Thursday, January 29, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Residents Appeal to 104th Precinct for Help

Battling Burglaries, Vandalism, Drunks in Maspeth

By Conor Greene

Despite the bitter cold weather, a group of Maspeth residents descended on the recent COP 104 meeting to bring attention to issues including several recent burglaries and packs of unruly teenagers who they say terrorize the neighborhood after leaving a nearby bar every Monday night.

The meeting last Wednesday in Maspeth Town Hall began with a review of 2008 crime statistics within the 104th Precinct, specifically the seven major crimes: homicide, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft.

2008 Crime Statistics

Despite the major crime numbers being “through the roof in June,” the precinct finished the year down about two percent from 2007, according to its executive officer, Captain Ralph Forgione.

There were four homicides last year - all in connection with the Father’s Day fire on 69th Street - which equals the total from 2007. There were 18 rapes, up from 12 the prior year. In most cases, the victim knew the assailant, noted Captain Forgione. “It is not a serial rapist,” he told residents. “It wasn’t as bad as it seems.”

There were 297 robberies in 2008, down one incident from 2007. The precinct made big gains in fighting felony assaults, with 132 last year, compared to 159 the prior year, a 17 percent decrease. “We were very happy with that,” said Captain Forgione, adding that many of the incidents take place at or near bars.

There was also a large decrease in burglaries, with 387 last year compared to 456, a 15 percent decrease. “That is one of the hardest to fight,” said Captain Forgione. “You have two minutes to catch the person going in. The burglary team did an unbelievable job.”

One area that saw a spike in incidents was grand larcenies, which include theft of purses and other unattended property. There were 508 incidents in 2008, compared to 437 the prior twelve months, a 16 percent increase. “You would not believe how many people leave purses and wallets in their cars,” said Captain Forgione. There was a slight decline in auto theft, with 337 reported in 2007compared with 357 the prior year – a five percent drop.

However, the precinct scored a major victory in its battle against grand larcenies when officers from the 104th stationhouse apprehended a “career criminal” late last year. The man has been linked to 15 crimes within the 104th Precinct alone, and is suspected in upwards of 100 others just in this area. He had been grabbing wallets and purses from cars at gas stations as the victim was inside the store or pumping gas. He is wanted for incidents across Queens North and South, said Captain Forgione.

So far this year, there has been an increase in house burglaries, including several reports in Maspeth and Ridgewood. In most cases, the perpetrator enters the home through a rear door or window. “People are still leaving windows open, doors unlocked,” said Captain Forgione. “They’re going in the backyard and checking – if it’s open, they’re goingin.” Several of the incidents were near Fresh Pond Road and Madison Street, with the suspect entering second and third floor apartments via fire escapes.

Problems in Maspeth

The remainder of the meeting was dominated by issues raised by a group of a dozen residents from the neighborhood bounded by Maurice Avenue, 69th Street and the Long Island Expressway. Not only have there been several home burglaries in the past few weeks, the residents were left feeling as though the responding officers didn’t take the incidents seriously.

In one incident, a resident noticed a suspicious person inside his neighbor’s home, which was supposed to be unoccupied at the time. When the officers arrived, neighbors had the house surrounded and were afraid the perp was still inside. In their view, the responding officers did not take the situation seriously enough. “We weren’t feeling any kind of support,” said one resident. “We had to embarrass the officer to go in.”

Another problem is vandalism in overnight hours, including graffiti, smashed windows and damaged cars. According to the residents, the majority of the problems occur late on Monday nights, when O’Neill’s restaurant and bar is filled with customers, including many teenagers, enjoying their weekly hot wing special. “They just completely wreck the neighborhood,” said one resident.

Said another resident: “We know that George O’Neill has to make a living, but the feeling among people living here is that he has the cops in his pocket. Nothing is done about the drinking and the 18 and 19 year olds speeding off.”

Captain Forgione told the residents that he would reach out to Queens North to see if their DWI task force can be assigned to the area. He also promised to send patrol cars through the area, particularly on Monday nights. “I’ve never heard this complaint before,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt anybody’s businesses, but I don’t want anyone hurt either.”

