Thursday, May 28, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Fallen Heroes Honored on Memorial Day

Thousands of residents packed streets throughout Queens for annual Memorial Day parades and ceremonies, including along Grand Avenue in Maspeth, Myrtle Avenue in Glendale and Ridgewood and Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills.

In Maspeth, the community celebrated Memorial Day on Sunday with a parade for the 25th consecutive year, followed by a ceremony at Maspeth Memorial Park. Justice Charles Markey was this year’s grand marshal, and Cpl. Abe Kleiner, U.S Army Ret. WWII, was presented the Maspeth Veteran Award. In addition, St. Stanislaus Girl Scout Troop #4311, which pushed for the revival of the annual parade 25 years ago, and essay contest winners from local schools were also honored at the ceremony.

Pat Toro, president of the United Veterans and Fraternal Organizations of Maspeth, reminded those in attendance that “veterans continue to make the ultimate sacrifice. It is important for us to remember and honor those who could not return… Thank you for remembering, and to the veterans here today, I salute your service.”

A similar scene unfolded the following day along Myrtle Avenue in Glendale and Ridgewood, followed by a ceremony. Former State Senator and veteran Serf Maltese reminded the crowd that most World War II veterans are now between 85 and 87 years old and “unfortunately are passing on at a very high rate.” He reminded residents to “express your appreciation for what they did” for our nation.

Also on Monday, the American Legion Continental Post 124 in Forest Hills held its annual parade, followed by a ceremony at Remsen Memorial Park “to honor those who served our country in the defense of liberty for all.”

Click Here For More Memorial Day Photos

Parents, Teachers Criticial of City's Handling of Swine Flu Outbreak

By Conor Greene

As swine flu continues to spread around the city, contributing to several more deaths and resulting in additional school closures, many parents and teachers feel the city isn’t taking the threat seriously enough.

Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott touched on the city’s response to the outbreak at a meeting on mayoral control last week in Middle Village, and Dr. Roger Platt, assistant commissioner of the Department of Health’s Bureau of School Health answered questions at Tuesday night’s Community Education Council 24 meeting in Glendale.

However, despite hearing the city’s rationale behind closing some schools while leaving others open, many parents and teachers expressed displeasures with the city’s handling of the H1N1 outbreak, which now has contributed to four deaths across the city.

“We’ve tried to be very consistent as far as the criteria for closing schools,” Walcott told concerned parents last week, adding that it is not based solely on attendance rates or trips to the nurse’s office. “I totally disagree with you that it’s not being taken seriously” he told one teacher who criticized the city’s response. “It’s important that we have a citywide standard… System wide closing has not proven to be effective.”

At CEC 24’s monthly session, which was moved to PS 113 because PS 58 was one of the schools closed due to the outbreak, Superintendent Catherine Powis reported that PS 143 and IS 73 were set to reopen Wednesday (May 27) and PS 58 was to open the following day. However, many parents later expressed dismay over the criteria used to make decisions regarding school closures.

Dr. Platt stressed that closing schools “is not going to prevent the spread of this flu through the city” and warned that he doesn’t “think that absentee rates is a good guide” as to whether a school should be shut. He also repeatedly argued that for the “vast, vast majority” the symptoms only last several days and are not life-threatening for those who are otherwise in good health. “The most important message in all of this is, if you’re someone in a high risk category… at the very first sign of illness you must contact your doctor… Those are the people we are trying to protect when we close schools.”

The doctor also noted that closing schools obviously doesn’t prevent children from mingling in other settings. “We have to be realistic from a public health perspective as to what we can accomplish when we close schools,” he said.

Nick Comaianni, president of CEC 24, said he was one of those who wanted all schools closed, at least throughout the hard-hit district, when the outbreak first occurred. “Obviously it’s easier to transmit the virus in closed quarters,” he said, adding that school closings “give parents piece of mind” knowing the building was thoroughly cleaned. “Most of these absences… are due to parents keeping their children home due to anxiety,” he said.

Dr. Platt responded that, while it is “difficult for people to accept,” there is “little or no” benefit to closing schools since the virus doesn’t live for long on ordinary surfaces. “Should we observe routine hygiene standards in schools? No question about that.” But closing and cleaning is not a strategy that is “supported by any experts… People expect it, and it does make people feel better about the schools, but it is not really useful to stop the spread of flu.”

CEC Vice President Peter Verccessi asked what percentage of students must have flu symptoms for a school to be closed. Dr. Platt said that the “rule of thumb” is for a nurse to report to the Department of Health if at least five students have a fever. At that point the school is placed on a watch list, meaning health officials “look very carefully at that school” several times a day. If two percent of the population has symptoms on a given day, or if a pattern is detected, “it is very likely [the DOH] will recommend it close.”

CEC member Bill Kregler suggested that the handling of the situation is being controlled by politics instead of health factors. “Our children are pawns once again on an issue that politicians are bouncing back and forth.”

At one point the doctor admitted that there is “no question” that closing every school and quarantining all students would slow the spread of N1H1. “The question is, is it worth the price?” he added, drawing yells from members of the audience who clearly feel that the disruption to the school year is warranted.

One resident asked if the city will be prepared for flu season, considering how hard this virus has hit the city during warmer months. Dr. Platt said that the Center for Disease Control is working “furiously” to develop a swine flu vaccine. He warned it “may very well come back in October” in “more severe form… That’s what people [health experts] are worried about.”

A teacher from PS 229 told the doctor that it “infuriates” her when officials say the symptoms are mild. “I think it’s being downplayed,” she said, adding that two faculty members at PS 229, including one 30-year-old teacher, are still recovering from the flu. Dr. Platt responded that the two to three days of symptoms is merely an average. “I don’t think there is any question people are sick with that illness for longer.” He also said it’s possible those teachers don’t have swine flu.

Still, despite all the assurances that this situation is not much different from flu outbreaks that occur every week, some, including teacher Rosemary Parker, remained unconvinced. “I have never seen 40 kids lined up outside the nurse’s office,” she said. “I don’t think the DOH is taking this serious enough.”

“They’ve been playing politics with our health… for two weeks now and it has to stop,” added teacher Dermot Smyth.

Jeanette Bartels, parent of three students at PS 229, said that it seems like the city is “playing with a loaded gun.” She pointed out that students are transported to schools on buses that are also used for students at schools that were closed such as PS 58. “Why didn’t we just shut the system down?” she asked, repeating a question that was asked numerous times throughout the meeting.

Gulluscio Gets Nod from Queens County Democratic Party

Will Face Ulrich in November for Council Seat

By Patricia Adams

Queens County Democrats have cleared the field for Frank Gulluscio to return to the race for the City Council seat in the 32nd district in November. Gulluscio failed to make the ballot for the special election in February and Republican Eric Ulrich landed the seat by defeating Democratic challengers Lew Simon, Geraldine Chapey, Glenn DiResto and fellow Republican Mike Ricatto.

In a party selection process held at county on Tuesday morning, Gulluscio garnered the support not only of county party brass but also from his two former challengers, Simon and Chapey. “I was running right up to the end,” said Lew Simon. “Unfortunately the many people who wanted me to run could not afford to give me the financial backing I needed.” Simon said the difficult economic times were a major contributing factor in his decision not to run. “At the end of the day, I support Frank because that is what is for the best of the party, and it’s the right thing to do.”

“I’m ecstatic that the party has come together,” said Gulluscio, “and I look forward to a good race based on the issues and the principles that people are interested in.” Gulluscio said he enters the upcoming race without a primary challenge and with much support he is pleased to have.

Incumbent Councilman Eric Ulrich says that the voters will decide who is best to lead the district as of November. "Elections are not about chances, they're about choices. The people elected me to serve them,” Ulrich said, “and I will seek re-election on my own merits and on my own record, regardless of whom my opponent may be. November is a long way off. Right now, my sole focus is on doing the job the people have asked me to do."

Both candidates have repeatedly expressed their disdain at the type of political antics that were so much a part of the special election for the seat and have vowed to concentrate on the issues and focus on the people in the 32nd Council district.

The county dems also gave the nod to mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, John Liu for city comptroller, Eric Gioa for public advocate and Helen Marshal for Queens borough president.

Debate Over Mayoral Control Continues

Vote on Extending Law Nears

By Conor Greene

With the state law granting the mayor full control over city schools set to expire, the debate over the system is underway in Albany and in town hall meetings, including one hosted by Senator Joseph Addabbo last week in Middle Village.

