized -- out-compete labor-run schools in middle-class areas, it would spell big trouble for the union."

This controversy has a back to the future quality to it for us-it was over fifty years ago that mother Ruth Lipsky, along with other middle class parents, began their lobbying effort for a comprehensive high school on the West Side-only to receive Brandeis long after their children had gone on the college. And let's be honest, Brandeis is a mess-and no one in the neighborhood sends their kids there. So, providing parents with competitive options is, in our view, a good thing.

Others disagree: "Which might help explain the incendiary rhetoric: Moskowitz's charters are a "separate and unequal system," the critics' press release said this week. Her schools are "turning district school children into second-class citizens." Rep. Jerrold Nadler was quoted saying "all parents" should have excellent schools -- falsely implying that the charter, which would admit kids by lottery, would discriminate. City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, the release said, explicitly saw the school as "exclusionary" -- again, a nonsensical charge, given the admissions lottery."

But what charters do ideally is to spur the other public schools on-and if there is a, "separate and unequal," system on the West Side it is being provided by Walden, Calhoun, Collegiate, Trinity, and York-not by Eva Moskowitz's efforts. But this is typical of a certain strand of UWS elitism that we have seen before in this regard. About twenty years ago, local school boards were resisting programs for the talented and gifted as, what else, elitist and exclusionary. As a result, Anthony Alvarado began to poach large numbers of white kids over to East Harlem where District 3 developed junior high school programs to attract these high achievers.

But there are those who would rather have a one size fits all leveling-even while many of these same folks avoid the public schools for their own kids. The school monopoly, however, is a failure-and in our view whatever can be done to offer parents a different choice of schools is a good thing and should be encouraged.

The Post underscores this point: "What's key to note here is that Moskowitz is merely responding to demand. Yes, the Upper West Side has some very good schools, like PS 199 and PS 87. But these often have long waiting lists. Clearly, the district needs more good schools -- and Moskowitz has a proven track record: Her Harlem and Bronx Success Academy charters have placed among the city's very best. But so far, Moskowitz's charters have served primarily lower-income, minority neighborhoods. Yuppie nabes deserve the same choice."

If the choice is not sufficiently there, parents will vote with their feet-either leaving to the suburbs, or paying exorbitant private school fees. The exit question for us-and we were in the middle of the community control battle in 1968-is what are the critics so deathly afraid of?

The "Inevitability" of Walmart

With a million dollar ad buy, to go along with a house poll that indicates that the Walmonster is loved and needed by a wide swath of New Yorkers, some people have been wondering whether the retail giant's entry into NYC is all but inevitable. This is pure balderdash-for a whole host of reasons. But in the first instance, the question of inevitability is obviated right off the bat by the sheer fact of the Walmart pr push-nothing that's inevitable needs to gain traction in this kind of well-resourced manner.

So, it would be fair to say that, of all the people who don't feel that Big Wally in NYC is inevitable, the good folks down in Bentonville would probably be first in line in the queue. As important in evaluating this question is the fact that Walmart's real game plan remains unknown-along with any of the potential specific sites it may have its eyes on. The reason why mention this point is that the entry of the company will ultimately hinge on the manner they plan to try to locate stores here-not only the number of stores but also the sites where those stores will be located. In the end, all of this comes down to a site fight.

For instance, let's take a look at Staten Island. The Staten Island Advance has been polling residents and the outcome appears to demonstrate a positive view of the store. In a story the other day, some of the Island's elected officials echoed that favored view-and one in particular caught our eye: "Walmart provides goods to people at an affordable price," said state Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island). "They provide job opportunities. I don't see why government should be using politics to get in the way of shopping convenience for people."

Now we like Senator Lanza, but let's inject a little history lesson here. It was then Council member Lanza's community that shot down the Walmonster in Tottenville in 2006-and we were at the meeting of the civic association where Lanza's aid echoed the sentiment of the community in opposing the store at Richmond Valley Road. Current CM Ignizio reflects this: "Of course it would depend where it went and the impact on the community and traffic," said Councilman Vincent Ignizio (R-South Shore). "But my constituents are using Walmart like crazy. Clearly people want options where to shop."

And in our view, we believe it is precisely the role of government-unless Lanza feels we should repeal the zoning laws-to determine whether a store is the right fit for a particular site in the community. So all of the public opinion polls-whether righteous or ersatz-don't mean squat. It always comes down to a site fight-which is why Related hid its interest in bringing Walmart to the expanded Gateway Mall. Full disclosure would have meant sure defeat because of the local opposition-something that was made plain to the duplicitous developer.

There are also other good reasons that merit the involvement of government when the Walmonster wants to come to town-and CM Debi Rose underscores this: "I am really not in favor of Walmart," said Councilwoman Debi Rose (D-North Shore). "Nationwide, they have a bad record on employee relations and wages. I also worry about the impact on mom and pop businesses."

The comments of lawmaker Mike Cusick were particularly on point-honing in on the small business impact: "Meanwhile, some lawmakers, like Assemblyman Michael Cusick, believe more information is needed. "My biggest concern about having Walmart, or any large chain, is what affect it would have on existing small businesses on Staten Island," said Cusick (D-Mid-Island). "Will there be a study done? Maybe the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce could find an independent business group to do one. Or does Walmart come in with honest data to show the effect on small business? People talk about the convenience of Walmart, and all it has to offer. But what is being overlooked is the affect on small businesses that are already struggling with a tough economy. The people who run those businesses are long-time time community members who have made their homes here. They are part of the landscape."