Nobody from O’Neill’s was in attendance to respond to the complaints. On Tuesday, restaurant assistant manager Melissa Meadows said that no underage patrons are served alcohol and expressed doubt that the vandalism is caused by O’Neill’s customers. She said that the restaurant has received several complaints in recent days from neighbors who refused to leave their names.

“We are aware of the situation and had a couple of friends in last night to keep an eye on this,” she said. “The worst part about it is, the complaints we are getting are due to the fact that they [the customers] are of a different color other than Caucasian… The neighborhood people don’t like the fact that we have n’s and s’s in our neighborhood.”

Meadows said part of the problem might stem from the fact that many groups have to wait about 20 minutes to get a table due to the promotion’s popularity. “If they have to wait, we take their name and number and what they do is probably walk around the block a couple of times,” she said. “We have been dealing with this situation; I sat down with [owner] George [O’Neill] this morning and he’s very concerned about it.

“I wouldn’t want a bunch of underage kids sitting on my stoop waiting to eat wings, but it’s a very prejudiced neighborhood,” continued Meadows. “We are part of the community, the place has been here since 1928. We’re not looking for a bad reputation.”

Hero Firefighters save Four from Woodhaven Blaze

Children Recovering, Mother, Grandmother in Critical

By Patricia Adams

Fire officials say a two-alarm blaze in the three-family row house at 97-12 93rd Street in Woodhaven may have been caused by a lit cigarette. Investigators say the fire began in the rear bedroom of the second-floor apartment, sending flames out the front and back windows, and filling the floor above with intense heat, smoke and carbon monoxide.

Shortly before 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning, a frantic Veronica Montero was screaming to the 911 operator. The 28-year-old mother of two was trapped inside with sons Dylan, 5, and Carlos, 10. The operator tried to talk to her. “Can you get out?” “No,” she screamed, “Please I have two kids.”

Less than four minutes later, Engine Company 285 arrived at the scene. Deputy Chief Paul Ferro said that there had been numerous reports on the way to the fire that there were people trapped inside on the third floor. Engine Companies 285 and 293 began extinguishing the blaze while the outside team from Ladder 142 raised the ladder tower to get to the victims trapped inside.

Firefighters Mike Czech and Ed Rissland rode the bucket up to the third floor windows; breaking through the glass, they climbed through the windows. Inside the bedroom, Czech started feeling around for victims. “The smoke conditions were extremely heavy," said Czech. “I felt a foot— I knew it was a child. One of the kids was on the floor and the mother and that child were huddled up. The second child was on the bed next to them pretty much all in the same area.”

“We knew we couldn’t get them out through the inside,” said Ed Rissland, “There were three victims and only two of us. So I went back out to the bucket and Mike passed them out to me.” At the same time, down on the ground, Lt. Mike Fitall of Ladder 143 was making his way up the interior stairs of the building to another victim. The 59-year-old grandmother lay motionless, face down on the floor, halfway in and out of the apartment’s front door.

Fitall was crawling on the floor when he felt the woman’s arm. With help from Doug Caffarone of Ladder 143, they got the woman out to Lt. Tim Murphy and Jay Griffiths, both of Engine 294. “When we got her downstairs, I knew she needed a breath,” Fitall said, “she was real red.” The victim was in cardiac arrest and Murphy and Griffiths administered CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. “It was a great thing to watch her come back to life,” Griffiths said.

Firefighter Doug Caffarone explained a part of the job that isn’t found in the training manuals or when working with mannequins. “When you have reports of children you get to a different level. You go into that mind-frame - you have to search a certain amount of rooms. You just go in there and do what you know how to do.”

Four victims were taken to area hospitals be- fore being transferred to Weill Cornell Burn Center in Manhattan for treatment in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. As of Tuesday evening, the condition of both children was up-graded to stable, while their mother and grandmother were still listed in critical condition.

At the close of the press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Deputy Chief Paul Ferro addressed reporters and camera crews.

