Monday, February 28, 2011

TINOs: Teachers in Name Only?

The NY Post has a story yeterday that reported on the 1500 UFT members who are being paid not to teach as part of a negotiated union-release program: "In the city's funny math, you get only one teacher for the price of two. The Department of Education pays about 1,500 teachers for time they spend on union activities -- and pays other teachers to replace them in the classroom. It's a sweetheart deal that costs taxpayers an extra $9 million a year to pay fill-ins for instructors who are sprung -- at full pay -- to carry out responsibilities for the United Federation of Teachers."

In a time of fiscal austerity, some folks think that the practice should end: "With Mayor Bloomberg calling for thousands of teacher layoffs to balance the 2012 budget, critics say it's time to halt the extravagant benefit. "In these tight fiscal times, it defies common sense to pay two different people to do one job," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government watchdog. "It's a waste of money."

Perhaps Dadey is right, but there's a couple of larger points that get lost in the midst of all the union focused bashing-and, ironically, it is made by E.J. McMahon, certainly no fan of labor. As he pointed out in the same edition of the Post, commenting on Wisconsin and Governor Cuomo's challenges to rein in labor costs: "It’s pointless to blame the unions themselves for this situation. After all, they are only acting the way unions are supposed to act — relentlessly pursuing the interests of their members, period. The real blame falls on the generations of elected officials who have abdicated their responsibility by creating and nurturing this system."

And the issue with the union released teachers fall on the nonfeasance of the current occupant of city hall. As the union spokesman told the Post: "UFT spokesman Dick Riley said such arrangements are common among city unions "and were instituted with the agreement of NYC government."  The mayor, probably out of town, was unavalable for a comment.

It is high time for both the Post and the NY Daily News to refocus their attention on where it belongs-the mismanagement of the educational edifice by the mayor and his dearly departed ed head, Joel Klein. (These papers share in the culpability since they promoted the mayor's faux achievements uncritically.) After all, Bloomberg and Klein are the ones who larded up the DOE payroll with 16,000 additional personnel-money fro nothing in our view. And they're the ones who promoted an out sized NYC educational achiement that is turining out to be made almost entirely out of whole cloth.

Now, what may be true is that the UFT colluded for too long with the mayor's phony test score bonus regime-but the blame needs to be redirected to the man in charge of the fiasco. And can we stop with all of this LIFO propopaganda? Seniority may be a flawed system for hiring and firing teachers but, much like democracy, it might also be better than all of the alternatives-at least under the current structure of public education. In NYC, are we going to replace seniority with a system controlled by Bloomberg and his lackeys? Talk about making a bad situation worse!

The reality here is that the mayor's nine year rule has been less than stellar in regards to the educational change that he told us should be the basis for determining whether he has been a success or a failure. When we add the incredible increase in funds and personnel into the mix, the evaluation falls from a D to an F. The teacher's union has played a role in all of this, but it hasn't been a starring one. That honor goes to Hizzoner.

Voodoo Reporting

On Saturday the local tabs did return to the story of the fatal Flatbush fire-but not as we hoped. Neither the NY Post nor the NY Daily News-or the NY Times, for that matter-went back to examine whether or not the city's reduced manning policies played a role in the tragedy. Not when you can introduce the possibility that voodoo sex had something to do with fire-and both the Post and the News felt this was front page importance.

Here's the Post's sensational lede: "A wild candlelit sex ritual between a Brooklyn woman and her voodoo priest got so hot and heavy, they ended up torching their clothes and sheets -- sparking the nasty fire that killed a retired teacher and left 100 people homeless last week, sources said yesterday."

The News chimes in: "A Voodoo sex romp triggered the Brooklyn blaze that killed one person and left dozens homeless when a ceremony meant to bring good luck went horribly wrong, sources said yesterday." The Times account was, as expected, a bit less lurid: "A fatal five-alarm fire that roared through a building in Flatbush, Brooklyn, last Saturday was ignited by candles arrayed around a bed for a voodoo ceremony, Fire Department officials said Friday."

Now we don't really blame the papers for reporting this-it is all quite juicy, after all. But we do expect that the press might want to focus on a critical management issue that could, if not altered, lead to more fire fatalities in the future. Only the News even bothered to mention this issue: "The firefighters union said staffing cuts contributed to the spread of the fire, but Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, without referring to the couple having sex, blamed other errors. "This fire had so many of those elements - candles left on the floor near combustible material, one of the occupants trying to douse the flames before calling 911, and an open door, which allowed fire to spread into the hallway," Cassano said. "Hopefully others will learn from this tragedy."

We can imagine that Commissioner Cassono was relieved to have  a sensational action as the proximate cause of the blaze-and we have no doubt that the failures of the occupants of the apartment played a role in the tragic results. But to state this, and this alone, is to fail to further explain that irresponsibility is all too often at the root of why fires are started-but this has absolutely nothing to do with the failure to control the blaze that led to a woman perishing; along with a total building demolition.

In our view, the manning issue is a critical one-and it points to the failure of the management priorities of the Bloombergistas. This is an administration that added 16,000 more personnel to the DOE, leading to a grand total of 23% of our high school graduates being college ready-yet it wants to pinch pennies on fire truck manning where lives are at risk.

We notice that Commissioner Cassano left out entirely any possibility that the failure to control the fire might have been a result of management failures-both manning and command decisions in the minutes leading up to the eventual fatality. That is why a thorough investigation is needed, and if the fire unions are proven correct, we can put the death of  Mary Feagin right up there with the snowfu and CityTime scandals-more evidence of just how egregious it was for the mayor to usurp a third term.

Hold Up, Not Holdouts

We have been inveighing against the use of the term, "holdouts," to describe Willets Point property owners who are not on;y unwilling to seel their property, but even more importantly, have yet to be approached by EDC to negotiate a sale-as is required by the Eminent Domain Procedure Law. The urgency of the issue is magnified by the fact that the city is holding an eminent domain hearing on Wednesday.

The Flushing Times has the story: "The hearing, scheduled from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. March 2 in the auditorium of the library, located at 41-17 Main St., will be the only official opportunity for Willets landowners and business owners, as well as any other concerned citizens, to voice their views about the $3 billion plans to representatives of the city Economic Development Corp. and Cornerstone Group, the firm handling relocation of area businesses."

Ah yes, the Cornerstone Group-the same pretenders who EDC put in charge of the relocation of the businesses that were thrwon out of the Bronx Terminal Market. As we pointed out five years ago about these no-bid favorites: "There is a constant reference to the Cornerstone Group as the city’s relocation expert. Still? Doesn’t our “senior counsel” realize that these dopey consultants had labored long and hard Xeroxing advertisements from the local newspapers and passed off this effort as relocation (of course she does, she just doesn’t give a damn)?"

But we digress. The issue here is the city's flauting of the very law it is sworn to uphold-and we will now rely on the wisdom of one of the foremost experts on the EDPL, Mike Rikon, to explain just how tainted this process has been ever since the city council passed the Willets Point ULURP appliocation in the fall of 2008. Once the council passed the application, the eminent domain procedures in the EDPL should have been initiated in order for the city to be in compliance with the law.

Here's Rikon's analysis: "The Council of the City of New York adopted Resolution No. 1759 on December 18, 2008. This Resolution with other related Resolutions adopted the Willets Point Urban Renewal Area.  The Resolution approved the Urban Renewal Plan, the Resolution states, “the Plan requires the acquisition and subsequent disposition of property within the Willets Point Urban Renewal Area.”  This is the predicate authorization to condemn."

Once the authorization is in place, then the next steps are clear-to everyone bu the city, it appears: "When the City Council authorizes acquisition of private property, the City is required to comply with the Eminent Domain Procedure Law.  That law requires the appraisal of the properties to be acquired and the written offer of an amount that represents 100% of the highest approved appraisal."