So, as far as inevitability is concerned, Walmart is way behind death and taxes-as is indicated by the fact that more and more electeds are signing up to oppose the store's entry. The NYO has the story: "The coalition to keep Walmart out of New York City added four new members today when Council members Tish James, Mathieu Eugene and Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn and Robert Jackson of Manhattan announced their opposition to allowing the superstore to open in East New York. "Small businesses are the engines of the New York City economy, creating jobs, spending locally and keeping our dollars in the community," said James. "Walmart could put those small businesses out of business, costing us valuable jobs, as well as hurting our economy while doing so.  For these reasons, New York must say no to Walmart."

Our advice: Don't believe the hype. The anti-Walmonster coalition is growing daily as more and more people are educated about the damage-particularly to NYC's neighborhoods-that this retail predator can do. We'll see this coalition inn action down at our city hall rally next week. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Good Choice for ESDC

We were heartened to see that Governor Cuomo has appointed Ken Adams as the new head of the Empire State Development Corporation. As YNN reports: "The Cuomo administration has finally settled on a nominee to head the Empire State Development Corp. – a post for which the governor has drawn some criticism for leaving empty this long while insisting his main focus is “jobs, jobs, jobs.” The governor has tapped state Business Council President and CEO Ken Adams to serve in the same capacity at ESDC. Cuomo also announced he plans to change the leadership structure at the corporation, separating the CEO and chairman functions."

This is a good choice because we know Ken to be a tireless worker, as well as a creative out of the box thinker on economic development. There have been times when we have crossed swords on certain issues-and other times when we have worked together. In all circumstances, however, we have come away impressed with his erudition and charm-an unlikely political combination from our experience.

Good luck Ken!

Decongesting Dissimulation

Now who are we going to believe? In this morning's WSJ the paper reports on the efforts to revive the mayor's old congestion pricing plan-but, at least according to Mike Bloomberg, all of this is occurring without any of his input: "New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg still strongly supports the idea of charging motorists to enter the most congested parts of Manhattan. Just don’t expect him to re-launch another effort to get the controversial, revenue-generating proposal approved in Albany any time soon. “I happen to think it makes some sense, but I’m going to stay out of it,” Bloomberg said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve done
everything we can.”

Is that so? Now we turn to the aforementioned Daily News report that tells a somewhat different story: "While Gov. Cuomo has not taken sides on the idea, Bloomberg aides have been working on it behind the scenes for months. "The key is devising a proposal that would win broad support across the five boroughs, the entire region, and in Albany," said Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson."

How would you resolve this discrepancy? In our view, it is important to discount whatever the mayor himself says publicly about the proposal-and we believe he's simply watching and waiting to see if his stealth efforts will gain any political traction. As the Journal points out, Bloomberg remains enraptured with the idea of keeping motorists out of his borough:

"Responding to questions about a Daily News story suggesting a renewed effort to pass some form of congestion pricing, Bloomberg on Wednesday joked sarcastically, “What a clever idea! My God, how did they think of that?”

“Just think about how much better off we would have been today if five years ago, or thereabouts, the Albany Legislature” moved forward with the proposal, Bloomberg added. “You want to dissuade people from driving because the streets are clogged. We are never going to have more streets. So, you have to have fewer cars,” he said. “You can only have fewer cars if you have better mass transit, so that people have alternatives that are cost effective and pleasurable and more efficient.”

Just what we need, a smart ass response to what we believe is a seriously flawed policy proposal-and if the mayor is so keen on keeping traffic flowing because, "We are never going to have more streets," than why the hell is he building intrusive bike paths all over the city. As our friend Warren Schrieber, President at Bay Terrace Community Alliance, Inc, writes on Facebook: "Bay Terrace - 212th St. between 18th Ave & Bell Blvd. is used by vehicles to & from P.S. 169, Bay Terrace Shopping Center, Ft. Totten & Cross Island Parkway. It's a bus route and contains 10 driveways serving 750 families. But, some bureaucratic rocket scientist has concluded it would be the perfect location for bike lanes."

The mayor, however, sees this simply as a public relations problem: "Some people love ‘em and some people hate them... It’s probably true that in many of these cases we could do a better job and we’re going to try to do that." It is much more than that-it is social engineering by woolly headed bureaucrats who believe that the yokels out in the neighborhoods don't know what's good for them.

All of this is posturing by the Naked Emperor because, as we have said ad infinitum, you can't be for reducing vehicular traffic at the same time you're building auto-dependent malls and fronting for Walmart. In the past nine years, that is the extent of the Bloomberg economic development policy-a policy that has devastated the neighborhood businesses that are the backbone, not only of the city' economy, but of any sustainability policy that has any real substance.

Hey Mike wise up! You don't dissuade people from driving by building box stores that are only truly accessible by automobiles. And you don't dissuade anyone from motoring when you become the cheerleader for the world's largest auto-dependent retailer. Not if you want to be taken seriously, you don't..