“I would just like to impress upon you that I was in front of the building and I witnessed the whole rescue. It was an extremely spectacular rescue,” Ferro said. “There was heavy fire underneath them and coming out the front and back windows. These guys placed themselves in very great danger.” Ferro continued on, “Watching children come out the windows was a very tragic thing, But it looks like it’s gonna turn out to be a great day in the city and a great day for the fire department thanks to these guys behind me.”

At the end of the press conference all the firefighters involved in the rescue were quick to shrug off their hero status. “This is a team effort. It’s wasn’t just Mike and me,” Ed Rissland said. “It was every guy here, doing what we do.”

“We’re just thankful that it turned out the way it did,” said Czech. “Whenever there are kids involved and things work out, you’re always thankful. Very thankful.”

And as though it had been officially adopted as the new motto of the FDNY, the corps of press heard it once again - the five words that explain simply how the lives of an entire family were saved. “It’s just what we do.”

Rally to Save Local Hospitals

Caritas Sends Notice of Pending Closings at St. John’s and Mary Immaculate

By Conor Greene

Shouting “Governor Paterson Shame on You” and waving signs to cars passing by on Queens Boulevard, hundreds of employees, residents and elected officials rallied outside St. John’s Hospital on Saturday in hopes of saving the bankrupt facility.

A similar rally was held on Tuesday on the steps of City Hall, and a third event is scheduled for Saturday in front of Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica. Both hospitals are owned and operated by Caritas Health Care, which says it is forced to close the facilities because they are losing millions of dollars each year.

“We need to show Governor Paterson that St. John’s and Mary Immaculate are needed in the community,” said Myrna Bailey, administrative director of clinical services at St. John’s. “Losing 400 beds, a nursing home and trauma center is not acceptable.”

News of the hospital’s dire economic situation first came during Queens Borough President Helen Marshall’s state of the borough address several weeks ago. Caritas’ board of directors has since voted to give hospital executives permission to file for bankruptcy by the end of the month and close the facilities if “no other sources of funding can be identified,” according to a statement released by the health care system.

In addition, the board also authorized hospital executives to submit a draft closure plan to the state Department of Health, which is required before the hospital is allowed to close, and letters were mailed to all employees notifying them of the possible closures.

“Recognizing the serious, far-reaching consequences of these actions, the Board voted to take these measures reluctantly only after exhaustively examining all other options and determining that sufficient funds likely will not be available to present a viable alternative,” Caritas wrote. “Due to the unexpected financial difficulties resulting from the depth of the economic downturn, and its resulting unanticipated severe impact on the State and City’s ability to provide sufficient additional funding... a permanent shutdown of its operations may be necessary.”

The 2,500 employees at St. John’s and Mary Immaculate hospitals were informed in a January 23 letter from Caritas Chief Executive Officer John Kastanis that their employment with Caritas “will permanently terminate between February 14 and February 28” in the event of a shutdown.

Aside from the two hospitals, the closures would affect the 115-bed Monsignor Fitzpatrick Skilled Nursing Pavilion at Mary Immaculate and related medical practices and businesses in Elmhurst, Flushing and Jamaica, wrote Kastanis. In addition, Mary Immaculate is a level-one trauma center and also houses a cancer institute, while St. John’s is a certified stroke and heart failure center and has the only hyperbaric oxygen therapy unit in Queens.

In 2008, St. John’s had 48,000 emergency room visits, 7,000 surgeries, 1,227 deliveries, 14,000 discharges and 50,245 clinical visits. Mary Immaculate’s emergency room served another 50,000 patients last year.

According to Councilman Tony Avella’s office, which organized Tuesday’s rally at City Hall, the state and Governor Paterson’s office have yet to provide an update on the possibility that emergency funding could be released to prevent the closures. Marshall’s office has also been in touch with the state DOH on a nearly daily basis, but didn’t have any additional information on the funding request. However, a source at St. John’s said that the hospital is prepared to begin the closing process this Friday, meaning it might begin accepting people on an elective basis only.