Instead, the city did the complete opposite, in a move rife with favoritism and potential corruption:

"When the City Council authorizes acquisition of private property, the City is required to comply with the Eminent Domain Procedure Law.  That law requires the appraisal of the properties to be acquired and the written offer of an amount that represents 100% of the highest approved appraisal. It is no secret that those owners who obtained favorable deals were also those that supported members of the City Council that wrote an “adamant opposition” letter signed by 29 members to prevent the project’s approval.  But the Project was approved after the negotiated agreements were made. 

The City’s improper conduct in ignoring the law’s requirement of written offers based on fair market appraisals and equal treatment to all property owners is inexcusable.  The law was adopted to prevent corruption and special deals."

But, as we pointed out last week in regards to the disgraceful treatment of Carlos Canal  and Flushing Towing, favoritism and inequity is at the heart of this entire process: "EDC lied to Canal-and took him through a two year sham relocation process. But Canal shouldn't feel too bad. EDC has lied to the city council, lied to the court, and lied to almost every other land owner that wasn't singled out for favored nation status-lying to Canal is part of a systematic pattern of dishonesty that will be challenged in court."

Of course, as we have pointed out continually, the city also told one and all that condemnation-a supposed last resort-would not begin until the city got approvals for those crucial ramps. That position held until it became clear that the ramp approvals-thought to be a slam dunk by EDC-all of a sudden became problematic after WPU exposed the deficiency of the traffic data submitted by the agency's compromised consultants. These so called experts, so unused to anyone challenging their work, must have been stunned when WPU's Brian Ketcham exposed it as a sham-and the agency itself has been playing catch up ever since.

So the move to the EDPL hearing, in spite of the fact that the remaining property owners have yet to even get the required appraisals, no less an offer, is one of desperation on the part of EDC-a desperation so profound that this rogue group is willing to roll the legal dice by violating what it has alocuted to the court about the ramp approvals proceeding any eminent domain process.

We'll give Rikon the last word: "Condemnation is a very significant power.  It enables a condemnor to forcibly take title to someone’s land or business If this awesome power is to be used by the government, it must be used carefully, legally and only when necessary." 

Questionable Calorie Counting: Part II

Last week we opined about the self serving NYC DOH study of its menu labeling. In this week's Crain's we are force fed so more pablum from the agency on the topic: "The city's 2008 menu-labeling law has been criticized since the day it was implemented as being both burdensome to chain restaurants and ineffective for customers: No study had shown that posting calorie information induces restaurant patrons to make healthier selections. That could change. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says its new research shows that the 15% of fast-food patrons in the city who use the information eat an average of 106 fewer calories than those who don't see or ignore the calorie content."

Nah, not very likely-and who's gonna believe the department that gets to mark its own test papers? For a more realistic appraisal of the DOH self survey, listen to NYU's Marion Nestle-a proponent of aggressive intervention for healthier eating: "New York University used a similar approach in a February study of teenagers who ate at fast-food outlets. But researchers concluded that their calorie intake was unchanged. “Most studies show very, very small effects,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at NYU. The city's study could be significant. “It shows a small effect, but it's bigger than any other that has been seen.”

The department, of course, refused to share its methodology with Crains: "City officials refused to share further details because the study is being peer-reviewed for possible publication in an academic journal. The research project, begun in the spring of 2009, cataloged 12,000 lunch receipts at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and eight other fast-food chains in the city."

Well, the last effort by the department to get peer reviewed on menu labeling fell flat-and independent studies-like this one-have shown no effect whatsoever. As the authors tell us: "We examined the influence of menu calorie labels on fast food choices in the wake of New York City’s labeling mandate. Receipts and survey responses were collected from 1,156 adults at fast-food restaurants in low-income, minority New York communities. These were compared to a sample in Newark, New Jersey, a city that had not introduced menu labeling. We found that 27.7 percent who saw calorie labeling in New York said the information influenced their choices. However, we did not detect a change in calories purchased after the introduction of calorie labeling. We encourage more research on menu labeling and greater attention to evaluating and implementing other obesity-related policies."

As we told Crains: "Critics said the law is a compliance hassle for food operators and has had little measurable benefit. Richard Lipsky, a small business lobbyist who has represented restaurant owners, said the city's findings were self-serving. “They should be taken with a grain of salt,” he said. “No pun intended.”

Friday, February 25, 2011

Four Flushing

As EDC proceeds in its extra-legal efforts to condemn the property of Willets Point businesses, one landowner stands out-Carlos Canal, the owner of Flushing Towing. Canal's saga dramatizes just how underhanded EDC can be when it comes to dealing with those businesses threatened by condemnation.

You see, Canal actually wanted to make a deal and move to the College Point Corporate Park-as was reported locally: "In a meeting with Community Board 7 members Tuesday night, the city Economic Development Corp. announced that it plans to move five Willets Point businesses to the College Point Corporate Park. According to the EDC plans, Feinstein Ironworks, T. Mina Building Supply Co., Sambucci Bros. Auto Salvage, Mets Metals and Flushing Towing would be moved to the Corporate Park and occupy space on two parcels of city-owned land. The EDC said it hopes to begin the public approval process on the proposal Feb. 19."

And that's what did happen. Canal's relocation to College Point went through ULURP and he, along with larger entities like Sambucci and Feinstein Iron Works, were prepared to move-until something very strange happened. According to Canal, the final phase of the approval process came at the Queens Borough Board where CB 7's Chair, Fire Marshal Gene Kelty, pitched a fit about the Flushing Towing move.

As Canal puts it, Kelty screamed at him telling the Hispanic immigrant that College Point wasn't the place for him-and perhaps he should consider a more appropriate Corona or Jamaica location. The insinuation, made right in front of EDC, was a clear one-we don't want your kind here. The Flushing Times has the sanitized version: "The original plan for moving the businesses, introduced in February 2009, would also have relocated Flushing Towing and Mets Metals, which were slated to move to the north end of the corporate park.The businesses were dropped from the proposal after they hit snags with CB 7 and the EDC. CB 7 Chairman Eugene Kelty said in May that those two companies’ futures would be hashed out at a later date."

Honest Abe, Kelty is not-and his comments about a later date obfuscate the fact that Kelty was not going to allow Canal to come into his neighborhood-and incredibly EDC and BP Marshall acquiesced to the kind of behavior that should have gotten Kelty referred to the Human Rights Commission.

EDC's collusion is manifest-as we commented last year:

"Tonight, a hastily arranged meeting between a CB7 committee and NYCEDC occurred inside the College Point Corporate Park office trailer. The purpose was to again review NYCEDC's plans to relocate 3 businesses from Willets Point to the College Point Corporate Park, prior to the votes that will be held on Monday by the Queens Borough Board. If the Borough Board approves on Monday, then NYCEDC will be legally permitted to transfer the titles of the College Point properties to the 3 Willets Point businesses to enable their relocation.

The 3 businesses represented at tonight's meeting and which will be the subject of Monday's Borough Board votes are Feinstein Ironworks, Sambucci Bros. Auto Salvage and T. Mina Supply. Those who have followed the Willets Point story may recall that last year, a total of 5 Willets Point businesses were approved by CB7, the Queens Borough President, the City Planning Commission and the City Council to relocate to property within the College Point Corporate Park. Tonight's meeting and Monday's Borough Board vote account for only 3 of those total 5 businesses. The 2 businesses that are being denied relocation at present are Flushing Towing and Mets Metals.

Although the proprietor of Flushing Towing had been invited to attend tonight's meeting, earlier today he was again contacted by NYCEDC and told that the meeting was "canceled". This outright lie seems concocted to discourage this business owner from showing up at tonight's meeting, and thereby eliminate any questions about why all 5 businesses whose relocations were approved last year by CB7, the Queens Borough President, the City Planning Commission and the City Council, are not in fact being relocated. (emphasis added)

Meanwhile, why the relocation of 2 other approved businesses is not proceeding is unknown."