Here we get to the nub of what has been wrong about the city's flawed sustainability effort called, PlaNYC 2030. Nowhere in the voluminous document is there even a smidgen of awareness that neighborhood and the stores that support them need to be made-if not the linchpin-a central feature of any credible plan to reduce carbon emissions. As a result of the absence of this awareness-and the concomitant economic development policy that runs counterpoint to sustainability-we have increased car and truck traffic precipitously, while all the while Mike Bloomberg speaks out of the other side of his mouth about congestion.

Dean of the Motorists

As YNN reported yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos has come out in defense of the NYC motorists against a revised Bloomberg plan to tax cars coming into Manhattan: "Despite his near $1 million investment in the Senate GOP during last year’s election cycle, Mayor Bloomberg isn’t finding much support from Majority Leader Dean Skelos for one of his long-standing signature projects: Congestion pricing. The DN’s Adam Lisberg reported NYC pols are quietly revisiting the idea of charging motorists to drive into Manhattan as a method of generating revenue for the perpetually cash-strapped MTA. Supporters, like Sen. Dan Squadron, a Brooklyn Democrat and Bloomberg ally, are calling the idea “traffic pricing,” but it’s still the same concept."

Gee, what's with all of this re-branding, you know, like calling government spending an, "investment." But one of NY State's most famous governors had a better description of this kind of, well, euphemistic BS. As Governor Al Smith would have said: "No matter how you slice it, it’s still baloney."

In this case, no matter what you call it, it is still a tax: "Skelos told reporters he was opposed to congestion pricing when it died in the Legislature back in 2008 (largely thanks to the Assembly Democrats, although it was unclear the measure had sufficient support to pass in the Senate at the time, too) and hasn’t changed his stance. The majority leader said congestion pricing is “just another tax,” adding he wouldn’t likely reconsider that position even if backers offered to trade it for rescinding the MTA payroll tax – a key Senate GOP issue and one that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he’s willing to consider (assuming another revenue source is found to support mass transit)."

But all of this indicates that Mike Bloomberg simply won't take no for an answer-and refuses to do so even while the blatant hypocrisy of his hawking this policy is plain to anyone who takes a look at the mayor's economic development policies-not to mention his support for the car generating Walmonster. Put simply, if the mayor was really for a genuine policy of sustainability, he would not have put huge malls along the Major Deegan and Belt Parkway-courtesy of the Related Companies-and most certainly wouldn't have stuck 500,000 square feet of retail at the so-called Flushing Commons Mall in the middle of that community's downtown.

Of course, pricey traffic is the quintessential feature of the mayor's legacy development at Willets Point-a project that would include the largest mall in the city and would also generate 80,000 car and truck trips a day. So, to echo the Bronx woman who-in commenting on the mayor's belief that women are safe walking the streets in every neighborhood of the city-told the Daily News, "Bloomberg's trippin'..."

That he be-and as far as Manhattan is concerned, it is the only area of the city that the mayor is auto-immune. For the rest of the city it's simply, "Wake up and smell the exhaust."

Sins of Educated Guessing

A group called the Alliance for Quality Education is out in front against education cuts-the first of what will be an avalanche of special pleaders concerned with the governor's plans to reduce the size and scope of government. Daily Politics has the story: "Flanked by more than a dozen lawmakers – most of them Assembly Democrats – the Alliance for Quality Education’s Billy Easton held a press conference this morning to release a study showing, among other things, that the state’s better performing schools spent $1,712 per pupil than schools classified by the state as needing improvement."

Once again, we are confronted with the confusion between correlation and causation-and in this case, the erroneous conclusion that there is some kind of cause and effect at work between per pupil educational spending and subsequent student performance: "The message from Easton and the lawmakers was simple: The massive education cuts expected in Gov. Cuomo’s budget would be devastating, especially to schools in poor areas, and the state should not think of cutting school funding without first renewing the so-called "millionaires’ tax."

We're a bit perplexed at what exactly is the relationship between the tax and school spending, but we are certain that whatever amounts are cut from schools wouldn't be devastating at all-and belies the extent to which we are currently getting  not a bang, but a whimper, from the beacoup bucks we are already laying out. In fact, the NYC schools budget has just about doubled, and the results are, to put it kindly, a bit less than stellar.

We are believers in empowering parents by giving them choices-and that includes both charter schools and experimental voucher programs like the one that the Obama administration scuttled in Washington D.C. We currently spend more money per pupil than any other country in the developed world-save Switzerland-and the results dramatize just why the correlation that AQE alleges between money and school performance flunks the smell test.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

More Walmart Opposition

We have always said that there are many reasons why folks should dislike the Walmonster-and now it is the turn of the women to voice their concern about the retail giant's employment policies. Daily Politics had the story yesterday: "Walmart Free NYC, a coalition trying to keep the big box retailer from planting its flag in the five boroughs, is getting some backup from women's groups. On March 29, the Supreme Court is slated to hear Walmart v. Dukes, which questions "whether a federal court may hear a nationwide class-action on behalf of hundreds of thousands of female Wal-Mart employees, charging the company with engaging in a pattern and practice of pay and promotion discrimination."

And NOW of NYC is not pleased with Big Wally: "Wal-Mart with its enormous scope and influence has set a standard that blatant discrimination against women employees is great way to maximize profits,” said Sonia Ossorio, Executive Director of the National Organization for Women in New York City. “This is an employer who takes advantage of its workforce at every opportunity. The women of New York City deserve better.”