A 2002 vote by the state legislature established the school governance system known as mayoral control, which allowed Mayor Bloomberg to abolish the local board of educations and hire a chancellor to run the public school system. However, due to a sunset provision, the law expires on June 30 unless lawmakers renew it.

“This is an opportunity to make this process a better process,” said Senator Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) at last Wednesday’s town hall session, which was also attended by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who oversees the city’s Education Department for the Bloomberg Administration. “The legislature shouldn’t vote without input” from residents and other stakeholders, added Addabbo.

Walcott called himself a “firm believer in mayoral control” and said there have been “significant improvements in the system” since it was established seven years ago. He cited areas such as test scores and the number of seats created through new construction as examples of progress made since Mayor Bloomberg was granted full authority. “The bottom line for me is accountability, transparency and parental involvement.”

However, many of the parents, teachers and officials who spoke later in the meeting argued that mayoral control has stifled their voices, making it hard to seek out answers from administrators and has left local superintendents with little power.

Jo Ann Berger, who has three children in PS 153 in Maspeth, said parents have been relegated to “leaving voicemails and never getting a call back” when they seek information from administrators. “There is little to no response to parents… There is no place a parent can to go” due to the elimination of local offices, she added.

Berger also took issue with the Bloomberg Administration use of test scores to gauge progress, especially since students spend three months prepping for the exams. “That’s what you are basing our performance on? I don’t think that’s fair,” she said.

Another bone of contention for many is the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), which was formed along with Community Education Councils after the Boards of Education were abolished. Under the old system, the mayor appointed two of the seven Board of Education members, while he appoints eight of the 13 PEP members.

That has led critics to argue that the members don’t hold real power – especially after three members appointed by Mayor Bloomberg were fired in 2004 for questioning a Department of Education plan. At last week’s hearing, Dermot Smyth, a teacher at IS 5 in Elmhurst, said that the teacher’s union supports mayoral control, despite several “little flaws we’re looking to address.” He argued that the panel needs “independent voices who can work collaboratively with the chancellor” instead of political appointees.

Ozone Park resident and blogger David Quintana agreed that the mayor’s appointment of eight of the 13 PEP members means “he has a slam dunk on anything he does.” He called the local school boards “the most basic form of democracy we have.” Instead, they have been replaced with “powerless” local Community Education Councils. “Parental involvement has gone down the drain under this administration.” To prevent the PEP from being controlled by the mayor, the teacher’s union has suggested that the city comptroller, the public advocate and City Council speaker each appoint a member, leaving the mayor with five appointees.

Marge Kolb, president of the District 24 PTA Presidents’ Council, said there “needs to be a lot of adjusting” to the current system. She agreed that PEPs “should not be controlled by the mayor” and argued that some members should have educational credentials. “I don’t know where the mayor came up with the curriculum he purchased, but it wasn’t in consultation with educational professionals,” she said.

Former Assemblyman Michael Cohen, who was in office for the initial vote granting mayoral control in 2002 said he was “very uneasy voting for this bill [because] it is giving the mayor absolute control over the system.” Instead, he agreed that the city needs “accredited educational professionals to make educational policy.”

Community Board 6 District Manager Frank Gulluscio said his office has received numerous complaints from parents who feel the current system has stifled their opinions. “We want to be heard. We don’t just want lip service,” he said echoing the complaints his office has heard regarding mayoral control.

The harshest criticism of the evening towards the Bloomberg Administration’s governance of the school system came from Juniper Park Civic Association President Robert Holden, who accused officials of lying to the public.

“At one time I was for mayoral control. Then I saw the mayor in action. Then I saw Deputy Mayor Walcott in action. They just do as they please,” he said before criticizing the city’s decision to build a high school in Maspeth despite strong community opposition. “You just completely lie. You don’t tell the truth, you hide things,” he said to Walcott. “We have a dictator who says you will have this whether it’s good or not.”

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) said that city officials “really don’t have much oversight on how [the $22 billion budgeted for education] is spent.” She also argued that the current system “doesn’t give fair representation” to community members. She also hears “a lot of complaints” about students being “taught for tests.”

“I do believe for the most part that the quality of education has improved over the years,” said Crowley. However, she added that much of the gains are because elected officials have made education “a top priority” for funding.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows that New Yorkers support mayoral control, with 55 percent saying the system should continue.

State Senator Joseph Addabbo, Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley listen (top photo) as residents weigh in on mayoral control. The Forum Newsgroup/photos by CONOR GREENE

Crime Down, Arrests Up Across 104th Precinct

Brooklyn Pair Charged in 20 Local Burglaries

By Conor Greene

Major crime is down nearly eight percent in the 104th Precinct through the first 20 weeks of 2009, residents learned at last Wednesday’s COP 104 meeting in Maspeth Town Hall. While burglaries mark the only major crime to have increased so far this year, residents learned of a major arrest police officials hope will put a dent in that category.

To date, arrests are up by 17 percent for all crimes, and up 30 percent for major crimes, which include murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft. According to Deputy Inspector Keith Green, there have been 580 major crimes so far this year within the precinct, which covers Ridgewood, Glendale, Maspeth and Middle Village, compared to 629 at the same time last year.

Notably, robberies are down 11 percent, with 83 so far compared to 93 through the first 20 weeks of 2008. Felony assaults are down seven from last year to 41, while car thefts are down slightly, with 120 so far compared to 129 last year. The biggest improvement has come in grand larceny, with 164 this year compared to 199 last year, a decrease of more than 17 percent.

Major Burglary Arrest

On the flip side, burglary marks the only major crime that has increased compared to last year, according to Deputy Inspector Green, with 164 in 2009 compared to 152 at the same point last year, an eight percent jump. However, he hopes burglary incidents slow down with the arrest of two individuals responsible for at least 20 residential breakins in the Glendale area.

Helen Velasquez, 43, and Jose DeJesus, 22, were responsible for a “very noticeable” burglary pattern between 65th and 67th streets and Otto and Central avenues in Glendale, according to Deputy Inspector Green. Velasquez, of 387 Woodbine Street and DeJesus, of 218 Boerum Street, were recently caught breaking into a home and have been charged in connection with 20 incidents. They may be charged in additional break-ins as the investigation unfolds, said Deputy Inspector Green. “That is how burglary tends to go- one or two people can really hit us hard,” he said.

Overall, burglaries have been “spread out” across the precinct, with about 70% targeting residences and 30% commercial buildings, said Deputy Inspector Green. “They really are pretty well spread out when we don’t have a pattern,” he said, noting that the current residential/commercial ratio has been skewed by the rash of Glendale burglaries. Those perpetrators were targeting residences both at night and during the day, mainly entering through windows accessed by fire escapes and roofs.

Rounding out the major crime statistics, there has been one murder this year – the unsolved killing of 64-year-old Rosario Prestigiacomo inside his home at 20-33 Green Avenue in Ridgewood. Police responding to a 911 call at about 2:15 p.m. on February 10 found the Italian landlord lying on the floor with multiple stab wounds. There were no murders at the same time last year, and all four homicides that eventually occurred within the precinct in 2008 were connected to a fatal fire on Metropolitan Avenue that investigators say was deliberately set. There have been seven rapes this year compared to eight last year, and there have been 120 car thefts so far, a decrease of 9.

Residents Express Concerns

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Roe Dario, president of the civic group Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, asked the precinct about cracking down on unauthorized commuter vans, which she said cause traffic issues.

“There are a lot of open issues with the vans, so civically we don’t want them in our community,” she said. “Hopefully we can get them out of here… We have enough traffic.” Deputy Inspector Green said the precinct is working on a crackdown of commuter vans, which must get a permit from the city to be legal.

However, there was one issue raised at the meeting that the deputy inspector declined to comment on. A resident asked about potential funding cuts the NYPD is facing due to the city’s budget woes, and rumors that civilian administrative jobs would be cut. Under that scenario, uniformed officers would be taken off the streets and put into those administrative roles, the resident claimed, asking how that situation would impact the 104th Precinct specifically.

“Right now it is just ‘a what if’ [scenario] and is not an issue I’m free to discuss,” responded Deputy Inspector Green. He told the resident he must contact NYPD headquarters at One Police Plaza about that issue and noted that the precinct is currently fully staffed to the same levels as two years ago.

Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, asked the precinct to crack down on vandalism in the park. He said that several trees were recently planted throughout the 55-acre park in Middle Village and already some have been snapped by vandals. “It is most likely youth hanging out in the park,” he said, adding that there have been incidents of vandalism almost nightly and noting that the bleacher area near the roller hockey rink has become a “big hangout.”