Currently, Canal is in limbo-with the eminent domain hearing on Wednesday focusing directly on his property located in the fictitious Phase I. Canal, told to find his own alternative site, did find a slightly larger and more expensive location. When he asked EDC, however, for the same $400/sq. ft. that the corporation ponied up for Feinstein, he was shot down-further indication of how the current condemnation process is rife with favoritism and inequity.

In essence then, EDC lied to Canal-and took him through a two year sham relocation process. But Canal shouldn't feel too bad. EDC has lied to the city council, lied to the court, and lied to almost every other land owner that wasn't singled out for favored nation status-lying to Canal is part of a systematic pattern of dishonesty that will be challenged in court. It's just too bad that only one elected official can be counted on to stand up to the agency's outrageous conduct.

Non-Kosher Food Fund?

The NY Daily News is continuing to report on the fact that a Kosher supermarket in Brooklyn has received $2 million to expand: "An angrily divided community board has voted to support a controversial tax break for a Midwood supermarket. Supporters and opponents of the $2 million tax break for Moisha's Discount Supermarket clashed at a raucous Community Board 12 meeting Tuesday night over the plan - and allegations district manager Wolf Sender lied to city officials when he said the board supported the subsidy, even though members had never considered it."

What's missing from the article, however, is the source of the funds-there is the city's Fresh Program that supports supermarket expansion; along with a similar state effort called, "Healthy Food and Healthy Communities Fund." It would be interesting to find out since the community here is not one that is typically seen as underserved.

The Karma Brooklyn Blog gives us an answer: "On February 3rd, the New York City Industrial Development Agency (IDA) held a hearing on an application to FRESH by Moisha's Kosher Discount Supermarket. The Project Description reads
Moisha’s Kosher Discount Supermarket, Inc. (“Moisha’s” or the “Company”) currently operates a 7,000 square foot retail supermarket in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Moisha’s is seeking assistance through the Agency’s FRESH program to expand this facility to create an approximately 15,000 sq. ft. supermarket with parking for 45 cars."
As the Daily News pointed out in an earlier story, the grant to Moishe's is controversial-with CM Barron being the most vocal critic:  

"A politically connected Brooklyn supermarket is getting a $2 million tax break intended for neighborhoods desperate for grocery stores - even though it's got plenty of competition.Moisha's Kosher Discount Supermarket is to receive $1.93 million to double its size on Avenue M in Midwood. The money comes from the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health program - which targets neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn, northern Manhattan, the South Bronx and other neighborhoods where fresh food is hard to find. Even though Moisha's is outside the target zone, city officials say the neighborhood counts as "underserved."

To us, this means that the entire Fresh Program needs to be re-evaluated. Our own view-devloped from the experience of some of our good friends in the supermarket business-is that the effort is woefully inadequate, and will little to help assuage the city's loss of over 300 supermarkets in the past decade. The dominant question here, is how has the Fresh Program helped those areas most in need. Midwood is not one of those neighborhoods.

As the News points out, "The Daily News counted 10 markets within 5 blocks of the store, all selling fresh fruits and vegetables. Owners Moisha and Barry Binik and their families have doled out at least $41,690 in contributions to local pols in the last decade. "This is not an underserved neighborhood," said Louie Mancuso, 60, who lives across the street. "That's a fraud."

With Walmart poised to enter the city, and using the underserved food desert argument as part of their propaganda, it is important to take a look at all of the city's efforts to address the problems that local supermarkets face in their efforts to expand and become more profitable. The fact that Moisha's may have used its political influence to unfairly influence the selection process, raises questions of both equity and efficacy. In a strange way, Walmart's appropriation of the food access issue could become a catalyst to examine how effective-or not-the Bloombergistas have been in meeting the need for better access to fresh food.

Compulsive Miseducation

The bad news keeps pouring in-and the Bloomberg Educational Miracle is crumbling along with it. The latest comes from the NY Times report on the national science test scores: "Only 18 percent of the city’s public school fourth graders and 13 percent of its eighth graders demonstrated proficiency on the most recent national science exams, far below state and national levels, according to results released Thursday. Alan J. Friedman, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests, called the city’s results “a big disappointment,” particularly because New York has a number of cultural organizations devoted to science, like the Museum of Natural History and the New York Hall of Science in Queens, which he directed for 22 years."

Another sad example of how much the trumpeted Bloomberg education gains have turned into just so much hot air-something that Sol Stern and Fred Siegel document extensively in Commentary. (We plan a fuller analysis of this next week). Stern and Siegal dramatize the extent to which Kleinberg used the fraudulent state test scores to promote the mayor's remarkable educational breakthroughs-and the collusionj between the mayor and the UFT's Weingarten to cover up the growing suspicion that the scores were unreliable at best.

Weingarten got more teachers, higher salaries and better benefits-along with undeserved bonuses for her members-while the mayor got a silent partner in a fraud perpetuated on the school kids and their parents. S&S also highlight the role of Al Sharpton in the conspiracy of silence-something we have also pointed out in our, "dog that didn't bark" commentary. They underscore the correlation between the Sharpton Code of Omerta and a money trail leading directly and indirectly from the mayor to the Cash and Carry man of the cashmere cloth.

All of which makes the latest news about the science tests unsurprising-but it also reveals the extent to which, "teaching to the test," has undermined overall learning: "Nationwide, more students show proficiency in math and English than in science, and the city has scored closer to the national average on those tests than in science. Mr. Friedman, of the national board, said over all, the city’s poor performance in science suggested that the emphasis on math and English, which have been the main measures of school progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law, had come at the expense of other subjects. “It does play a big role,” he said, “and that’s one of the major problems we have.”

These national results are also further evidence that the state tests-and the city's reliance on them-are part of an outrageous fraud that has, as we have pointed out, approached Enron-like proportions: "The results also call into question the rigor of New York State’s own science exams, which are given to all fourth and eighth graders. On the most recent state exams, 80 percent of the city’s fourth graders and 49 percent of its eighth graders showed proficiency."

Of course, the results are even worse for racial minorities-as the NY Post reports: "A breakdown of the city scores by race and ethnicity saw 41 percent of white students pass, compared to pass rates of 34 percent among Asian/Pacific Islanders, 10 percent among Hispanic students and just 9 percent among black students. In eighth grade, 36 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders scored proficiently, compared to 29 percent of white students, 6 percent of Hispanic students and 5 percent of black students."

We await with bated breathe for the righteous indignation of the rabble rousing reverend-something that will never happen as long as those checks can still continue to be cashed. All of this is strong evidence that Mike Bloomberg's tenure has been, charitably, less than stellar; and that the Stern/Siegel critique is long overdue.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Willets Point Development Defense Fund

The Queens Tribune has a story today giving the defenders of the Willets Point project the opportunity to put their feet in their mouth-reacting it seems to the "reams" of publicity that WPU has garnered: "As the redevelopment of Willets Point marches onward, opponents of the plan have often successfully kept themselves in the media spotlight, staging press conferences and reacting to the City’s every move. They have garnered a consistent trail of newspaper ink and TV time in the process."

Those poor supporters! All they have is the weight of the city and the muscle of eminent domain-but apparently not a very good narrative, so let's give these neglected folks a chance to have a voice. If the stakes weren't so high, this would all be quite funny: "But less often heard are the plan’s supporters, who include elected officials and local business leaders. Each harbors specific reasons for supporting Iron Triangle’s redevelopment, which looks to transform the 62-acre patch of industrial business and junk yards into a mix of housing, commerce and community space."

Whose up first? None other than the state senator whose son was the lead lobbyist for the project: "“I’m a yea-sayer,” said Stavisky.
“When I look at the derelict, debris-ridden site, I cringe.” The area is in dire need of an economic rejuvenation, one that takes it away from its current state, according to Stavisky. “[The redevelopment] will improve the area but also make it a destination, not an area where you speed up on the highway so you don’t have to look at it,” she added."