Indeed it does-and we're happy to see that NOW is ready to join with the growing anti-Walmart coalition as it prepares to make a lot of noise next week down at the City Council hearing. As we have always said, there is a high cost of low prices-and the Walmonster isn't worth the cost.

Snowstorm Blame Game

According to the NY Times this morning, it is appearing less and less likely that there was any kind of organized union slow down that caused the city's malfeasant response to last month's blizzard: "The story rocketed around New York City when streets went uncleared after the Dec. 26 blizzard: Sanitation workers, angry about job reductions, had deliberately staged a work slowdown...And it occurred because one man, Councilman Daniel J. Halloran, Republican of Queens, said five city workers had come to his office during the storm and told him they had been explicitly ordered to take part in a slowdown to embarrass Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. But the more that investigators look into Mr. Halloran’s story, the more mystifying it becomes."

But it was the NY Post's rush to judgment-even more than CM Halloran's allegations-that ratcheted up this story into such a state of out sized outrage. It was also aided and abetted by those on the Right who just couldn't resist the union did it narrative. On the other hand, it was always our belief that the snowfu was a management failure above anything else-a supposition that the Times story makes even more likely.

And it doesn't look as if all of the ballyhooed investigations are going to bear fruit: "Meanwhile, investigators had hoped that extensive publicity would bring out others with knowledge of the purported plot. That has not happened, according to the people briefed on the investigations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigations are continuing. This leaves prosecutors with no proof that anything occurred. “When you’re talking about establishing a negative, I don’t know how it’s going to get firmer,” one person briefed on the inquiries said."

Of course, if there had been rampant labor abuses, it is more than probable that some of this would have already surfaced as a result of the publicity. Instead, mum's the word-and the Post's hysteria looks more and more misplaced-and Halloran has begun to walk back his own remarks: "Yet in the days since Mr. Halloran first made his explosive accusations, he has revised his account. In an article that appeared in The New York Post on Dec. 30, he said the workers had been told “to take off routes” and “not do the plowing of some of the major arteries in a timely manner.” “They were told to make the mayor pay,” Mr. Halloran said in the article, “for the layoffs, the reductions in rank of the supervisors, shrinking the rolls of the rank and file.” More recently, the councilman has said the workers were not explicitly told to take part in a slowdown, but were subtly informed there was no need to rush while clearing the snow."

All of which will hopefully bring the focus of this story back to where it belongs-at the mayor's absent tootsies. Any labor action-whether isolated or not-could not have been conducted if all of the grown ups hadn't decided to leave town in the hands of a deputy mayor who has apparently been tossed off her bike one too many times.

But we are buoyed by the fact that the mayor is still taking his managerial responsibilities extremely seriously. As the WSJ reports-in what we would describe as an example of crackpot rationality-Bloomberg has installed clocks at City Hall to insure that meetings are conducted swiftly and expeditiously. Unfortunately, that only works if you are actually in town to participate in the meeting.

Bloomberg Talking the Walk

It's nice to know that the mayor has such a decent handle on how safe it is for women to walk the streets of areas in NYC that he himself would never be caught dead in after hours. As the NY Daily News reported yesterday, the city has never been safer for women-except that it seems that not all women see things the mayor old Out of Touch Bloomberg does: "Mayor Bloomberg crowed Monday that city streets have never been safer - day or night - for women, but some skeptical New York ladies suggested he take a walk in their neighborhoods. At a tour of a Queens school Monday night, the mayor proudly declared: "People don't remember 10 years ago. They've really already forgotten when you couldn't walk the streets. Today, a woman could walk in virtually every neighborhood in this city during the day and not look over her shoulder, and most neighborhoods at night," he added."

Talking right out of his bubble, it appears: "But Bronx resident Carla Banks, 31, said living on the upper East Side has left the mayor clueless about what women face. "Bloomberg's trippin'," said Banks, of Kingsbridge Heights. "This isn't the upper East Side. He's definitely out of touch with what women deal with in the Bronx."Her pal Devon Irving, 29, said he should take a solo stroll down her block. "I know the mayor doesn't have to worry about walking home from the subway, but I sure do," said Irving, of Mount Eden. "If he thinks we don't still have to watch our backs, he's crazy."

Wow. We bet that's the first time that Mayor Mike has been accused of, "trippin'" in print-and the problem is one of taking sycophancy seriously: "The mayor boasted about female safety after Rabbi Yaakov Bender, the dean of Yeshiva Darchei Torah School in Far Rockaway, thanked him and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly for keeping the streets safe. But at a community meeting the mayor later attended in Far Rockaway, Beverly Champion didn't second the sentiment. She complained to the mayor about crime in housing developments, saying, "I've lived here all my life, and I've never seen it as worse." Champion said she doesn't feel safe walking around with her purse and laughed when told what the mayor had said earlier about crime. "He's not telling the truth," she said. "He just takes the reports that they give him, but he doesn't know."

But when it comes to living in his own world-a Bermuda high that possibly warps good judgment-the mayor is definitely on a roll. At the same Far Rockaway meeting, the mayor was confronted-perhaps for the first time-with popular discontent about the unpopular and inane bike lanes: "Meanwhile, at the community meeting, a crowd of 200 booed the mayor and the Department of Transportation Queens Borough commissioner, Maura McCarthy, when they spoke of planned bike lanes for the Rockaways."