The rally in front of St. John’s last Saturday was attended by hundreds of staff members and residents, along with elected officials including Avella and City Comptroller William Thompson (both men are mayoral candidates this year), State Senator Shirley Huntley, Assemblyman Michael DenDekker, Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, Assemblywoman Marge Markey and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley.

“We have to make sure the people of this city are protected,” said Avella. “This shouldn’t be about money... This is a battle that must be won no matter what.” He called working to keep the hospitals open a “top priority this year and beyond.”

Huntley stressed that the hospital is needed in the area, and suggested that other public officials aren’t doing enough to protect healthcare facilities. “I’m concerned about this hospital because we have people who need this hospital,” she said. “It makes you sad when we elect people who could care less about healthcare. We need to think about that.”

“Don’t let them tell you it’s about money,” said Thompson. “It’s not just about dollars and cents, it’s about people. We are here today to say no... The state has put dollars ahead of people, and we’re not going to allow this.”

Dr. Salman Aly, chief resident at St. John’s, said the impact of a closure would be “tremendous,” especially considering the facility is “packed” on a regular basis. “It’s going to be a substantial loss. We serve an under-served community. We put our hearts and souls into serving the community. The public needs to realize that we need their help... You can say that Elmhurst [Hospital] can take care of it or Jamaica [Hospital], but they’re already overcrowded.”

The two hospitals are losing a total of about $5 million each month and have received $44 million in state grants and loans in the past two years.

News of the potential closures comes just months after the closure of another Queens facility, Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills, which had 251 beds. Officials at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System are exploring a plan to acquire the two failing hospitals and replace them with a state-of-the-art hospital in central Queens.

Forest Park Senior Center Funding Woes Puts Seniors at Risk

By Patricia Adams

A struggling economy and a “stretched to the limit” budget continue to threaten the delivery of crucial city services. But at the Forest Park Senior Center, patrons and directors are not only worried about ‘money problems future’. It seems they’re still plagued by ‘money problems past’---they haven’t received funding to run this year’s program, the money for which was promised from last year’s pot of money.

The center’s longtime director, Donna Catalbiano, says that the need for the money was close to forcing the doors shut. Out of almost $250,000 promised to the center through state and city money, including $100,000 from the Office of the Borough President, Catalbiano still hadn’t received anything.

But on Monday Catalbiano got a call from the State Department of Aging to inform her that the city funding from the office of the Borough President is being released. And so for the Forest Park Senior Center, help is on the way. With one crucial piece of the funding puzzle having been pieced together, Catalbiano says she is now working to get access to the other funds. “The $100,000 that’s coming from the city has to be used by June 30.” After that Catalbiano says, “the money is lost.”

Another large sum of funding the center is waiting for is a $75,000 allocation from the state Senate originally put in place by Serf Maltese. “We need to get that money down here as well,” said Catalbiano. The discrepancy she says is that the state has said that there are paperwork issues and that is why she hasn’t received the funding.

Senator Joseph Addabbo, who replaced Maltese with a November election victory, told The Forum that “The center has not lost the money. Once the paperwork is settled, my office will be happy to expedite the processing and get this funding where it belongs.” The new deadline for filing is February 2. Sen. Addabbo said his office is also available to help with the paperwork should the center need any assistance. Another $45,000 in member items, $30,000 from Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio and an additional $15,000 from Maltese still hangs in the balance but for now, the center will remain operational, without the threat of closure hanging over its head.

But even as the immediate threat of closing down fades away, the regular crowd of those who flock to the center three to four days a week, are still deeply upset with even the slightest possibility that they could lose what some say is the reason for existing.

Mary Galante, 82, spoke frankly about the center’s problems. “We’re not getting funded. That means the center will close. This is our second home.” Mary lives in the area and comes to the center faithfully four days every week. “I don’t know what I would do. I live alone and this is what I have to look forward to. This is family.”

She has been coming to the center for 18 years and says that so many wonderful friendships have been forged over the years. “If someone doesn’t show up for the day we call to see what happened and if everything is ok. We look out for each other. If someone is sick or in the hospital we call and send cards. And when someone passes away,” Mary explains, “we know about it and we deal with it together.”