We wonder who's writing her material? Perhaps Jackie Mason-since the senator is unaware of how ironic and comical her comments about speeding on the highway are. If she bothered to carefully examine the environmental review-and the subsequent traffic studies for ramps on and off the Van Wyck-she would discover that if this 80,000 a day car generator is actually built, no one will be speeding anywhere, since the highway will be gridlocked!

But, of course, no one would dispute her observation about the area's blight-just as to the equity and constitutionality of the city's remedy. That doesn't disturb the other booster that the Tribune calls upon-the head of the Queens Chamber of Commerce: "The project’s opposition befuddles the Queens Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Vice President Jack Friedman, who sees nothing but benefits from the plan’s completion. “Whoever is opposed to this project, God bless them, but this area is not helping anyone,” he said. The plan’s convention center remains the lynchpin (sic) of the Chamber’s support, Friedman said, but the overall economic boon redevelopment will bring sustains the group’s position. “Right now, the current situation in Willets Point is not helping anybody,” he said."

Is he serious? The area isn't helping anyone? What about the hundreds of workers who are earning a living at the site-not to mention the property owners who are paying taxes to the city for nothing in return in the way of services? But Friedman remains befuddled by people who object to the government taking their property at eminent domain gunpoint? God bless his flippant insouciance about basic constitutional rights. We suspect that he would feel differently if his own house was in the way of the eminent domain bulldozer.

All of this dragging out of the usual suspects is no accident. EDC needs the cover for its outright lying to all manner of public officials and the judiciary-a practice that, in reading the comments in the Tribune, is a habit that the agency obviously finds hard to break.

Here's the main whopper: "Opponents grew more vocal at the beginning of the month, when the EDC began formal proceedings that would eventually lead to the acquisition of the remaining land in Phase 1 through the use of eminent domain.The agency has maintained it will keep negotiations open and says the landowners will get fair market value for their property, should it be obtained through eminent domain. “As we seek to reach agreements with the nine remaining businesses, we will also begin the legal process that gives us the option to condemn these properties if needed, so that we can continue to move forward,” Wood said."

"Keep negotiations open?" How about institute them in the first place? Let's hook Wood up to a lie detector and see how the needle jumps. We won't even go into the canard about fair market value-a concept that really only has merit when one business person makes an offer to purchase another's property. A court ruling is fair only to the gun owner-and when you're commencing eminent domain before having had a single negotiation with the vast majority of remaining property owners, the entire concept of fairness is rendered obsolete-EDC's own oxymoron.

Than there's the fictitious Phase I: "Opponents have taken the EDC to task for past promises made by the City to keep eminent domain off the table until exit ramps off the Van Wyck Expressway were approved by the state’s Dept. of Transportation.The EDC maintains its new phased-in approach eliminates the necessity for the ramps’ approval, adding it anticipates their revised plan’s approval shortly. The first part of the redevelopment will include affordable housing, a hotel, infrastructure improvements, retail and two acres of open space." (emphasis added)

Who in Jack Friedman's name is going to approve this plan? Perhaps a committee of Seth Pinsky, the state senator and the former Queens BP would suffice? Seriously, though, any plan modification needs to have a new traffic study-and go through a new SEQR review. And shouldn't condemnation await this review process-as the city and the court has previously agreed?

The Tribune concludes with the following admission from EDC: "The EDC plans to release a Request for Proposals for Phase 1’s developer in April." The admission here is that there is no developer, hence no plan-which makes the entire condemnation process both speculative and illegal. The ramps have not been approved. The underlying soil conditions remain unexamined. The cost of remediation is unknown-and there is no clear indication that the city, or any potential developer, has the money to undertake this venture (or the will to do so).

That friends, is the essence of speculative condemnation. We have a mayor in his swan song on the municipal stage using his remaining power to condemn property for a use that may never come to fruition-and we're, like Diogenes, looking for the honest person to stand up and say it. The City of New York is heading on the same road as New London after it condemned poor Suzette Kelo's house for a phantom project that was never even commenced. Empty fields of bad dreams is in this city's future if no one puts the brakes on the hubris of this mayor.


Crain's Insider is reporting that some folks (unwilling to go on the record) are upset by State Senator Tony Avella's critique of the Willets Point development: "State Sen. Tony Avella reiterated his opposition to the redevelopment of Willets Point in a Daily News column Wednesday that irked proponents of the plan. “He's carpetbagging,” an insider close to the project said. “Avella doesn't even represent the district.”

Is that you Evan? Well, whoever it is, misses the larger point-the Willets Point development, with its 80,000 car trips a day, will overwhelm the all of the surrounding communities. This is not some small project that Avella is sticking his nose into-violating normal political protocol.

As WPU's traffic expert Brian Ketcham has pointed out to us in his critique of the EDC consultants: "For Willets Point the problem is that AKRF knows precisely what they are doing and they have to lie to make their case.  They know that Willets Point is too big for the Flushing area.  They know the surrounding roadway network cannot accommodate Willets Point traffic.  They know that the Van Wyck Expressway and connecting expressways cannot accommodate so much additional traffic.  They know there is no additional transit capacity to accommodate Willets Point and the other projects like Flushing Commons and that even more traffic will be forced onto the area than reported.   They lied and they got caught.  They have lied repeatedly."

Given the size and scope of the Willets Point mega-project, Avella is well within his rights to open up on it-the real conundrum is, why he is such a lonely voice in the Van Wyck wilderness? The silence of the lambs on this is deafening.

Calorie Recount

Crain's Insider is reporting that the NYC DOH has come up with its own "study" of menu labeling-and shockingly it shows a positive impact on customer choice: "The city's menu labeling law inspires about 15% of consumers to change their purchasing habits, leading them to eat an average of 100 fewer calories per purchase, a new study presented by the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene concludes. The results show that menu labeling, controversial when introduced in 2008, is “not going to solve the obesity epidemic,” said a city health official, but it does have an impact. The official said a Starbucks survey showed that menu labeling had no impact on sales, but purchases totaled 6% fewer calories."

We say shockingly, because the city is famous-like the old Horn and Hardart's-for self serving. Whether it is studies of 
bike lanes or pedestrian plazas; or ramps off of the Van Wyck-the studies always show just what the city would like us to believe. But what makes the calorie counting study peerless is that it has no peer review to bolster its credibility.

And credible it isn't since, as we have seen, there has been no independent study to demonstrate that forcing fast food operators to post calorie counts has had any real impact on customers making better choices. As City Room reported last week: "Researchers at New York University have found that calorie-posting in fast-food restaurants has little influence on the foods teenagers order. They found that more than half of the teenagers noticed the calorie postings. A quarter of the teenagers said they were weight-conscious, and 9 percent of the teenagers said the labeling made them buy lower-calorie foods. But when the researchers examined their receipts, they found that the actual calorie counts were the same before and after restaurants began posting calories. Teenagers typically bought food totaling about 725 calories."

It should be pointed out that the NYU research team is led by Marion Nestle, a proponent of menu labeling-making the results believable since Nestle is, as the lawyers say, arguing against interest. And of course it would be useful to actually see the DOH study methodology since previous research efforts by the department have been 
spit out by reputable journals.

As we 
pointed out over three years ago-in response to a NY Times editorial, the evidence used to support the regulation was never seen or reviewed by anyone outside of the DOH: "The answer is in a survey that, as far as we know, no one has seen and almost certainly was not scientifically designed and peer-reviewed. According to this survey, the customers at Subways are being informed about calorie counts and because they are, better nutritional choices are being made: "The big chains fighting the city might take a cue from Subway. The sandwich maker is using calorie counts as a marketing tool and a way to build on its reputation as a more healthful fast-food alternative. It has voluntarily posted calories where customers can easily see them, usually on the menu board."