Bloomberg's disconnected response was all telling: "Bloomberg later admitted that the lanes drew strong reactions from supporters and opponents. "Bicycle lanes are one of the more controversial things, obviously," he said. "Some people love them and some people hate them. ... It's probably true that in many of these cases we could do a better job, and we're going to try to do that."

A better job at what? Actually allowing a proposed bike lane to go through some form of meaningful environmental review? Somehow we don't think that's what Mike means-but the folks really don't like these elite experiments foisted on their neighborhoods unilaterally. The public debate, we believe, is rather one sided-with the advocates at Transportation Alternatives representing a small cohort of anti-car zealots unrepresentative of the majority sentiment.

So, if Mayor Mike feels he could be doing a better job here-a righteous view that could be applicable to a wide range of public policies-he should start with adopting the proposal of CMs Oddo and Ignizio that would establish a full review of any proposed bike lanes in a neighborhood. If such a process was established we would soon find out how opinion on this issue really stacks up-the last thing that the mayor truly wishes to find out.

No, Bloomberg would rather rule by fiat in his Father Knows Best world. More and more it appears that this third term will continue to expose just how big a mistake it was for Mike Bloomberg to usurp a third term-and for that slim majority of NYC voters to give him his unfortunate wish.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Concerns at NYS DOT

As many of you are aware, we have been commenting for a while about the tortured review process over permission to build ramps off of the Van Wyck to accommodate the Willets Point development. When last we looked, there was friction between NYC DOT Commissioner Sadik-Khan, and the local regional head of the state agency who felt that the commissioner was threatening him if he failed to act expeditiously (read: hastily and without real oversight). As he said in an email: "JSK noted that she will be sending me a letter holding me personally responsible for holding the Willets Pt project hostage. I'm okay with that as we need to ensure that we have thoroughly reviewed the issues and that they are resolved satisfactorily."

It is now about 14 months since Willets Point United upended the deceptive work of EDC's traffic consultants on the Access Modification Report (AMR) for the Van Wyck ramps. Since then, EDC's crack consulting team has been laboring-mostly in secret-over the revision to their originally defective AMR. We say secretly, because EDC has stonewalled all of WPU's efforts to foil the relevant traffic data.

What concerns us at this time is Joan McDonald, the newly appointed commissioner over at SDOT. Liz Benjamin has the details: "
McDonald does have deep New York ties though. She served as Senior Vice President for Transportation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. She is also the former Deputy Commissioner for Planning and Traffic Operations for New York City DOT."

Now it might not be fair to prejudge the new commissioner, but given what has transpired, and our view that EDC has acted in a less than candid manner in regards to the ramps at Willets Point, we have cause for concern. This concern isn't allayed by the group that was first out of the box in support of McDonald: "The administration has yet to announce the pick, but the General Contractors Association of New York has already voiced their support for McDonald.
Governor Cuomo’s selection of Joan McDonald to be commissioner of the state Department of Transportation will serve the taxpayers of New York State well,” said Denise Richardson, the Managing Director of the General Contractors Association of New York.
“ It is our hope that swift approval by the legislature will ensure that New York can get back on the road again in creating an infrastructure that moves us beyond the recession by creating jobs, energizing the economy and investing in our future."
Or, damn the torpedoes, and full speed ahead-and no delays for unnecessary oversight by any means. But perhaps there is a glimmer of hope-as this comment from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign indicates: "The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a transit-advocacy group that also focuses on “smart growth,”  was also pretty happy.“Since 2008, NYSDOT has lacked a commitment to progressive transportation policy and this choice marks a new era for the stagnant agency, ” the group said in a statement.  “Ms. McDonald showed a clear commitment to promoting an economic investment strategy focused on transit oriented and smart growth development while Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development. We expect Ms. McDonald’s solid experience to guide the way towards a more progressive transportation agenda and to further promote Governor Cuomo’s sustainability goals.”

Still, concerns we have aplenty-and we have asked all of the relevant stakeholders to weigh in with McDonald and insist that a full, open and independent review process be established for these Van Wyck ramps. In re Tri-State, there is nothing sustainable about these ramps and the project they abet. So let's take a step back and truly evaluate whether the building of these ramps is in the long term interests of a smart growth policy.

Misjudging the FDNY

The Washington Times had an excellent editorial yesterday on the follies of federal judge Nicholas Garaufis-something we have had a lot to say on over the past few months. The editorial highlights how political correctness sometimes harms exactly those folks who it's trying to help-this time the Black applicants to the FDNY: "Firefighters live to rescue, but political correctness is undermining this important mission in the Big Apple. Currently, 406 of 8,654 budgeted positions at the Firefighters Department of New York (FDNY) are unfilled because a federal judge and the Justice Department insist rescuing ability must bow to racial quotas. On Dec. 15, the left-wing Village Voice described the plight of several black firefighter candidates who aced the FDNY entrance exam, only to be blocked from entering the Fire Academy because U.S. district Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis decided the test was too tough for some minority candidates to pass."

Even the Voice, however, couldn't find just where the applicant exam was in any way discriminatory: "There’s no question that there is something very wrong with how the FDNY adds new employees...But is the entrance exam really to blame? And can it be called racist simply because blacks and Latinos don’t score as well as whites, even when the questions have no discernible racial component to them at all?"