Another resident asked Deputy Inspector Green to address speeding along 77th Place between Caldwell Avenue and 58th Avenue. “I tell you I hear the engines as they go racing down that block,” the resident said.

Finally, a resident complained about noise and disturbances at the Moonlight Bar, which he said prompted him to call the precinct and 311 numerous times. “I know it’s minor for you guys, but what can I do?” he asked the officers. He said a lot of the problem stems from the fact that the bar’s front door is often left open as a DJ plays music inside. When neighbors complained, the “owners said call the police, we don’t care,” the resident said.

Deputy Inspector Green said officers have “been there quite a bit lately” to deal with calls. He said the bar at 6058 Flushing Avenue in Maspeth “is on our list” of establishments that have received numerous complaints in recent months. He said the bar “has had problems in the past, was shut down for a while, then reopened and was okay for a while, and is now a problem again.” He said the Community Board 5 has also received “a lot of calls” regarding Moonlight Bar.

Blagojevich vs. Paterson: Who Do We Hate More?

By Steve Tiszenkel

Racked by scandal, alienated from his state’s political establishment and facing constant calls from the media and his colleagues for his resignation, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich got an opportunity he called “golden” on Nov. 4 of last year. His state’s junior senator, Barack Obama, had been elected president, and it was left to him to fill the Congressional vacancy left by the new president-elect’s departure. Many of Illinois’ top Democrats desperately wanted the seat, and Blagojevich figured they’d be willing to pay—in cash and in favors—to get it. With such power, Blagojevich thought, maybe his tenure as governor wasn’t doomed after all.

But as precisely everyone but the governor could have figured out, because he was already under investigation for assorted other crimes, the feds uncovered Blagojevich’s scheme in record time. As he adamantly refused to resign while providing no real defense for his actions, an Illinois populace that already hated their twice-elected chief executive further turned on him. By the humiliating end, as the former most powerful man in the Land of Lincoln faced an impeachment trial with virtually no chance of acquittal, his approval rating stood at 7 percent.

Nobody has ever seriously accused David Paterson of taking bribes, or, really, corruption of any sort—by most accounts, he’s an honorable, upstanding public servant. But after dealing with a high-profile Senate vacancy of his own not long afterBlagojevich, Paterson’s approval rating is an abysmal 19 percent, just 12 points higher than a man who was recently ejected from office in disgrace and immediately attempted to sign up as a contestant on “I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!”

It doesn’t seem to add up. Yes, Paterson faces a horrendous financial crisis and hasn’t done much to fix it, but the same is true of every governor in America. And sure, New York never voted for Paterson, but he did seem like a breath of fresh air after the self-destruction of Eliot Spitzer—even if he did acknowledge having a relationship with “a woman other than my wife” mere days before he was sworn in to replace our last elected governor.

What I find most confusing about Paterson’s monumentally low approval ratings is that he hasn’t seemed to do anything particularly bad—besides get mocked for his blindness on Saturday Night live—but has managed to defy the odds and accomplish some good. Most recently and notably, when commuters were held hostage by the MTA and threatened with shockingly high fare increases and service cuts that could have been devastating for working people in Queens and beyond, Paterson managed to broker a miraculous compromise that will see the cuts rolled back and the fare hikes reduced substantially. Commuter advocates complained about the compromise, but isn’t that just Paterson’s luck? It’s miles better than the alternative, which would have raised the price of a monthly MetroCard to $103.

So why is Paterson so unpopular? I’d venture it has almost everything to do with his Blagojevich moment, the Senate selection process I thought he handled beautifully but on which the local media skewered him at every turn. Political novice Caroline Kennedy, by virtue of her influential support of Obama and the most famous family name in American politics, decided she wanted to replace Hillary Clinton as New York’s junior senator when Clinton accepted a post as Secretary of State in the new administration. The Kennedy family has a whole lot of smart, powerful friends, and it seemed clear that some of them were working hard behind the scenes.

Though the law states that the governor and only the governor gets to fill a Senate vacancy, they expertly painted a portrait of Kennedy as frontrunner by manipulating the always-gullible tabloids—as if there could be such a thing as a frontrunner when race with exactly one voter. Though Paterson’s aides repeatedly said Kennedy wasn’t the frontrunner, and poll after poll after poll showed that New Yorkers didn’t want her in the job, when Paterson picked little-known moderate Kirsten Gillibrand instead, the Kennedy people managed to whip up a firestorm of outrage over the supposed snub and Paterson’s alleged mishandling of the situation. None of it really made sense, but in the New York media, things don’t really have to make sense.

If this had happened in Illinois, Kennedy’s people could have won the seat by writing a fat check. But they were dealing with Paterson, so they needed leverage of a different sort. They needed to threaten his young governorship with ruin if he dared deny them. And ruin his governorship is exactly what they did.

Paterson is up for re-election next year. It’s not looking good for him, even in the Democratic primary, where Andrew Cuomo is polling far higher and voters are even starting to express nostalgia for Spitzer, who’s hard at work trying to remake and redeem himself. But our governor has never really shown himself to be anyone other than someone who’s working hard for the kind of people at risk of getting left behind in 21st-century New York, the kind of people who live in our neighborhoods. I’m not here to make endorsements. Maybe Paterson is too liberal for you; maybe he’s just not your cup of tea. The statistics say you want him gone, and soon. It’s always nice to be part of an 81-percent majority, but whatever you decide, take a moment to ask yourself whether this is a governor worthy of Blagojevich-level contempt.

The writer, Steve Tiszenkel is the host of the Website, to read more about Forest Hills and surrounding neighborhoods.

More Photos of Memorial Day Events

Thursday, May 21, 2009

This Week's Forum South and West

Swine Flu Fears Renewed with City's First Death

By Conor Greene

A Queens assistant principal was laid to rest this week – the city’s first apparent swine flu victim – as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise.

With cases of the H1N1 virus mounting, officials scrambled over the past few days to shut schools that have apparent outbreaks of students with flu-like symptoms. At the same time, the Bloomberg administration has found itself defending its decision on to close all city public schools when the outbreak first hit Queens several weeks ago.

“We can’t stop the virus from spreading, unless you were to go wall yourself off and not have any contact with other humans,” said Mayor Bloomberg at a press conference earlier this week. “Our goal is to minimize the threat to those who are most at risk… We should not be surprised to see more serious illness.”

On Wednesday afternoon, family, friends and students gathered at Sinai Chapels in Fresh Meadows to pay their final respects to Mitchell Wiener, an assistant principal at IS 238 in Hollis. While city officials claim Wiener had a pre-existing health condition that contributed to his death on Sunday evening, the 55-year-old man’s family said he was in good health before he came down with flu-like symptoms.

Schools have been closed on a one-by-one basis, and some elected officials are now criticizing the Bloomberg administration for not taking broader action sooner. On Tuesday, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) called on Chancellor Joel Klein all schools in District 24, which she called “one of the city’s most infected areas.” The request came a day after Klein, teacher’s union president Randi Weingarten and other held a press conference at IS 73in Maspeth after 330 out of 1,700 students called out sick.

“Given the high number of student and teacher absences, coupled with the tragic deaths of Assistant Principal Wiener and the 16-month-old baby in Corona, I believe we must close all the schools in District 24… [to] allow cleaning crews enough time to sanitize the schools in order to stop the spread of the virus and to ease concerns of parents, teachers, students and administrators throughout the area,” wrote Crowley in a letter to Klein.

A DOE spokeswoman said on Wednesday the decision to close schools is “subjective” and made on a “case-by-case basis” as determined by the Department of Health. “The DOH recommends to the DOE to close the school, and once that happens we do so immediately,” she said. Having all kids stay home “is not necessarily the answer” and doesn’t provide assurances that “it is going to protect anyone else from getting it.”

Crowley also called on the DOH to open more testing centers for residents. “There needs to be enough free testing options available for constituents who are without healthcare in order to keep all of our community members safe,” she said.

The criticism of Bloomberg’s decision not to close more public schools was echoed by Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside). “It is absolutely clear that Mike Bloomberg and DOH failed to hear the concerns of parents and through their inaction allowed the spread of this virus,” he said. “As I suggested back in late April, a more aggressive approach should have been taken to close public schools in northeast Queens. There is no doubt in my mind that by taking preemptive measures we could have helped quell the number of cases within New York City.”