The sentiment seems to flow through the room where everyone is accepted. An introduction by Mary to friends Tony Parisi, 86 and his wife Maria, 84 revealed that the couple has also been coming to the center for the past 17 years. “We walk 17 blocks to get here,” said Tony. “The exercise is good. This is my wife, Maria, today is her birthday,” he says with a loving gaze. Tony is well known throughout the center for his singing which he shows off usually on a Wednesday when the band is around. Tony and his wife often share a spot on the dance floor on Wednesday afternoons.

“You know, it would be so hard without the center,” Mary said. “It would be so boring. I mean your kids come to visit you but it’s not the same. You need your friends. And you need a place to hang out.” In the middle of explaining why the center is so important Mary is interrupted by Tony ---it’s time to serenade his beautiful wife for her birthday. Of course everyone joins in.

Hanging out senior-style at the Forest Park Center includes bingo, cards, trivia, movies, music, dancing, eating , sharing stories, and of course the opportunity to spend time with some very colorful characters. Take Louie “Cassanova” for instance. The 83-year-old travels by bus from his home in Ozone Park to get to the center everyday. “I come for the girls,” he quips. A smile on his face is quickly replaced with a stare that reflects what he is thinking---that the center may one day close because of budget problems.

But it seems that here there is a spirited group of seniors who stick together and whose friendships are prepared to outlast any financial crisis that comes their way. That spirit may best be personified by 83-year-old legally blind, Joseph Palladino, the notorious “Kissing Bandit.”

“Ask me for my business card,” Joe says, “come on and ask me.” And of course you fall for it. “OK Joe, may I please have your business card?” Suddenly you are being hugged and a kiss is planted on your cheek. In your hand you will find a white card with a red rose on it. It reads, you have been kissed by the notorious Joseph Palladino. Have you received your Vitamin K today? Vitamin K—kisses. Please don’t call 911. Call Joe.

Joe, Mary, Tony, Maria Louie and all of their friends may not have a wealth of funding but they have certainly found riches within each other and in their home away from home.

Weiner Rips State Child Support Fee

Single parents who turn to the state for help chasing down child support payments are currently hit with a $25 fee, something a local congressman hopes to change.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Queens) held a press conference on Sunday to slam the fee, which he said affects hundreds of thousands of parents who rely on the state Division of Child Support for help receiving payments due to them.

“It is wrong to place an additional tax on struggling families,” said Rep. Weiner. “New York’s middle class are already getting hit with rising energy and property bills and spiking transportation and food costs. Our first reaction simply cannot be to raise another tax on these families.”

The problem started in 2005 when Congress cut billions of dollars in federal aid to child support enforcement. To cover the gap, Congress gave the states the option of passing the cost on to either the receiver of child support or the payer, or to simply pay the fee itself.

In October 2008, the state decided to charge a $25 fee to single parents and their children who collect child support. In New York State, an estimated 287,000 families - including 113,000 in the city - potentially pay this tax, according to Weiner. The fee only applies to families who receive at least $500 in support in a year and have not received public assistance.

At the press conference on Sunday, Lisa Bongiorno, a 44-year-old single mother from Queens who is juggling three jobs while trying to get her daughter through college, said it’s outrageous that money intended to help support her child was taken away. “Every cent towards these children counts. It is ridiculous that this fee is being imposed upon the children and literally taking food out of their mouths.” Bongiorno argued that dead beat parents who refuse to make payments should be responsible for the fee instead of parents receiving support.

Weiner is pushing for $1 billion to be included in the federal stimulus plan for the child support enforcement program. He also wants to prohibit states from charging the fee on to the receiver of the child support.

The bill will be co-sponsored by Senate-designee Kristen Gillibrand (D-Hudson), who was recently appointed by Governor David Paterson to fill the seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. “While families across New York are struggling with the effects of an economic slowdown, the government should not be taxing money intended to help children,” said Gillibrand. “The budget deficit should not be balanced on the backs of single parents."