Well, according to Garaufis it is because of the, "disparate impact," argument: "It’s hard to see any racial discrimination in the individual questions from past exams that the Voice was able to obtain. But that doesn’t change the fact that minority groups have fared worse in them. The court even has a legal term for it: “disparate impact.” And the thing is, it’s not against the law for a hiring test to create disparate impact, as long as that test evaluates the vital skills necessary for job performance. But the FDNY’s critics charge that its exams don’t really determine who will or will not turn out to be a good firefighter."

Tell that to the Black applicants who are being hosed-just like those in New Haven that the Supreme Court came to the rescue of. Listen to their plight: "Nafis Sabir is an African-American who wants to be a New York City firefighter. When he sat for the city’s most recent exam in January 2007, known as test “6019,” he scored in the top handful out of nearly 22,000 candidates. “I was 29 at the time,” the former Marine says, “and the test wasn’t that hard. You study for it, and it takes some discipline. But I already had a lot of life experience to do that. Maybe some younger guys don’t.” Sabir says the exam answers were often comically obvious. “They might ask, ‘Someone comes in the firehouse and looks at you with a crazy look. You can speak to him about it, talk to a supervisor, or punch him in the face. Which one should you not do?’ ” He laughs joylessly. If the test was easy, subsequent events have been difficult."

That's because Sabir, like the other minority applicants that made it, will now have to take the exam over again. But there's a rub-now he and some of his cohort will be too old to be admitted. What did the Vulcan Society-the group supposed to represent Black firefighters-have to say?

Dion Hines is another victim:-let him tell you: "Hines and his classmates seem to be nearly as frustrated with another group that’s supposed to be on their side: the Vulcans. Hines and Cargin were in a small group of African-American members from their class to meet with the organization of black firefighters. Hines says that the club’s president, John Coombs, “literally called us ‘casualties of war.’ That created a lot of tension, because I knew they were willing to sacrifice us.”

Nice, huh? And what is the Justice Department doing? Siding with the judge and the quota system. As the Wash Times points out: "
The lead Justice Department attorney in the FDNY case is Loretta King, who ordered the dismissal of most voter-intimidation charges against Black Panthers in Philadelphia and who is hip-deep in other race-based legal controversies. On Sept. 30, she wrote a memo to Judge Garaufis pitching four proposals to require "representative" or "proportional" quotas. Ms. King glosses over the professional challenges of firefighting to focus on whether minorities feel "stigmatized" or if black firefighters could further their "sense of fairness in their place of employment" if surrounded by more workers of their own race."

Oh, good grief! How about defending Sabir and Hines? And make no mistake about it, Garaufis is on a quota or bust venture: "Judge Garaufis is trying to impose quotas, and the Justice Department backs him. This push disregards a high-profile 2009 Supreme Court decision knocking down the same practices. In Ricci v. DeStefano, the court ruled the city of New Haven, Conn., could not discard the results of an objective, neutral firefighter test merely because of a racially disparate passage rate. To do so would be to deliberately choose or reject applicants on the basis of their race, and "this express, race-based decision-making violates Title VII" of the Civil Rights Act."

Not in the Holder Justice Department-where the civil rights division simply doesn't believe in the concept of race neutral-and the judge is, of course, nothing but a disgrace: "Judge Garaufis is trying to impose quotas, and the Justice Department backs him. This push disregards a high-profile 2009 Supreme Court decision knocking down the same practices. In Ricci v. DeStefano, the court ruled the city of New Haven, Conn., could not discard the results of an objective, neutral firefighter test merely because of a racially disparate passage rate. To do so would be to deliberately choose or reject applicants on the basis of their race, and "this express, race-based decision-making violates Title VII" of the Civil Rights Act."

We need the House Investigations Committee to take a long hard look at the Holder patterns over at Justice-and it can begin by bringing charges against all of the officials who lied before Congress on the Black Panther Case. In any sane world, we would be lauding the achievements of Firefighters Sabir and Hines-but that wouldn't be the world where Eric Holder lives.

Chiquita Manana

Adam Brodsky follows up on the Michael Goodwin deconstruction of Mayor Mike's fiscal chops in yesterday's NY Post-and concludes that Bloomberg is being pusillanimous: "Brace yourself: A budget blizzard is headed straight for the city, yet Mayor Bloomberg sees mostly Bermuda-like skies. "This place not only survives, it thrives," he said Wednesday in his State of the City speech. The next day he launched the NYC Urban Technology Innovation Center, which will promote "green building technologies." Hello? The city's broke -- and will be even broker once Albany finishes slicing and dicing. It's already $2.4 billion in the hole, and the Post's Fredric U. Dicker reports today that Gov. Cuomo is eyeing another $1 billion cut in aid to the city."

C'mon, Adam, it's only Mike Bloomberg doing his grasshopper imitation for the ants-while posturing that he is actually doing the hard work that is necessary, but has been left undone for the past nine years: "Mike knows he's got scant wiggle room: "The days of kicking the can down the road, I think, really are over," he says. Yet what does he propose? "We will grow our way out of these tough times by shrinking the costs of government," he says. His challenge: "Forcing government to live within its means." Uh, he's been mayor for the last nine years. If city government has been living beyond its means, whose fault is it?"

Welcome to the little fella behind the big curtain-take away his megaphone and there's not much to grasp there: "Yet Bloomberg's actions show little sense of urgency. He doesn't seem committed to taking the tough steps needed to weather the coming fiscal storm and set a proper course for the city's future. And he certainly isn't preparing New Yorkers for the sacrifices they'll have to make."