Around the city, hospital emergency rooms were flooded with residents suffering from flulike symptoms. The pediatric emergency room at Elmhurst Hospital Center had waits of up to 10 hours, and Queens Hospital Center erected a yellow tent in the parking lot to handle its overflow of patients.

Mayor Bloomberg stressed that all ill residents should receive medical help, regardless of their immigration status. “Whether you have health insurance coverage or your immigration status is in question, it doesn’t matter. We will not ask about that,” he said. “The only question that matters is, are you severely ill? And if you are, our hospitals are there to take care of you.”

While health officials determined that a 16-month-old Corona baby’s death was not caused by swine flu, the national death toll rose to eight with the death of a 44-year-old St. Louis man. Of the approximately 5,500 cases nationwide, fewer than 300 are in New York. In the past week, 19 city schools – mostly in Queens - have been ordered to close by the health department, and another five did so voluntarily. There are also at least four confirmed swine flu cases at Rikers Island.

Ognibene to Challenge Crowley in November

By Conor Greene

It’s not even summer yet, but this fall’s City Council race in the 30th District just got more interesting with Thomas Ognibene’s decision to challenge incumbent Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley in a bid to regain his former job.

“The last time I ran, I think the biggest problem was we had two viable candidates at loggerheads,” said Ognibene, referring to fellow Republican Anthony Como’s victory in last summer’s special election to replace Dennis Gallagher. Crowley finished second in that race, followed by Ognibene, who said that a lone Republican on the ballot “clearly would have won the election and would have carried that into the general election.”

Ognibene, a Middle Village resident with a local practice, said the events leading up to his decision to run began when the Queens Republican Party leaders asked him if he would consider running for mayor on the Republican ticket if the party decided to not endorse Mayor Bloomberg. Ognibene was the Conservative Party’s candidate for mayor in 2005 and had discussed the possibility of challenging Bloomberg again this year.

However, the path was cleared for Ognibene to run for his old City Council seat, which he held from 1992 until term limits forced him out of office in 2001, when Como recently told him “he was going in another direction” and would not be challenging Crowley his fall. Around the same time, the Queens GOP decided it would in fact support Bloomberg.

The result, according to Ognibene, is a Queens Republican Party that is devoid of internal strife for the first time in recent memory. “This probably is the first time for the Republican Party in this county that everyone is aligned behind one guy,” he said. “During my final meeting with Mayor Bloomberg, he said, ‘Tom, I would love to have you support me, and I would love to support you.’”

Como was unable to be reached before press time because he was traveling, but a source said he is being considered for an appointment by the Bloomberg administration to a position in the Department of Housing. An announcement is expected once the standard vetting process is completed.

Ognibene sat out last November’s election, when Crowley (D-Middle Village) defeated Como by 12% out of 33,000 votes cast in the district, which includes Maspeth, Middle Village, Glendale and parts of Ridgewood, Woodhaven and Richmond Hill. The win allowed the Democratic Party to regain one of three seats that were held by Republicans at the time. (The GOP has since gained one seat back with the election of Ozone Park resident Eric Ulrich in the 32nd District).

Crowley said on Tuesday that her focus now is solely on representing the district. Still, she left no doubt that she will definitely seek re-election. “Yeah. I love my job. I want to have a full term. I would be honored to represent the people for a full four-year term,” she said.

With a full slate of issues to deal with, including the proposed Maspeth high school and the swine flu outbreak, Crowley is “not concentrating on reelection right now... I’m a fulltime councilwoman, and when it comes time for campaigning I hope my job will speak for itself, the good work I’ve done. When the people of the district come out to vote I think they will re-elect me as their Councilmember.”

It is likely Ognibene, who represented the district from 1992 until term limits forced him out in 2001, will tout his experience and his relationship with Bloomberg. “The most important thing is that the people living in this community need aggressive leadership. I know from my ten years experience where to go, where to look [to solve problems].”

Ognibene declined to comment on how he thinks the district has been represented since November. “I just feel it’s a short period of time and it’s hard for me to judge,” he said of Crowley’s time in office. “I think it really is up to the people to make that judgment so I’m not going to comment on that. I will run and people can then make a decision.”

One message he will push is the benefits his relationship with Mayor Bloomberg would provide for district residents. “The person who has the advantage as a councilmember is the person who can work closely with the mayor, that is the single most important thing,” said Ognibene. “No matter what powers the City Council has, they really do not measure up to the ability of the mayor to do things in a community that are positive, and to keep things from happening that are not positive. I feel I can bring that to the community.”

In terms of pertinent issues for the district, Ognibene mentioned the problems last summer caused by trains transporting garbage that were idling near residential areas and Christ the King High School. “I think you have to pay special attention clearly to the issue with what I call the garbage train,” he said, noting that action in federal court will likely be necessary. “Then there are the usual issues: school control, improving schools, the economic issues and trying to ameliorate the impact of the economic downturn.”

Parents Unhappy Over Catholic School Restructuring

Ridgewood School to Become Academy Under Diocese's Plan

By Conor Greene

Parents and students who are unhappy with changes coming to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal School rallied in Ridgewood on Tuesday to demand answers, which they say have not been forthcoming.

Under a restructuring plan announced by the Brooklyn Diocese, several schools including OLMM will be converted into Catholic academies. As a result, OLMM will be renamed the Notre Dame Catholic Academy of Ridgewood when it reopens in September. Under the new arrangement, the academy will be run by a lay board of directors.

Many parents who rallied Tuesday at the corner of Bleecker and 61st streets say they were upset by the name change, but understand it is necessary. The last straw for many came when it was announced that the OLMM’s longtime principal, Margaret Baxter, was not being retained for next year. Instead, Virginia Daly, the former principal at St. Aloysius School - which is set to close - has been hired to fill that position. In addition, all staff members had to reapply for their positions, and parents are worried the new principal will bring most of her staff with her to OLMM.

Among those who rallied was Maria Birkic, who previously switched her daughter from St. Aloysius to OLMM and said she was “horrified” to learn that Mrs. Baxter wouldn’t be retained. “Mrs. Baxter opened doors for my daughter. She took her under her wing and was nurturing,” said Birkic. “They were not honest with us. We feel very betrayed, like our voices mean nothing to them.”

At the center of the parents’ anger is OLMM pastor Msgr. Edward Ryan, whom they say has been refusing to answer questions or discuss the situation with them. Msgr. Ryan was not present during the protests, but discussed the situation in an interview that afternoon. He noted that as part the restructuring, it is necessary to hire a whole new staff, which is why current employees were forced to reapply for their positions.

Msgr. Ryan expressed displeasure that parents had children participate in the rally, which attracted dozens of participants waiving signs. “I understand that a number of children were involved, and would be disappointed if they were being used to put across points adults wish to make,” he said. “I don’t think it is helpful to involve the children at this point.”

A meeting between the new board of directors – which was appointed by a board of corporation members, including Msgr. Ryan – and parents of OLMM and St. Aloysius parents is scheduled for Tuesday, at which time “hopefully the issues will be calmly and rationally discussed and answered,” said Msgr. Ryan.

While there are several concerns with the restructuring plan among students and parents, Msgr. Ryan termed the issues surrounding the principal’s position “the large issue.” He said a board of director’s sub committee interviewed four candidates for the principal’s job. “They rated each of those candidates on several different areas… [and] selected the person they believe to have the best accord with the vision of the new structure of Catholic education where the principal will dynamically lead the educational community and work with the board of directors.”

Responding to criticism that Daly oversaw the decline of St. Aloysius, Msgr. Ryan noted that under the new structure, the principal “will not be responsible for the financial well-being of the school. The principal’s responsibility will be the educational mission of the school.” He added that St. Aloysius’ difficulties “go back many years” and have finally reached a point where that parish couldn’t keep up with its debt. “The attempt is to build up new academies to be as strong as they can be in terms of enrollment.”

Msgr. Ryan also refuted claims that parents have been left in the dark as the process has unfolded. “No information was withheld and we interviewed everyone who applied. The person who emerged with the highest rating was recommended,” he said.

While Msgr. Ryan criticized the parents for allowing the students to participate in the protest, many of the children who attended expressed heartbreak at what is happening at OLMM. “She’s been like a mother to us and listens to all our problems,” said Elizabeth Sweeney, an eighth grade student who is the third generation of her family to attend OLMM. “It’s ironic how they’re giving us the principal of a school that is being shut down.”

“They made us who we are today, and they’re taking it all away,” said fellow eighth-grader Josephine O’Malley.