But the Times was proved wrong-as was the moonbat judge who ruled in 
the city's favor, claiming that menu labeling would reduce the obesity epidemic (something that the DOH has now backed away from): "In a 27-page opinion, Judge Holwell accepted one of the city’s main arguments for posting calorie counts — that doing so would help reduce obesity, which city officials say has reached epidemic levels. “It seems reasonable to expect that some consumers will use the information” on menu boards and menus “to select lower-calorie meals,” the judge wrote. He added that “these choices will lead to a lower incidence of obesity.”
That's what you get when judges act as nutritionists and sociologists-while swallowing whole what the self servers tell them. At the end of the day, the entire experiment has fallen flat-except over at Starbucks where more health conscious higher income yuppies are leaving out the muffins while drinking their lattes and frappuccinos.

Fighting Fire With Sheer Foolishness

Yesterday we commented on Mike Bloomberg's impersonation of Jim Carrey as Fire Marshal Bill-weighing in on the Flatbush fire controversy with little real awareness of how little he knows about firefighting. Marcia Kramer at WCBS New York also focused in on the controversy: "Dispatch tapes and records obtained by Kramer show that there was a problem getting water on the fire and that after battling the fire for an hour and 23 minutes firefighters knew that there was little hope of saving the building. “All members have been removed from the roof of the building. All interior members have been moved to the floor below the fire … The fire is still doubtful,” an official is heard saying on the tape."

The inability of achieving optimum fire suppression was a result of a lack of manning on the trucks-the missing fifth firefighter-but the mayor, reading a lackey's script, was having none of it: "It has nothing to do with the number of people on an engine, which is what they’re talking about,” Bloomberg said, adding when told that firefighters had to run eight lengths of hose to the fifth floor, “Miss, I’m sure they’re going to say that. That’s part of what they have to say when were in the middle of trying to find ways to do more with less.”

What a fool! Trying to do more with less? When the lives of New Yorkers are hanging in the balance? Perhaps we wouldn't be in this situation if Mike Bloomberg hadn't added more than 16,000 additional personnel to the Department of Education-an example of doing less with more. And so it has gone through nine years of mismanagement-adding on to layers of government while increasing taxes and piling on more business crippling regulations.

Sure he has to cut now-that's what happens when you have been profligate for the better part of a decade. But it is a powerful indication of just how outrageous the suggestion was that we needed this man for an additional third term because of his managerial and fiscal expertise. It was all overblown by the mayor's hundreds of millions of campaign disinformation-aided buy a chorus of media toadies who vouched for the mayor's claims.

Now, however, the snowfu and CityTime scandals are driving home the point that the, "king is in the altogether." All of which is given further credence by the mayor saying we have to. "do more with less," and threaten the lives of our citizens because he hasn't been a good steward of the city's finances. Hey Mike, we don't do less in public safety-this is the one area that should be sacrosanct; and by saying that we need to eliminate manning and cut fire houses, the mayor is basically saying that he has failed in his core responsibility of governance.

But as far as the manning issue itself, he's just flat out wrong: "Dispatch tapes and records obtained by Kramer show that there was a problem getting water on the fire and that after battling the fire for an hour and 23 minutes firefighters knew that there was little hope of saving the building. “All members have been removed from the roof of the building. All interior members have been moved to the floor below the fire … The fire is still doubtful,” an official is heard saying on the tape. Union officials said that’s FDNY lingo for “We’ve given up. The building can’t be saved.” They said that staff cuts ordered by Mayor Bloomberg three weeks ago delayed them from getting water on the fire for at least five critical minutes."

As one insider told us: "The FDNY spokesmen have STILL not mentioned the Mayday that a Ladder Company captain gave because his company was searching a fifth floor apartment fire with no water to protect them.  The first hose line (E-255) was beaten back from the door by a blast from inside the apartment when the win shifted.  They were forced back into the stairwell when they were just moments away from breaking down the door and rushing in.  That fifth man would have helped them get into position to attack the fire and protect the Ladder company, but he wasn't there.   E-255 did an incredible job, stretching 450 feet of hose lie to the fifth floor with just three men (the chauffeur must stay with the pumper)."

And there will be an investigation-as there is with any fire fatality. But, as with the fatal Deutsche Bank fire, the city always looks to avoid taking any blame on itself-a characteristic shared in extremis by Mayor Bloomberg. As Jim Slevin told Kramer: "They could have contained this fire, kept it to a one-alarm fire. Instead, the windows failed. The fire blew them down the stairs and the woman died on the top floor,” said James Slevin, the vice president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association."

Just as with the Christmas blizzard, we have a failure right at the top-a chief executive who is trying to save lives on the cheap, and as a result we have lost a building and a human life. Some cost saving! As Kramer reports: "Was the fifth man critical? “We know that if they would have got up there quicker they could have made an attack on the fire,” Uniformed Fire Officers Association Vice President and FDNY Battalion Chief George Belnavis said. The unions are furious with the mayor. “All I have to say is what is more important, okay, saving lives or saving money?” UFOA delegate Lt. James McGowan said."

And we haven't even touched on the mayor's scheme to charge New Yorkers for emrgency rescues-a further indication of a man spiraling out of control. As we said last year: "So now, after nine years of failure to reduce the size and scope of municipal government, we've come down to the outrage of folks being double billed for emergence services..."

As far as we're concerned, the mayor's credibility in this is nil-and more and more it appears that he is losing his grip as his interest in actually running the city fades along with it. But he still has hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on his pet Willets Point project-a down payment on what will eventually cots billions. Doing more with less. Indeed.

We'll give CM Crowley the last word: "City Council Fire Committee Chairwoman Elizabeth Crowley said the mayor’s budget cuts are “forcing the FDNY to roll the dice on public safety.”

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Avella Blasts EDC's Dishonesty

In this morning's NY Daily News, State Senator Tony Avella lashes out against the rank dishonesty of NYC EDC: "Recently, the city announced that it would commence eminent domain proceedings against nine Willets Point businesses in what has been described as Phase I of the overall plan to redevelop the 62 acres known as the Iron Triangle. What is particularly distressing about that announcement is that the city, through the Economic Development Corporation, is once again going back on its word."

Avella, however, was ahead of the curve on this land grab-voting against the ULURP application because of his principled opposition to the abuse of eminent domain: "As a former member of the City Council, I - along with many of my colleagues - was concerned that the use of eminent domain in this instance was an abuse of the process. Eminent domain should only be used to take private property for a specific public benefit not, as in the case of Willets Point, to turn the property over to a private developer who will make millions. Where is the public benefit?"

But if eminent domain is to be used in this fashion, shouldn't at least the process be a fair one? Not when EDC is involved-which brings us to the rampant dishonesty of the agency over the crucial traffic mitigating ramps: "Following the city's approval, Willets Point United, a group organized by area business owners, hired a traffic consultant, Brian Ketcham, to review the city's environmental review of the impact this massive project would create. It was discovered that the city, in order to mitigate very serious traffic congestion issues, had proposed the creation of several ramps off the Van Wyck Expressway. The city had argued in the environmental review that the ramps were the linchpin of the project, primarily because the development was estimated to generate 80,000 car trips a day."

But the ramps proved to be deficient: "Without the ramps, the Willets Point development would overwhelm local streets and would be environmentally unmanageable. Nowhere in any of the environmental documents was there a scenario whereby the project in whole or in part could proceed without these crucial ramps. However, the ramp design is faulty, and necessary approval from the state Department of Transportation has not been forthcoming."

Never mind! Scrap the ramps, and full speed ahead-in spite of all that EDC had assured the council concerning the timing of any condemnation process: "As part of public comments, EDC had promised that eminent domain would be used only as a last resort, and it would not be used prior to the approval of the ramps. Well, despite the unresolved ramp issue, EDC is moving to condemn family-owned businesses. In essence, EDC, stymied by a difficult state and federal approval process, is looking to make an end run around this impasse and create an entirely new project - one that has never been properly reviewed by the Council."

Which is precisely why we have called for a re-review by the council-and Avella agrees with this assessment: "In my view, this is a complete violation of the land use review process and requisites that the Council approved in 2008. EDC alleges that the ramps are not necessary for the first phase of the project, a phase that encompasses 20 acres and will include, according to EDC, a retail corridor, hotel and housing. But since no study was done on this partial development, the assertions of EDC are without merit or credibility."