But the mayor has shucked and ducked on this issue since he found himself improbably ensconced at City Hall in 2002-whence he immediately commenced the growth of the government that he needed to shrink instead: "Likewise regarding his self-described No. 1 priority: pension reform. Of course, changes are vital here, and Bloomberg's right that, for example, upping the retirement age to 65 for future non-uniformed city staffers could save billions over the long term. Trouble is, a retirement-age shift won't raise a dime for the city until they retire -- decades from now."

Can we get a chorus or two of the Platters' classic?
Oh yes, I'm the great pretender
Pretending that I'm doing well
My need is such, I pretend too much
I'm lonely but no one can tell

Oh yes, I'm the great pretender
Adrift in a world of my own
I play the game, but to my real shame
You left me to dream all alone

How tough is the little cutie? Check this macho pose: "Bloomberg's boldest line? "I will not sign a contract with salary increases unless they are accompanied by reforms in benefit packages." What? Bloomberg is seriously considering "salary increases" in new union contracts? Even as he prepares to lay off thousands? And remember, government employees get pay hikes even if the mayor doesn't sign a contract, under the Triborough Amendment. That odious 1982 law requires that built-in yearly increases continue even after contracts expire. Hizzoner didn't even mention the fundamental corrosiveness of that arrangement. By contrast, Cuomo reportedly may push to repeal it; Bloomberg at least could have backed him."

So, where does this leave the vaunted Bloomberg legacy-run aground on the shoals of reality. Brodsky deserves the last word-more cold water on the third term necessity meme: "If Bloomberg is ready, truly ready, to do what it takes, he could leave the city far better off fiscally -- not only this year, but for years to come. But so far, alas, there's scant evidence that he is."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bike Brakes

We can only say that it's about time-two Staten Island council members are calling out the Bloomberg administration for their failure to conduct a single environmental review of the disgraceful bike lane roll out: "Two city councilmen are pressing Mayor Bloomberg and his bike-lane-loving transportation chief to require that any new bicycle lanes go through the same exhaustive public review as other road changes. Staten Island Councilman James Oddo, the Republican minority leader, said plans for new bike lanes should undergo the city's lengthy environmental-assessment process, or the city should allow other, more minor traffic changes to bypass the review."

NYC's Sadik needs to be constrained-and we say it's about time because we have been questioning-along with the NY Post's Steve Cuozzo-for a long time why the city council has not instituted a challenge to this unilateralism. As we said last month: "The city-with the mayor's explicit or tacit approval-has embarked on a grandiose plan to thoroughly remake the city's streetscape. This is all being done without a single environmental impact study-and at an exorbitant cost. Much like the failed calorie posting experiment that DOH imposed by going to the unelected Board of Health for approval-while bypassing city council review-the current extreme makeover has never been properly reviewed by either city planning or the city council. When the council allowed the calorie posting to proceed without any complaint, it laid the seeds for this more radical usurpation of authority."

So kudos to Oddo and Ignizio-and their comments are right on point: "Oddo and Councilman Vincent Ignizio (R-SI) penned a letter last week demanding an explanation from Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, an avid cyclist and bike-lane proponent, of why the lanes don't require the scrutiny. "The creation of bike lanes and the removal of vehicle travel lanes represent a major reordering of Department of Transportation priorities that may affect the environment and appear to qualify" for a formal environmental review, the letter reads. Oddo told The Post, "To add one left-handed turning lane [on Staten Island], it's taking us eight to 12 years, yet there have been all of these bike lanes installed without any bumps in the road. How is that possible?"

Exactly so-and the comments from DOT indicate that the city must have stopped doing random drug testing of its employees: "DOT spokesman Seth Solomonow defended the exclusion of bike lanes from the city's review process. "Our job is to improve mobility and safety on city streets, and this kind of review is not necessary for any routine street changes we make to improve safety," he said."
Routine street changes? To which the Post archly points out: "Since Bloomberg took office in 2002, the city has added 373 miles of bike lanes, Solomonow said." And, as many have pointed out, it isn't just about safety, but also about the kind of environmental and business impacts that these changes are bringing to neighborhoods without the benefit of any rigorous analysis.

The NY Daily News nailed this last month in its editorial on the wacky world of Sadik-Khan-and calls her out on the DOT's failure to demonstrate that the alleged benfits of the bike lanes have actually been achieved: "She says she is doing everyone a favor by erecting barriers, pushing cars to park in the middle of avenues and creating clear pedaling for two-wheeled travelers. We dare her. Prove it. This is Bloomberg's data-driven administration, the government that measures and calculates to figure out whether something works. At this late date, Sadik-Khan should have at her fingertips facts and figures that tell the tale of what she hath wrought."

All of which makes  the effort of Oddo and Ignizio laudatory-as well as long over due. We'll give ourselves the last word from our comments last month on the commissioner's claims that the lanes have had a, "calming effect," on traffic: "Who really knows, and without any rigorous evaluation, everything coming out of DOT-and Sadik-Khan's mouth-is simply blather. Meanwhile, the city's motorists, delivery drivers and commuters are being given the finger. First it was the Board of Health imposing menu labeling without any legislative oversight, then came the DOH commissioner misrepresenting scientific evidence in the name of forcefully slimming New Yorkers-and now this. It is time for the city council to fulfill its proper oversight role."