City Buys Property Eyed for High School

Paid $16.25M for Restaurant Depot Site

By Conor Greene

The city has purchased the Restaurant Depot site in Maspeth, paving the way for the Department of Education to move forward with plans for a 1,100 seat high school, despite opposition from local civic groups and elected officials.

It appears the city was forced to pay top dollar for the 54,000-square-foot property, located at 74th Street and 57th Avenue near the Long Island Expressway. While the property had been listed online for $15 million, the city paid $16,250,000 to owner Lucky Star Elmhurst, LLC, according to a transfer report filed with the state.

This week, a DOE spokesman was able to confirm the purchase, but was unable to comment on the price. After being sent a copy of a Segal Realty flier advertising the property for $15 million, William Havemann responded in an e-mail, “I can’t comment about the details of our negotiations to acquire the property. All I can do is confirm the purchase price of $16.25M.”

The City Council voted 38 to 10 in April to approve the DOE’s plan for a 1,100 seat high school on the former Restaurant Depot site. The approval came despite opposition from local civic groups, the community board and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who voted against the plan but was unable to garner enough support from her colleagues to block the proposal.

Since the vote, it has been revealed that the site is contaminated by the presence of some toxins, including mercury. The DOE says that the $80 million budgeted for the project includes money to install a protective barrier between the contaminated soil and the building foundation. The city recently issued a request for proposals for this project and will open bids on June 12 for demolition of the existing structure and construction of the new building, according to Havemann.

Meanwhile, Crowley’s office has asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation to “give a third party determination regarding the need for remediation” at the property. “Several community members, professors and scientists have expressed serious concern over the levels of toxins located at the site,” she wrote in a May 5 letter to DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis.

“The SCA has proposed laying down a protective seal and installing a ventilation to assure the safety of our children, but I am concerned that it may not be enough and we are just ignoring a need that will need to be addressed eventually.” She requests a “thorough review of the full Environmental Impact Statement to determine if the SCA needs to enact a full remediation… in order to assure that our children are going to school in the safest possible environment.”

Crowley is still awaiting a response from the DEC, according to her spokeswoman. However, Middle Village attorney Thomas Ognibene, who recently said he will challenge Crowley in November, said Tuesday that he is considering filing a lawsuit against the city to block the project.

“I’m very concerned that it is an inappropriate site with possible health hazards,” he said. “There is a lot of action you can take [to block it], and what I can do is sue the City of New York and the School Construction Authority, which is one thing I’m contemplating now and moving in that direction.”

Flood Victims File Lawsuit Against City

By Conor Greene

A dozen families whose property was damaged during the flooding of August 2007 have filed a lawsuit against the city claiming its storm water system was unable to handle torrential rainfall that hit the area.

“The initial lawsuit involves twelve families, but if we get the class action we can open it up to all 810 families that filed against the city,” said Forest Hills resident Bruce Saffran, whose apartment was filled with water and raw sewage. “I just want to be made whole. I’m not suing for all kinds of crazy damages, just to replace what I lost.”

In addition to being compensated for the damages, the lawsuit aims to force the city to upgrade the borough’s infrastructure to prevent future flooding. According to attorney Oscar Michelen, who is representing the victims, Queens only has a single line to carry both storm water and sewage, unlike other boroughs where there are two separate lines.

“What happens is sewage comes back up through the toilet bowl into the bathroom. All of a sudden the pipe gets flooded with water, which has to go somewhere, so it pushes into the pipe that is normally reserved for sewage,” said Michelen. “That’s why these folks are getting three feet of sewage in their apartments. Every time it rains heavily, folks hear water in their toilet gurgle. When you get heavy rain, you’re really in trouble.”

The August 2007 rainfall sent four feet of water sweeping through Saffran’s ground-floor apartment on Yellowstone Boulevard, destroying virtually all of the family’s possessions. He was forced to literally flee the apartment with his wife and young son, and to make matters worse, the bathroom toilet overflowed at the same time, sending raw sewage into the apartment.

”I don’t want to have to stay up at night worried every time it rains. It’s not a way to live [and] I think it’s almost cruel for the city to expect us to,” said Saffran. “None of us are looking to hit the litigation lotto. Everyone is legitimate with legitimate loses we think the city owes us for.”

The lawsuits come a month after City Comptroller William Thompson announced that the city is not responsible for compensating flood victims. The announcement came after an investigation by the city Department of Environmental Protection “found no basis for holding the city liable.”

However, Michelen took issue with the fact that the city conducted its own investigation. “They should have invested in an independent review. At least then it’s a third party and not their own internal investigation. I would be surprised when we review the report if it was really as thorough as it should be,” he said. “Everyone knows the situation in Queens, so this was very foreseeable. A number of things contributed to it that the city was aware of, and this is the price the people in these neighborhoods have to pay.”

The city has been served with the lawsuit, which Michelen says names the dozen families and seek “protection for the entire class of individuals who were damaged by the August 2007 flood.” Once the city responds to the suit, Michelen will file a motion asking the court to certify it as a class action. If that happens, all 810 residents who filed claims against the city will be notified that they might be eligible to join the action.

“We’re very confident that because of the number of claimants, we will get class action,” said Michelen. “This is the age-old story in Queens, [where] flooding is nothing unusual. The city just chooses to ignore it until they get sued or something else happens.”

Woman Sentenced to Jail in Poodle Death

Neighbor Found Dog in Trash Can

By Conor Greene

A Maspeth woman will serve 30 days in jail after admitting to stuffing her severely beaten poodle in a suitcase and leaving it to die in a trash can outside her 54th Place home. She later told police she was having trouble caring for both the pet and her baby.

Sonia Perez, 21, of 60-49 54th Place pleaded guilty Monday to attempted aggravated cruelty to animals. She was immediately sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years’ probation, announced District Attorney Richard Brown. She must also make restitution to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for medical care administered before the poodle’s death.

Perez was arrested on March 5 after a neighbor heard the injured dog from inside the trash can. The poodle was having difficulty breathing when the neighbor found it, was very cold and laying limp and non-responsive in its own feces. The dog was taken to the local Animal Care and Control Center and later turned over to the ASPCA where it was diagnosed with scrotal bruising and rib fractures. The dog died the following day.

Following her arrest, Perez was charged with felony aggravated cruelty to animals and misdemeanor torturing an animal before agreeing to plead guilty to the lesser charge this week. A witness told police that that Perez had told him previously that it was difficult to care for the dog while raising a child, and a police source said a neighbor reported that she had beat the dog on prior instances.

“The defendant showed a complete disregard for the life of a helpless and severely injured animal. Instead of getting help, the defendant unceremoniously tossed the dog into the trash like rubbage to either die a slow death or be crushed by a sanitation truck’s compactor,” said Brown.

Rally to Preserve Library Funding

By Conor Greene

Scores of children, parents and local officials gathered on the steps of Queens Library in Flushing on Monday to draw attention to budget cuts the system is facing.

As a result of the city’s budget woes, Queens Libraries, along with libraries throughout the five boroughs, face devastating budget reductions. If all proposed cuts are enacted, six-day and even five-day service at many branches will be eliminated. To draw attention to this situation, library leaders have been holding rallies around the borough.

On Monday, hundreds including Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, Borough President Helen Marshall and members of the Queens Civic Congress gathered for a “Stand Up for Libraries Rally” at the Flushing branch on Main Street. “One of our nation’s most precious resources is access to books and educational material,” said Crowley (D-Middle Village). “It is simply outrageous to cut library hours… The library is a cornerstone of a quality education for any student.”

With the city and state facing huge budget deficits, Queens Library is facing a $13.9 million reduction in its funding. As a result, the majority of branches in Queens will likely be closed on weekends starting July 1. In addition, Queens Library’s staff will have to be reduced by 279 positions, or 24%.

“Our library system here in Queens is the busiest in the world and provides a multitude of services to America’s most diverse population. Today’s rally is aimed at focusing attention on the consequences of a proposed budget reduction of $17 million. Among other things, the library’s workforce would be reduced, every community library would be closed on weekends and building maintenance would be curtailed,” said Queens Borough President Helen Marshall.

Queens Library has the largest circulation of any library system in the country, serving about 2.2 million residents annually at 62 branches. In 2007, more than 450,000 people attended the free programs offered by the library on a variety of topics.

“This will essentially shut people out from library services,” said James Van Bramer, chief external affairs officer for Queens Library. “For the sake of our kids and our job seekers, the mayor needs to look at all citywide agencies and must first cut wasteful spending rather than cutting out hours for learning… That is not something that should be happening in a difficult economic time.”