Nothing new there. EDC also promised that eminent domain would be used as a last resort, but the 53 businesses that have yet to sell their property to the city-most because they don't want to-have never been approached to negotiate a sale. In typical bully fashion, EDC paid through the nose to get the large land owners to sell, and now want to muscle the little guys out-violating the environmental law, and all of  its promises, at the same time.

What Avella wants, and what the council should be demanding, is for a new SEQR to be instituted for the never before seen Phase I: "There is simply no way that the city can argue that the first phase does not need these ramps. As a result, the only credible alternative is for the Council to demand a new environmental review and a completely new land use application to determine if what EDC is arguing has any validity. The public must have an opportunity to comment on this new plan."

But the council remains curiously silent so far-even in the face of huge budget cuts and a multi-billion dollar price tag for the mayor's speculative legacy project. Avella deserves the last word: "The entire Willets Point development has taken a turn for the worse. It now needs to be reevaluated in light of the city's current fiscal situation and the questionable nature of the ability of the project to mitigate huge and potentially disastrous environmental impacts. If this reevaluation doesn't occur, the city is in grave danger of bequeathing to future generations an empty field and significant loss of business/sales tax revenue."

Business Groups Conflicted on Walmart

Crain's is reporting that the city's various chambers of commerce are divided over the Walmart question: "The Manhattan Chamber of Commerce will not take a stance on Walmart's potential entry into the city after a poll revealed a split between members favoring the nation's largest retailer and those opposing it.The Chamber asked members—most of them small-business owners—one question: Are you in favor of Walmart opening a store in New York City? Among the more than 300 respondents, 53% favored the retailer coming to town, and 47% opposed its arrival."

Now the Manhattan group represents a range of businesses-both large and small-and its internal survey undermines the credibility of the Walmart sponsored poll that found widespread small business support for the retail giant. But the Manhattan Chamber wasn't alone: "The issue of Walmart puts the city's chambers of commerce in a tough spot. They typically take pro-business stances, and Walmart recently joined all five boroughs' chambers of commerce. But because of the company's perceived impact on small retailers, which comprise a vocal portion of their membership, it's tough for the groups to speak out on the issue. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn got a loud ovation last year at a Crain's small business forum when she spoke forcefully against Walmart coming to town."

Of course, all  of this remains theoretical without a clear understanding of specific sites-location being the sine qua non of opposition to any large retail development. But, as Crain's points out, the Walmart move into Chicago and NYC may be borne of desperation: "The attempt to keep Walmart out of the city comes at a time when the retailer needs to expand into New York and other urban areas. Fourth-quarter sales at U.S. stores open at least a year were down 1.8%, company executives reported Tuesday, worse than they expected. Overall domestic sales fell in the fourth quarter by 0.5% to $71.1 billion. Shares in Walmart were down nearly 4% in afternoon trading."

But location only counts when it triggers a land use review and gives the council oversight-leaving the city vulnerable to scores of as-of-right locations. That's why there is an effort to craft legislation that would raise the barrier to entry for the Walmonster: "Also this week, Walmart opponents are continuing with efforts to craft legislation in the City Council that would make it difficult for the company to open stores in the city. Any legislation would have to be approved by Ms. Quinn before gaining traction. Because of the powerful role of pro-Walmart Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the zoning process, the legislation would likely focus on labor practices, wages or working conditions, according to Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for the retail workers union. It would not necessarily be specific to Walmart."

This is, however, all speculative since there are scores of legislative suggestions and initiatives being entertained. What this indicates is that there is growing and intense opposition to Walmart's efforts to rescue its bottom line by flooding this city with Big and Little Wallies-and they have not seen the half of it yet.

Fire Marshal Mike

As the NY Times is reporting, there is an ongoing controversy over whether the FDNY could have responded better to a fire in Brooklyn on Saturday night-the Times leads with the official city version: "Firefighters were briefly delayed in putting out a fire in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on Saturday night because an engine that had been sent to the blaze was already at another emergency, attending to a police officer who had accidentally shot himself in the leg, the Fire Department said Monday. The fire eventually took the life of a 64-year-old woman living on the top floor."

The UFA, however, sees it differently-and places the blame on a loss of manning: "On Sunday, Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, the firefighters’ union, said that staff cuts imposed by the Bloomberg administration were responsible for the serious delays in getting water on the fire. Three of the first six engine companies to respond had only four firefighters."

So, one woman died and 64 families have been left homeless because of a one minute dispatch error? The FDNY's spokesman elaborates: "The delay lasted “over a minute,” until dispatchers discovered the engine’s whereabouts and sent another one to the fire, on East 29th Street, said James Long, a Fire Department spokesman. He said the department could not say if the delay caused the death of the resident, Mary Feagin, a retired guidance counselor...But Mr. Long denied that the lack of a fifth firefighter led to the spread of the blaze. “A combination of factors contributed to the intensity and the advance of the fire,” he said, including high winds and a door left open in the apartment where the fire began. But the dispatching error did delay getting water on the fire, he said."

OK, but what were the chances that the Department would agree with the union on this? And does its assertion have credibility? In fact, if the FDNY agreed with the UFA on the role of reduced manning, it would have been a real shocker, now wouldn't it? This would seem to call for an independent review so that the city doesn't get to cover up the extent to which the full complement of firefighters might have prevented the blaze from demolishing the entire building.

The one thing no one should rely on is the know nothing assertions of Mike Bloomberg, doing his best Jim Carrey turn as Fire Marshall Bill. As Daily Politics reports, the mayor is absolutely sure that manning wasn't a factor: "Unfortunately, that’s just not the facts. The fact of the matter is it had nothing to do with staffing. First engine showed up in a very acceptable time. The second engine did not and we’re investigating why."

Of course, the first responding engine was handicapped by being short staffed, now wasn't it? Not according to Fire Marshal Mike: "It has nothing to do with the number of people on an engine, which is what they’re talking about." But the number of men on the first truck is an important variable in the ability to get the water on the fire-and with a full complement of firefighters, two lines can be formed for rapid water response-underscoring that the mayor needs to leave the comedy to comedian Carrey.

But we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture here-and the city is also looking to chop 20 firehouses away, risking the public safety in the process. CM Liz Crowley highlights the danger: "Once again, the Mayor’s budget is forcing the FDNY to roll the dice on public safety.  The State is being unfair in its distribution of funding to the City but it is the Mayor who decides what to cut and what to keep.  At a time when the City has dumped billions of dollars into a failed 911-system upgrade -- and will spend millions more to have NASA try to fix it -- the Mayor is reducing FDNY staffing and proposing to close 20 fire companies.  Simply put, it doesn’t matter how fancy our 911-system is if there’s no one at the firehouse to answer your emergency call.  As we can see from the deadly fire in Brooklyn last Friday, closing companies at a time when our fire services are responding to more emergencies than ever before will jeopardize the lives of New Yorkers."

Let's get real here. One woman was killed and twenty firefighters were sent to the hospital-and 100 people were made homeless. It's not often that we lose an entire building to fire in NYC. The exit question here, one that needs to be asked after an independent review of the fiasco is conducted is, How much is the Bloomberg administration compromising the safety of the public with its austerity methods that, in effect, makes the FDNY no different than HRA?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

McManus Calls Out Lee Bollinger

Following our train of thought this morning is the NY Post's Bob McManus-and he calls out Columbia's President Lee Bollinger for the outrage perpetrated against a CU freshmen who is a decorated veteran: "But this doesn't relieve university President Lee Bollinger of his own debt of honor regarding former Staff Sgt. Anthony Maschek. The young man's sacrifices on behalf of the United States of America are undeniable, and his treatment at the hands of his fellow students was shameful. For the moment, that shame resides solely with the students. But if Bollinger lets the matter stand unresolved -- without a measure of disapprobation for the students and without a public apology to Maschek -- then very soon the shame becomes Columbia's. And Bollinger's.