The Bike Lane Legacy

Michael Goodwin has an incisive look at the aimlessness of the Bloomberg third term-which reminds us of the comment made by Wayne Barrett when the mayor announced his third term usurpation: "Why does he want a third term, he still owes us for a second one?"

Goodwin underscores this, and by doing show dramatizes the extent to which the Bloomberg mayoralty has always lacked any real civic vision-being all about narcissistic personal aggrandizement: "Not long ago, a confidant of Mayor Bloomberg's cornered me with a blunt question: "Can you figure out what his third term is about?" I paused before offering the only thing I could think of: "Bike lanes?" "Thank you very much," the frustrated Bloomy backer answered. "That's exactly my point." Jerry Seinfeld made a successful TV show about nothing, but governing has to be about something. A year into his third term, even strong supporters wonder if Bloomberg has a clear focus."

The Seinfeld analogy is a brilliant one-because, lacking any real strong public policy vision, everything that Bloomberg does inevitably seems contrived and just about him. But, as Goodwin points out, in the absence of any real sense of purpose, the Bloomberg third term is being defined by his failures: "But nature abhors a vacuum, so failures are defining City Hall. The snow disaster, the $80 million CityTime ripoff and citizen reports that the Bloomies are fudging data to defend unpopular policies help explain the mayor's 37 percent approval rating."

In our view, however, it isn't the lack of third term purpose that elevates the scandals that Goodwin cites. What makes CityTime and the snowfu so poignant is the fact that they are so deliciously counterpoised to the Bloomeberg mythos-you know, the sharp managerial expertise and computer driven acumen. The scandals create the kind of emperor's clothes moment that we have pointed out before-and force a re-evaluation of all things Bloomberg.

Take education-and Goodwin does just that: "Take education, his No. 1 priority. Clearly there has been progress, but there also is wide uncertainty about real student achievement because of the test-score debacle. Nearly all the "gains" of his second term vanished when standards were raised. A teacher bonus program, heralded as a merit-pay breakthrough, was quietly scrapped last week after it poured more than $100 million into educrats' pockets without proof it boosted students. The reliability of school report cards is also in doubt."

But Goodwin leaves out the fact that, whatever incremental progress has been made, the gains achieved have been at the cost of huge-billions of additional dollars huge-additional expenditures. These massive extra obligations are part of the reason why the mayor is now inveighing against the costly pensions that city is forced to cover-asking for Albany's help with a straight faced refusal to acknowledge his own culpability in the fiasco.

To his credit, Goodwin captures some important parts of this: "A half-done image also haunts the mayor's fiscal stewardship. He enjoyed soaring revenue growth, because of the economy and tax hikes, but spent it all, and then some. Now there is reason to hope that is where he intends to focus. His State of the City Address was noteworthy because of his vow to defuse the ticking pension bomb.
"I will not sign a contract with salary increases unless they are accompanied by reforms in benefit packages," he said. Bloomberg made similar vows in the past, saying he would not grant raises unless unions paid for them with concessions. He blinked and got only token givebacks in exchange for pay hikes that often topped 4 percent a year, and a whopping total of 43 percent for teachers."

Exactly why we have said that Bloomberg's problems devolve from the growing realization that the mayor's image has been sold to them like a bill of goods-and like the Master of the House that he is: "...Cunning little brain, regular Voltaire. Thinks he's quite a lover but there's not much there." Yes, quite a cruel trick of nature.

But Goodwin isn't through with Bloomberg-and goes on to make an additional point about the fraudulent image that the mayor has foisted upon us about his superior fiscal expertise. This time it's the capital budget deficit: "The cost of capital projects is another danger zone, and this one is largely Bloomberg's doing. When he took office, debt service cost $3 billion a year. It's now $5.4 billion, even with low interest rates, and could hit $7 billion in three years. The city now carries a record $69.5 billion in debt. Although the mayor ordered three cuts to the capital budget since 2008, actual spending continues to rise, according to a Citizens Budget Commission report that faults his "failure to impose fiscal austerity on the infrastructure agenda."

In the face of this profligacy, what does the mayor do? He spends millions on those bike lanes that everyone loves, and continues with his extravagant legacy project at Willets Point-a development that is built on absconding with the property of scores of small land owners, and the use of deceptive traffic studies that make the bike lane oversight resemble the work of Diogenes. The cost of Willets Point will run into the billions without any real clear idea that the city has the ability to, at least under its current fiscal straights, see the project through to fruition.

In the end, what the current scandals have done is to help remove the blindfolds from some of our previously enamored cognoscenti-Goodwin excluded since he has been on the mayor's case a good deal before all of the current mess unfolded. But in the blink of an eye-and the speed of the reversal is an indication of the ersatz quality of the original assessment-the mayor's claim to a out sized legacy has been torn asunder.

Goodwin deserves-and gets-the last word: "This is not how it was supposed to be in Year 10. When he moved to change the term-limits law, Bloomberg pitched himself as the man to guide Gotham through the fiscal storm. "We may well be on the verge of a meltdown," he said in 2008. Fortunately, meltdown fears have passed. But it would be a major mark against him, and tragic for New York, if the man who claimed to know the buck sails off into the sunset on a tide of red ink."