Crowley noted that a significant number of residents in neighborhoods such as Maspeth, Middle Village, Glendale and Richmond Hill rely on library services. “Cutting library hours will have an economic impact on our community: professionals rely on Internet provided at libraries to do their work, and adults use the library’s resources to look for job opportunities.”

In April, Crowley rallied with second grade students and teachers from PS 87 to protest proposed cuts to weekend and extended hours. Later that month she wrote to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Mayor Michael Bloomberg urging them to find a way to keep the Queens libraries open. She is also fighting to secure millions of dollars in capital funding to upgrade library facilities. “For the sake of our kids and our job seekers, the Mayor needs to look at all citywide agencies and must first cut wasteful spending rather than cutting out hours for learning,” she said.

More than 60,000 residents have signed a petition supporting library funding, and another rally is planned for outside City Hall on May 28. The system has already endured about $5 million in budget cuts, forcing officials to eliminate the mobile book service and close the art gallery in the main branch in Jamaica.

International Credit Card Ring Busted

Netted $12 Million in Past Year Alone

By Conor Greene

A crime ring based in Queens that stretched across the globe has been dismantled, authorities announced at a press conference last week.

Nearly four dozen individuals have been charged following a 21-month investigation, announced Queens District Attorney Richard Brown and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly. The ring, which was comprised of three separate identity theft and credit card forgery groups that employed multiple cells, allegedly stole personal information from thousands of American and Canadian customers.

The ring’s activities are believed to have cost the victims, as well as financial institutions and retail businesses, more than $12 million in loses over the past year alone. “Our investigation reveals that – in terms of just the sheer number of people indicted – this is one of the largest identify theft networks uncovered in recent history and is just possibly the tip of a much larger global credit card trafficking operation,” said Brown.

A total of 45 individuals have been charged with being members or associates of three organized criminal enterprises that operated in Queens County and elsewhere, systematically scheming to defraud thousands of unsuspecting consumers and financial institutions including Citibank, Bank of America, Chase and HSBC.

According to the charges, suppliers fraudulently obtained credit card accounts and then sold them over to leaders of the identity theft cells. The cell leader would have forged credit and identification cards manufactured before distributing the phony credit cards to the ring’s foot soldiers and shoppers who actually accessed the accounts.

The foot soldiers generally accessed the accounts using ATMs and bank tellers. While using an ATM was less risky, there was usually a limit as to how much could be withdrawn at any specific time. However, equipped with a forged credit card and fake identification such as a driver’s license, a foot soldier could withdraw up to $4,900at a time from a bank teller. In addition, shoppers were responsible for making purchases, usually high-end electronics with the stolen credit cards. They were also responsible for finding “fences” to buy the electronics from them.

“When these suspects said ‘charge it’ they stole more than cash and goods. They robbed unsuspecting victims of their identities too,” said NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly. “This was a sophisticated crime ring which met its just end through painstaking investigation by NYPD detectives and unstinting support by Queens prosecutors.”

The investigation, dubbed “Operation Plastic Pipe Line” began in September 2007 when officers from the NYPD’s Identity Theft Squad and the District Attorney’s Economic Crimes Bureau launched a joint investigation into the large scale theft of Citibank credit cards and the subsequent use of the cards in Queens and elsewhere. Court-authorized search warrants were executed last week at 17 locations, leading to the recovery of forged credit cards, credit reports, machines used to forge the cards and nearly $100,000 in cash.

“Besides draining the bank accounts of individuals throughout North America, we believe the defendants – some of whom live in California, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Toronto – also shipped stolen or fraudulently obtained credit cards to buyers around the world and that purchases were made in such far-off places as Japan, Saudi Arabia and Dubai,” said Brown. “Particularly disturbing is that we have no way of knowing if any of these accounts have fallen into the hands of terrorists and are being used to finance their terrorist activities.”


Richmond Hill Man Sentenced for Rapes

17 Years in Prison for Two Area Assaults

A Richmond Hill man has been sentenced to 17 years in prison for committing two rapes, which he was linked to through DNA found by police during a search of his house during an unrelated narcotics investigation.

Peter J. Grebinger, Jr., 42, of 85-88 87th Street, was sentenced by Queens Supreme Court Justice James Griffin last Friday. He pleaded guilty to first-degree rape in April in connection with attacks he committed in Ozone Park and Hillside in 1997.

The first incident occurred on January 3, 1997 when Grebinger accosted a 33-year-old woman near 87-18 101st Avenue as she was walking to the subway at about 7:30 a.m. He forced the woman into a building where he raped her and demanded money before fleeing.

The second attack occurred on December 28, 1997 when Grebinger picked up a 22-year-old woman who flagged down his vehicle at about 6:20 a.m., believing it was a livery cab. He assaulted her inside the vehicle before kicking her out of the car and fleeing. Both victims went to local hospitals where sexual assault evidence and DNA was collected.

However, Grebinger wasn’t tied to the crimes until last year, when police searched the 87th Street home he shared with his father in Richmond Hill. As part of an unrelated investigation, police found two loaded firearms along with cocaine and marijuana while executing a court-authorized search warrant.

Grebinger and his 62-year-old father, Peter Grebinger, Sr., were charged in connection with the firearms and narcotics. Following his arrest, the younger Grebinger provided a DNA sample in accordance with state law. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner later matched Grebinger’s DNA to evidence recovered from the two rape victims, leading to the charges against him.

“Law enforcement has always had the tenacity to go back and attempt to resolve unsolved crimes. With DNA fingerprinting, we now have the technology to effectively do so,” said District Attorney Richard Brown. “This defendant is a violent predator and today’s sentence will protect the law-abiding members of our society from his brutish behavior and, hopefully, provide his victims with a measure of closure after so many years. It will also avoid the necessity of the defendant’s victims having to relive their ordeals on the witness stand.”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Council Vows Battle Over FDNY Cuts

16 Fire Companies, 30 EMT Tours Would be Cut Under Mayor’s Proposal

By Conor Greene

Residents and elected officials are concerned that the Bloomberg administration’s plan to eliminate 16 fire companies will lead to increased response time and the loss of lives.

As part of his effort to balance the city’s budget and save $18 million, the mayor has proposed shutting four units, including Engine 271 on Himrod Street, starting July 1. The companies, which also include Ladder 53 in the Bronx, Engine 4 in Manhattan and Engine 161 on Staten Island, have been subject to nighttime closures since January.

In addition, 30 ambulance tours would be eliminated, and another 12 fire companies – which have yet to be identified – will close on January 1. Under the plan, Ladder Company 124 and Battalion 28, which are both also based out of the Himrod Street fire house, will continue to operate around the clock.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) joined many of her colleagues on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday to protest the mayor’s budget proposal. She is particularly concerned about the closing of Engine 271, which responds to about 2,500 calls each year in Queens and Brooklyn. It’s the first responder for much of Ridgewood and also assists at emergencies in Glendale and Maspeth.

“Response time is crucial because fire grows exponentially every minute,” said Crowley. “In an area lined with attached and semi-attached houses, one house burning can spread into an entire block burning. This is a safety issue where time lost equals lives lost.” She added that the problem is compounded by the recent closings of St. John’s Queens and Mary Immaculate hospitals. “A heart attack victim only has five minutes. Without 271, who will save them?”

The rally was organized by Councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx), who said he is ready to “declare war against the firehouse closings” and proposed budget. “The alarm must go out to residents that their neighborhood might be next,” he said, adding that the additional dozen closings on January 1 “is going to be a bad New Year’s gift” to city residents. “You’re talking about the loss of human life, and that’s not acceptable.”

Steve Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, accused the city of cutting from the department’s budget since it doesn’t generate revenue. He also blasted the mayor for waiting until “after the election in November” to announce what other 12 units will close on January 1. “Does that sound like a coincidence?” he asked.

Cassidy and Vacca said the city has rejected other suggested budget cuts, including reducing administrative costs and eliminating borough commands. “If there have to be cuts, they should start with those not saving lives every day,” said Cassidy. “They’re playing Russian Roulette with the lives of New York City taxpayers.”

Vacca called the borough commanders a “bureaucratic layer” that should be cut. “We made suggestions that are real and can be implemented,” he said. Instead, the Bloomberg administration proposed reducing the amount of men in some companies that currently have five firefighters, something Vacca and Cassidy say will endanger lives. Of the department’s 198 engine companies, 64 have five men while 134 are operating with four men.