To us, the Bollinger apology is the first step-the next one being the full reinstatement of ROTC on campus. After all, shouldn't Columbia be Pro Choice? In addition, however, we believe that the mayor should wade right into this dispute on the side of ROTC. After all, he was quick to chime in on the GZ mosque (a decision that's looking somewhat shaky nowadays), and the defense of the right of students to go to school and pursue a commitment to serve our country is as important as the freedom of religion issue that Bloomberg championed with the mosque.

It could be argued, and we will do so, that those precious freedoms the mayor championed are rendered nulll and void without the ability of our country to protect them-something that the student miscreants at Columbia should be taught to understand. One final point. If the city is going to go out of its way to literally pave the way for the university's expansion by supporting the condemnation of local properties on its behalf, than the mayor should be prepared to publicly chide  Bollinger on the treatment of Staff Sgt. Maschek.

Crain's Falls on EDC's Ramps

This week's Crain's focuses on the continued fight being waged by Willets Point United against the EDC's bait and switch over the need for ramps to be built off of the Van Wyck before any property at the 62 acre site can be condemned: "WPU hired lobbyist Richard Lipsky, who helped kill the huge Kingsbridge Armory development in the Bronx last year. The group has also hired Washington law firm Arnold & Porter. In the past two weeks, the group has fired off letters to city officials and held a press conference keynoted by state Sen. Tony Avella, D-Queens, a longtime opponent of the project. In the near term, the group is focusing on the EDC's failure to gain approval for a key ingredient of the project—access ramps for the Van Wyck Expressway—as the weak point in its armor."

As we have been harping on, the ramp about face exposes, not only the city's dishonesty, but its desperation-having been stymied by WPU and state regulators in the ramp approval process: "The city represented to the court in a sworn affidavit that it would not take my clients' property by eminent domain until it had received approval for ramps for the Van Wyck,” said Mike Gerrard, senior counsel with Arnold & Porter. The EDC points out that its latest plan envisions building the project in phases, and that the first of those does not require new ramps. In the meantime, it is proceeding as if the ramp approval were a formality. It plans to issue a request for proposals in April to select a developer." (Emphasis added)

Well put, Crain's-but if the approval is a formality, why has EDC been spending millions to revise a ramp report for State DOT? And why has the "formality" dragged on for over 15 months? We could add, why has the city gone back on a sworn court affidavit submitted by then Deputy Mayor Lieber in the WPU's Article 78 challenge to the Willets Point ULURP, one that made ramp approval the linchpin for the commencement of any condemnation proceeding?

The reason lies with the fact that this ramp formality has become a royal pain in the ass for EDC-and rather than go through the process, one that is fraught with uncertainty, the agency has decided to go back on its sworn statements in order to bogart the entire process. The reality being that the ramps simply don't work as mitigation for the 80,000 daily car trips that the development will generate-and they certainly will lead to the degradation of the Van Wyck, a deal killer for state and federal regulators.

Facing this losing hand-one made worse by the original fraudulent traffic data submitted to the state by EDC's consultants-EDC made the decision to break its word, its EIS protocols; and contradict all of the testimony it gave before the city council in 2008 during ULURP. EDC did this because it feels that creating momentum will make it impossible for the regulators to turn the ramp application down-and in the process, it feels that rolling the dice legally is worth the risk because of WPU's less than robust resources.

It, is, however, a shameful abuse of power-exacerbated by the silence of the lambs at the city council. Isn't it bad enough that the council gave over its regulatory authority on Willets Point to the mayor-having no idea who would develop the area and what the exact plan would be? Now, having snookered the body, EDC adds insult to injury by basically saying, "It really doesn't matter what we promised to get your approval, you are now irrelevant?

But it isn't only the property owners getting skewered-Willets Point is the home of hundreds of immigrant workers and tenant business owners. The Queens Courier makes the point: "Many years have gone by and they have neglected our community by not cleaning the streets,” said Marco Neira, 12-year shop owner of Master Express Deli and president of the Willets Point defense committee. “They want one way or another, to remove us.”
And there's more: "In addition to the scrap yards and auto body shops, Willets Point has several family-owned businesses which have been operated for many years. Ecuadorian-born Olger Rogel, manager of a local restaurant, noted, “I agree with the progress of the city to make the neighborhood look good, but if the businesses will be closed, there will be many without jobs, especially for the Hispanics.”

So let's hear it for the immigrants and all of the small businesses-poster children for great campaign speeches and ritual obeisance when it is convenient. But what is really needed here at Willets Point, is for all of the talk to be transcended by concrete action-because there are real live small and immigrant businesses being readied for the development slaughter house, victims of the gap between political rhetoric and sincere action.

Columbia Disgrace!

When we last discussed Columbia we were commenting on the disgraceful use of eminent domain to transfer Nick Sprayregen's property over to the ubber property owning university. Megan McCardle at the Atlantic captured the unfairness:

"In the case of Columbia, there's a tangible public loss--they're going to tear down one of the few gas stations in Manhattan in order to give Columbia's privileged students more space.  And what public benefit does the city get?  We're talking about taking taxpaying private properties and transferring them to a non-profit which will not pay taxes, and will turn a large swathe of Manhattan into a quasi-compound for some of the wealthiest and most privileged people in the city.
Which is, of course, the most sick-making aspect.  I am not against eminent domain for public uses like hospitals or railroads.  But by no stretch of the imagination could Columbia University be called a public accommodation.  One's gut and one's social conscience rebel at the seizure of private property which is taken precisely because it serves, or is owned by, poorer people.  One's gut and one's social conscience positively riot at the thought of taking this seized land and handing it over to wealthy private institution that almost exclusively serves the affluent class.

I don't understand why this is an issue that only fires up libertarians.  Can't we all agree that it would be better to live in a world where Columbia cannot do this sort of thing?  I guess not, though."
The case for Columbia was bolstered by its president who seemed to make the audacious claim that the university needed the Sprayregen property so that it could go ahead in its research to cure cancer, among other things: "Columbia plans to meet this challenge by assembling one of the greatest and most diverse concentrations of brain power anywhere in the world. A key part of the university's proposed expansion in the Manhattanville area of West Harlem will provide the opportunity to add approximately 500 new researchers, who will collaborate across traditional academic boundaries to address the signal challenges of our time."

Poor Sprayregen, thinking that his property rights are more important than curing heretofore incurable diseases. But now comes some even more disturbing news about the indispensable university and the homunculi it enrolls as its students. The NY Post reports the horrendous story: "Columbia University students heckled a war hero during a town-hall meeting on whether ROTC should be allowed back on campus. "Racist!" some students yelled at Anthony Maschek, a Columbia freshman and former Army staff sergeant awarded the Purple Heart after being shot 11 times in a firefight in northern Iraq in February 2008. Others hissed and booed the veteran."

This is all representative of the new civility, we guess-but to us, it raises once again the question of why anyone would consider this privileged bastion a receptor for the property of hard working New Yorkers? And let's not forget that this is the same university that invited the Holocaust denying Ahmadinenjad to speak-and the place where the Minutemen were shouted down and prevented from speaking by all of Columbia's civil libertarians.
But disrespecting a wounded war vet is probably the university's low point-and we have yet to see Dr. Cancer Cure say a word about the outrage. But then again, a university that will use the power of the state to throw people off of their land-and continue to gentrify the locals out of the West Harlem neighborhood where it resides-are not the kind of folks for which shame is a handy emotion.
But the real shame is Mike Bloomberg's-a leader for whom property rights applies only to a certain class of people-his own.

Bring in the Auditors-Along With a Refund for the Voters

Last week we discussed the Bloomberg education record in the context of a cost/benefit analysis-and we questioned whether the excessive increase in spending, almost doubling the 11 billion dollar ed budget, has been worth it. Now we find some more evidence that the Bloomberg achievements have been a lot less than meets the eye-as the DOE brings in the auditors.