The community was informed of the imminent closing of Engine 271 through a letter sent last Friday to Crowley and Community Board 5. In it, Daniel Shacknai, a deputy fire commissioner and general counsel, explains that the decision to “permanently close” the engine company came after the FDNY examined “years’ worth of data and exhaustively analyzing all available relevant information.” The goal was to identify “those companies that could be closed with the least impact on public safety while retaining the maximum effectiveness of our finite resources.”

In making its assessments, the FDNY used three main criteria: the projected impact on first response times, the number of occupied structural fires at which the company performed work at and the projected impact on second response times. In making its determinations, officials looked at the company’s workload, the proximity of other units, the impact of the closing on surrounding units, street layout and geographic obstacles, impact of the closing on the community and the overall safety of the city and operational knowledge and experience of senior chiefs.

“While making these decisions has not been easy, we make them in the context of historically low civilian fire fatalities and the fastest citywide response times since 2002,” wrote Shacknai. “The FDNY will continue to provide the highest level of service to the communities we serve, as we have throughout our history.”

However, Crowley isn’t convinced that lives won’t be in danger as it takes longer for firefighters to reach the scene. She noted that on March 18 a fire near Wyckoff and Greene avenues left a dozen families homeless. With Engine 271 closed for the evening, it took four minutes for the fires engine company to arrive on scene – about double what it would have been before the nighttime closure. “It is outrageous that the FDNY jeopardizes the people’s safety due to their fiscal irresponsibility,” she said.

Following the rally, FDNY Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta defended the planned cuts during testimony before the City Council. “We have carefully picked the companies with an effort to reduce any impact on operations. You do the best you can with these things and I think in the past we have made wise decisions and I hope that we have made wise decisions here,” he said.

Councilmembers were critical that the remaining dozen companies to be cut have yet to be identified. For example, Engine 293 in Woodhaven is not among the four units to be eliminated in July, but there is concern in the neighborhood that the city will eventually try to close that unit, as it attempted to do in 2003.

“While the firehouses in my district are not one of the four slated to be closed [in July], they’re still at risk for closing in the near future,” said Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park). “People are very concerned that the Woodhaven firehouse in particular could end up on the chopping block... We should take the battle we went through six years ago as a lesson that nothing is indispensable if the city is going to bring the ax down and close firehouses.”

The city’s plan to shut Engine 293 resulted in huge backlash from the community, which eventually proved enough to prevent the closure. That didn’t mark the first time the area has been forced to lobby on behalf of its fire coverage. In 1994, Engine 294 in Richmond Hill reopened three years after Mayor David Dinkins ordered it shut as a result of budget cuts.

Area residents are now forced to wait to find out if any local companies are among the dozen yet-to-be-identified units to be eliminated in the New Year. When asked if the City Council is prepared to hold up the budget process to prevent the cuts, Crowley said she can’t see a scenario in which the Council adopts a budget as currently proposed.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley speaks out against FDNY cuts at a rally in front of City Hall on Tuesday. Looking on is Councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx), who organized the rally (right), and Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis). The Forum Newsgroup/photo by CONOR GREENE

Glad to be Back on Dry Land

Friends Rescued at Sea After Boat Sank

By Patricia Adams

A fishing excursion planned by a group of friends was, according to authorities, no more than 15 minutes away from turning deadly. Boat owner Anthony Dattolo, 26 and his girlfriend Lisa Shavers, 24 have been taking their 25-foot boat out with friends to go fishing since last season without incident.

Howard Beach residents Danielle Caliendo, 26 and Anthony Blas, 23 are friends of Dattolo and Shavers and were aboard the boat that sunk off waters near the Marine Parkway Bridge after midnight on Saturday night.

“Anthony [Dattolo] is so conscientious about everything on the boat,” said Danielle. “It can accommodate up to 12 passengers, but he never allows more than 6 at a time.” They had been going out as a group three to four times a week last year and at least once or twice a week this year. In addition, she said that there were at least 15 life jackets aboard the craft. Dattolo is certified and licensed to drive the boat and Lisa Shavers is a member of the auxiliary Coast Guard.

On Saturday night, when the four left the dock in Sheepshead Bay with two other friends from Ozone Park, Erik Halka, 25, and Jason Damone, 25, they had no way of knowing what was in store for them. Before the night was over, the trip to snag some bluefish would soon turn into a nightmare of epic proportions for the young fishing crew.

They left the dock about 9 PM on Saturday night and got out to the waters around the Marine Park Bridge about 9:30. The six, who have been friends since grammar school, joked about how calm the water was; how it resembled an ice skating rink. The weather was fine — they were all wearing T-shirts. Reports had been checked and there were no small craft advisories in effect.

“We were having a great time,” said Danielle, “I caught my first bluefish.” Then, she said everything changed so quickly. “The storm came in so fast,” said Anthony Blas, “from out of nowhere.” Dattolo took the lead, telling everyone to keep calm as he sounded a mayday. Ironically, as Dattolo was sending out a mayday from his boat, he learned later that a small craft advisory had gone into effect at the same time. Less than three hours into their fishing trip, enjoyment was replaced by a sense of urgency and fear that swept across the boat as quickly as the waves that continued to fill the craft with water.

“We’ve got to try and get back,” Dattolo told his friends and decided to head for the Venice Marina where the boat is docked. “The waves were the biggest any of us had ever seen,” Danielle told The Forum. She described how they tried to stay in the back of the boat to keep the weight distributed.

With huge waves continuing to wash over the boat, Anthony Dattolo remained unsure that his Mayday was heard. “He couldn’t hear a response. We had no way of knowing if anyone heard him or not,” said Anthony Blas.

In the meantime Lisa and Danielle tried to make their way to get extra life jackets for everyone. But some of the vests had already been swept overboard. Now the boat was taking on water quickly. The six friends grabbed for seat cushions to substitute for life vests. The water in the boat had risen past their shins.

Erik Halka made his way to the front of the boat where there was a surplus of life jackets stored in a compartment in the floor. “Erik was trying to get them [the vests] out of the floor hold. Then a wave came and he was knocked off into the water,” said Danielle. “We were screaming his name. It was sheer terror.” Halka grabbed a buoy at the front of the boat and clung to it in the stormy seas. Halka’s friends back in the boat now stood in water up to their knees.

Only minutes later, Danielle tried to make her way to the front of the boat when her foot got caught in an open compartment. She lost her balance and slipped into the cold waters. “I wanted to try and get back in the boat but I didn’t want to risk turning it over completely,” said Danielle. Seconds later, she was next to her boyfriend Anthony Blas — he had jumped in after her. They both grabbed seat cushions floating near them.

The couple tried to swim to Erik Halka. “Anthony just kept trying to keep us calm,” said Danielle. “We tried to swim back toward the boat but the tide was too strong for us to match.” Finally, they managed to get closer to Erik. Danielle remembered the thoughts that played over and over in her mind. “We have to stay together. We have to stay calm.”

Back on the boat, Jason Damone and Lisa Shavers had both managed to keep their cell phones dry. Holding the phones overhead, the pair made frantic calls to 911 trying to give the operator an idea of where they were and what was going on. In the water the three could hear their friend screaming. His voice was panicked. “You’ve got to get someone here! My friends are in the water. We’re watching them slip away.”

It was about 15 minutes later that the three friends adrift were being carried out even further by the tide. “We kept trying to keep the bridge in our view, the waves kept smacking us in the back of the head. It all seemed to be slipping away,” remembers Danielle. “We lost sight of the boat and our friends. We were cold. My legs were tingling. I said a prayer to my grandmother. I remember thinking this was it.”

About 150 yards away were their three friends clutched on whatever parts of the boat were reachable. They were cold and exhausted. Overhead there was a new sound. The blades of an NYPD helicopter, shining its lights on the waters below.

The 911 calls from Jason and Lisa had alerted emergency crews of their peril; the mayday calls placed by Anthony Dattolo had been heard. Help was within sight.

The NYPD chopper hovered overhead. It flew back and forth between the two groups before turning to fly off. The pilot flew back to guide the Captain Dave Fishing/Party Boat to help with the rescue. “The water was too rough to get near us,” Danielle explained, “so the crew and the passengers were holding poles out for us to grab onto. When we got close enough they pulled us up with rope."

Once aboard the Capt. Dave they were stripped of their wet clothes. Passengers and crew took off their own clothing and used it to cover the freezing trio. “They huddled around us,” said Anthony Blas, “it was amazing. These people were really pulling for us.”