As the NY Times reports: "New York City school officials said Friday that they would introduce a new, rigorous system of auditing the test scores, grading practices and graduation rates of the public high schools, appearing to acknowledge rising concerns that some schools might be manipulating the statistics they are judged by."

Phony test scores, manipulated results-is there any reason left to credit Bloomberg with the Great Leap Forward? Think back to the fall of 2009, however, and we recall how the editorial boards of the NY Daily News and the NY Post excoriated the Bill Thompson record as president of the old Board of Ed-and, at the same time, emitted some of the most fulsome, and spurious, praise of the Bloomberg record. The papers owe New Yorkers an apology-and the News has to stop pointing fingers at the state ed officials while ignoring the complicity of Kleinberg in this Enron style fraud on the public.

What is revealed, after all of the phony hoopla is exposed for the misdirection that it is, is woeful performances and serious underachievement-in spite of the 16,000 more educational personnel that have been added in the Bloomberg Error-which is why the auditing is quite ironic: "The move comes as the city and the state have sought to raise standards to better prepare students for college and careers, and as mounting evidence has cast doubt on whether even the current standards are being met. In at least the past two years, an unusually large number of students have obtained exactly the minimum score needed to pass state Regents exams, which are often graded by their regular teachers. City officials say the anomaly existed even before Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took control of the city’s schools in 2003."

If this were Enron, the US Attorney would be slapping the whole crew down at Tweed with RICO indictments-in our view, defrauding the public is a serious offense: "But observers of the school system, including those who have been skeptical of rising test scores and graduation rates, said officials seemed to acknowledge issues with some of the data. “It seems to me that the D.O.E. is realizing that they have a credibility problem with their numbers and they’re trying to address that,” said Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, which has questioned whether some schools tally dropouts incorrectly to help graduation rates."

This is further dramatized by Susan Edelman's commentary in Sunday's NY Post-where she goes after the failures at State Ed, and the DOE's collusion. Here's the money quote, with a reference to one of the righteous, Board of Regents member, Betty Rosa: "Then came even more spectacular, and suspicious, 2009 results. “Why are we celebrating these scores as a miracle, when there is no miracle?” Rosa said she asked."

The answer lies with the political advancement of the mayor-and why the RICO analogy is a strong one: "Another insider said Big Apple officials were urged not to “exaggerate” the results. But Mayor Bloomberg hailed the increase in 2009 as an “enormous victory.” At the time, he had a lot riding on the scores — he was seeking a third term and pushing for legislation to extend mayoral control of the schools.
City officials “got very angry,” the insider said, when Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch publicly downplayed the results, citing “troubling gaps” between the stellar state scores and lackluster outcomes on national exams."

Critics like Andy Wolf have been on top of this for years-and the situation is so egregious that voters in the city should be given a do-over for the fraudulent election of Three Term Mike. Given the amount of money that the mayor spent to pump up his phony achievements and denigrate Bill Thompson, the role played by the Post and News in acting as an arm of the Bloomberg campaign was even more shameful-it prevented any real countervailing information from reaching the less motivated voters.

And the endorsement of the mayor by the NY Times, in spite of how much his spending made a mockery of the paper's signature campaign finance law, puts that paper right up there with the two other journalistic co-conspirators. Here's the money quote we love: "Public education is better over all ..." All three publishers-billionaires in concert-helped fellow billionaire Bloomberg make a mockery of the local democratic process. (Although, in hinsight, the Times editorial has an even bigger howler: "What makes the mayor stand out is not his political skill, although he has come a long way since his first clumsy days in office. He has run the $60 billion government with a keen attention to accountability and efficiency.")

And the dummying up of the city scores is a direct result of DOE malfeasance-allowing teachers to grade their own students' exams. But why should we be surprised by this? After all, the DOE had to know-given the disparity between the state and national tests-that something was not Kosher. Yet silence reigned because it was politically expedient.

So now we have auditors. But something important is missing. When the average person is audited by the IRS, and discrepancies are found, it ends up with the unlucky subject paying back the money with interest. Now that we have seen how the NYC DOE-in partnership with State DOE-has defrauded the public all to the benefit of a sitting mayor, where do we go to get our money back?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Neither Hindsight nor Oversight is 20/20 at the City Council

We have been highlighting the compelling need for the city council to exercise-and regain-its oversight role over the development at Willets Point. Put simply, the legislature was snookered by EDC and the city when it abdicated its land use oversight role by approving a project that lacked any specificity-or, better yet, even a developer. The money quote comes from former land use committee chair, Melinda Katz: "Well, just so it's clear, my issue in the last hearing and this one is clearly that if we do the ULURP process first, it takes the New York City Council out of the process as we move forward. It historically is not done that way. Historically we do the RFP first, the developer is chosen, then you do the ULURP process..."
Having given the mayor carte blanche in 2008, there is little the council can now do to oversee what actually does get put into those 62 acres at the Iron Triangle-a Walmart, perhaps, or an unwanted developer like Related. Now, however, EDC has unwittingly provided the council with a way out of its self imposed dilemma. By going back on its pledge to hold off on any eminent domain use until the Van Wyck ramps were approved-and initiating a new development scheme not previously vetted by SEQR at the same time-EDC has opened the door to a city council revisit.
But opening the door apparently does not insure that the council will actually walk through it-and our efforts are foundering because of the reluctance of some council members to re-open the Willets Point can of worms. Which reminds us of Ibsen's great drama, "An Enemy of the People." For those unfamiliar, the plot revolves around a righteous local Doctor Stockman who discovers that the village spa-a tourist attraction and key economic stimulus for the town-is contaminated. He goes to the village leaders expecting that they will close the facility down, only to be greeted by hostility-and the good whistle blowing doctor is eventually run right out of town.
And so it goes with Willets Point United-and the irony here is that, while it is Willets Point that stands accused of contamination, it is the EDC and its environmental consultants who have contaminated the review process-breaking their word and proffering tainted data to the regulatory authorities. When the egregious breach of trust is brought before the council, some of the village elders became resentful-not wanting to expose the duplicity of those who came before it lacking in honesty and integrity.
Which brings us right to the nub of all this-a phony, "Phase I," along with disappearing Van Wyck ramps that appear as appetizing as mystery meat at the school cafeteria. The Flushing Times has the story:
"Lipsky and Avella said the move to initiate the eminent domain process violates statements by the city in court documents indicating that it would wait until after a pending state Department of Transportation review of ramps on the Van Wyck Expressway. Lipsky, who represents Willets Point property owners, and Avella contend the ramps must be built to handle the 80,000 extra car trips per day they say the project will create.

“They’ve worked long and hard to develop their businesses and they serve the greater Queens and New York City community. The city now wants to take their property,” Avella said at the protest last week. “[The EDC] made a commitment — because there’s an issue with the ramps the state DOT has not approved what the city is suggesting — that until that issue is resolved they would not proceed with eminent domain. Well, guess what? Once again the Economic Development Corp. has lied, has lied to these business owners, lied to the elected officials and lied to the people of this city.”
But it is not only the owners who have been lied to-and the council should be taking umbrage over this insulting end run. But it doesn't appear to. It should, not only to protect its own integrity and oversight role, but to stand up for the small businesses being threatened by EDC's tactics.
Just read Tom Angotti's seminal study of the area: "The Willets Point triangle is an active business district with 225 firms and an estimated, 1400-1,800 jobs." That a lot of small businesses-and they aren't theoretical straw men-they are real life folks who are threatened with extinction.
Put as simply as possible, the EDC claim that the ramps are unnecessary should be the red flag: "The EDC maintains that proceeding with the first phase of the project does not require building the ramps. The first phase of the project is expected to include 1.3 million square feet of development, including affordable housing, retail, a hotel, 2 acres of open space and necessary infrastructure improvements."
How much traffic will this generate, no one really knows? Inquiring minds want to know if the spa's contaminated. Here's hoping that the request for an inquiry doesn't end up with all of WPU's Dr. Stockmans being run out of town.