And back in the water, another vessel, the sea-tow vehicle of Capt. Cody Catapano had also followed the helicopter back to the scene. Catapano had heard Datollo’s mayday, got his first mate Dana and set out immediately. Now they set about rescuing Jason Damone, Lisa Shavers and Anthony Dattolo.

Less than a half-hour after the first sighting of the chopper, six friends had been plucked from the water. They were all suffering from hypothermia, but Anthony Dattolo was turning blue and Erik Halka was also in more serious condition than the others. All were taken back to the closest dock in Coney Island where they were taken to a Brooklyn hospital, treated and released.

In the wake of her personal storm, Catholic school teacher Danielle Caliendo thought about having been delivered from a night of hell. As for the experience she shared with already close friends, Danielle smiled and speculated it was just another way of making them even closer than before. They discussed the possibility of getting matching tattoos -Six went in. Six came out — to symbolize the strength of their friendship.

As far as getting back into the water, Danielle says they’ll all take baby steps. And if the urge for fishing becomes too overwhelming, they plan on boarding the Capt. Dave and shoving off under the watchful eye of one of their heroes.

Smiling faces have replaced frowns and fears in those rescued from cold waters after their fishing boat sank in a sudden storm. From left to right, friends Anthony Dattolo, Jason Damone, Danielle Caliendo, Lisa Shaver and First Mate Dana. Behind them Capt. Cody Catapano stands with Anthony Blas.

No Objections Raised During Rezoning Hearing

By Conor Greene

There were no major objections raised Monday during a public hearing on the city’s proposal to downzone 300 blocks in Maspeth, Middle Village and Glendale.

Community Board 5 members were expected to vote in favor of the Department of City Planning’s proposal, which is intended to prevent out-of-character development, at its meeting this past Wednesday. Borough President Helen Marshall was scheduled to hold her public hearing on Thursday, which would allow the proposal to then move on to the City Planning Commission for review before the City Council considers adopting it.

Residents and civic leaders have been frustrated that the downzoning effort, which required volunteers to survey the blocks property-by-property, languished for several years before the Department of City Planning (DCP) finally released it for public review last month. Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) said she hopes the new zoning measures would become law by early summer.

Once the City Council approves the rezoning, all new development projects would be subject to the updated zoning. Only projects in which the entire foundation is completed before the City Council vote would be allowed to continue under the current zoning, which has been in place since 1961.

The majority of the plan consists of replacing the existing zoning “with newer, lower density and contextual zoning district to more closely reflect the existing built form of the neighborhoods,” according to the DCP. At Monday’s hearing, Queens Director of City Planning John Young called this particular rezoning effort “very complex” and said it will eliminate the developer’s ability to tear down a one-or-two-family home and replace it with a large multi-family building, as is being done now.

“That was what was creating a lot of that overdevelopment pressure,” he said during the session in Christ the King High School. “The benefit for everybody... is that you can more clearly understand what should be happening on a lot.” While the measure isn’t going to prevent all future development, it will ensure that projects conform to what already exists on neighboring properties. “What comes there should look pretty much like the street that it’s on,” said Young.

An environmental assessment conducted by the DCP predicted that the rezoning will result in development on ten sites resulting in a net increase of 66 dwellings, along with a net increase of 13 square feet of commercial space.

The rezoning area is generally bounded by the Long Island Expressway to the north, Woodhaven Boulevard to the east, Forest Park and Mount Carmel Cemetery to the south and 59th Street to the West. City Planner Tom Smith explained that the project has been broken down into four smaller sections: eastern Glendale (20 blocks), western Glendale (90 blocks), Maspeth (125 blocks) and Middle Village (65 blocks).

Following the public hearing, CB 5’s executive committee discussed the proposal before voting 8-1 in favor of it. According to board member Robert Holden, a question was raised about the R5D zoning along Myrtle Avenue, which raises the allowable floor-to-area ration. Smith and Young told the board that the R5D zoning matches the buildings already existing along Myrtle Avenue.

In a statement, Crowley vowed to continue pushing for the rezoning to become law. “Before even taking office, I started working on downzoning because it is necessary for limiting overdevelopment; maintaining and strengthening the value of our homes and protecting the character of our community,” she said. “After three years, I am pleased that at my appeal the Department of City Planning has finally moved forward with the rezoning proposal.”

Specific details of the rezoning plan can be found on the DCP’s homepage by going to In general, it replaces existing zones (R3-2, R4, R4B, R5, M1-1 and M1-4D) with lower density or contextual zoning districts (R3A, R4-1, R4A, R4B, R5B and R5D).

It also eliminates or reduces the depth of some commercial overlay zones to prevent commercial intrusion on residential blocks. In addition, several commercial overlays were added where appropriate to reflect current land uses and encourage retail continuity along prime shopping streets.

Graphic: A map shows the area included in the proposed rezoning (outlined in yellow), as well as the area rezoned in 2006 (outlined in blue).

Cyclist Killed While Riding for Charity

By Patricia Adams

A 40-year-old cyclist, raising money for charity, was killed after he collided with a 10-wheel-truck owned by the Metropolitan Lumber Company at Lefferts Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue.

Stephen Hodnett, a native of Dublin, was peddling around the globe to raise money for a project from the Lion’s Club of Canada. The goal of the fund raising - to facilitate the pairing of seeing-eye dogs with the blind.

Hodnett had cycled through other world cities on his mission. Among them were Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, and a host of others. According to published reports, one of Hodnett’s fellow “charity riders”, Gavin White of Newfoundland, told reporters that Hodnett “loved cycling” and that the bicycle he was riding had “been all over the world.”

The pair of athletes picked charities and rode along subway routes to promote it. Back in their hometowns they had enlisted the aid of family, friends and other contacts to sponsor their ride. They secured donations based on the number of subway stops they covered on the tour.

They had put off coming to New York in anticipation of how rewarding it would be. Their goal was to go to places that tourists would not likely frequent. Among their stops was Richmond Hill. Hodnett was rushed to Jamaica Hospital. He was pronounced dead, minutes after the crash.

Police say the driver is not facing any charges.

The Forum Newsgroup/photo by MICHAEL O’KANE

MTA Approves Scaled Back Fare Increases

By Conor Greene

The MTA will begin raising its fares and tolls in the coming months to reflect the increases approved this week by the transit authority’s board. The vote came days after the New York State Legislature reached a bailout agreement that results in more modest increases than initially proposed and eliminates the need for deep service cuts.

“Today we implemented a bittersweet solution that comes with additional pain for our customers, our employees and those who live and work in our region,” said board chairman Dale Hemmerdinger. “But it will – at least for the short term – prevent the Armageddon that loomed large when we last met.”

Under the plan, commuter rail fares will begin to increase on June 17, with the “vast majority” of tickets on the Long Island and MetroNorth railroads increasing between 9.75% and 10.75%. On June 28 fares on subways and buses will increase, with the single ride fare going from $2 to $2.25, a 12.5% increase. The 30-day unlimited MetroCard will increase almost 10% from $81 to $89. Finally, bridge and tunnel tolls will increase on July 12, when cash and EZ-Pass tolls increase by about 10%.

Before the Legislature approved a $2.26 billion bailout package, the MTA has warned of much greater fare increases and the elimination of bus and subway lines. “There’s nothing to be happy about,” said Hemmerdinger at the board’s meeting on Monday.

“The fare and toll increase passed today is not ideal, but it spares our customers from actions that would have been extraordinarily painful,” said Elliot G. Sander, who subsequently stepped down as MTA executive director and CEO. “Implementing severe fare increases and deep service cuts directly contradicts the MTA’s mission and my goals as CEO. It is a great relief to know we will be able to continue providing the service our customers expect at an affordable price.”

The bailout package doesn’t include tolls on East and Harlem river bridges, but does call for a surcharge on taxi cab rides and a payroll tax for employers in the 12 counties served by the MTA. Fares and tolls will rise again by 7.5% in 2011 and 2013 and the bailout provides enough funding to cover two years of the MTA’s five-year capital plan, which starts next year and funds basic maintenance including track and signal upgrades.

“Today’s agreement will allow commuters to avoid the painful service reductions approved by the MTA board earlier this year, and dramatically reduces the proposed fare and toll increases,” said Gov. David Paterson at a news conference last week announcing the bailout agreement.

Locally, residents and elected officials were relieved that service cuts, including elimination of the Q56 and Q74 bus lines, have been avoided.

Under the bailout agreement reached by lawmakers, Sander resigned as CEO and executive director. That position will be combined with the position of board chairman. Paterson has not yet announced if Hemmerdinger will remain on in that capacity.