Thursday, February 25, 2010

This Week's Forum West and South

Former Woodhaven Man Charged with Killing and Dismembering Wife

Woodhaven Woman Went Missing in 2007

By Patricia Adams

The investigation of a Woodhaven mother who went missing more than two years ago has culminated with the arrest of her husband on charges of second-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence.

U.S. Marshals arrested Edwin Fuentes, 42, outside a realtor’s office on Pitkin Avenue in Ozone Park late Wednesday afternoon for the murder of his wife Reina De Los Santos, who went missing in June of 2007. Frustrated Queens detectives put in more than thirty months and conducted a grueling investigation leading up to the arrest. According to one department insider, the case represents an intense effort by Queens Homicide to bring strong evidence to the DA.

Fuentes has long been a suspect in his wife’s disappearance, but police were continually stymied by the fact that no trace of the missing woman was found until 2008 when teens in Forest Park found a suitcase containing bones later identified as those of De Los Santos.

According to charges filed by DA Brown’s office, Fuentes allegedly dismembered his wife’s body and put some of her body parts in a suitcase. Brown said, “The defendant is accused of killing his wife and disposing of her body, leaving her two children without a mother. He was able to evade justice for more than two years but the diligence of police and prosecutors in pursuing this case means that he will now be held accountable for this crime.”

According to the criminal complaint, at some time between June 19, 2007 and June 22, 2007, Fuentes killed his wife inside their apartment on 88th Road in Woodhaven, later dismembering her. He then called police and reported his wife was missing.

When police arrived at the house to take the report one of the officers noticed that Fuentes had fresh scratches on his arms and what appeared to be a bite mark on his left hand. The defendant was also described as shaking, nervous and even stuttering during the interview with police, at which time he told them that the scratches were a result from playing with his children. He told police he had last seen his wife on June 20.

At the time of her disappearance, Fuentes launched a campaign to blanket the neighborhood with posters of his missing wife, even soliciting donations to cover the costs of printing. He was quoted during an interview with The Forum saying there was no reason he could imagine for his wife’s disappearance. “She is a very loving and supportive mother, everyone knows that. I don’t understand where she could be.” Asked if he had a message he would most like to get to his wife Fuentes said, “We love you and we miss you. Just come home safe.”

On March 4, 2008, four teenagers walking in Forest Park found a suitcase containing what appeared to be partial human remains. The suitcase was removed to the Queens County Morgue where the remains were identified as a human skull and various other body parts. The remains were later identified through dental records as those of Reina De Los Santos Reyes and following an autopsy her death was ruled a homicide.

Shortly after the remains were identified, Fuentes was picked up by police in connec- tion with what was termed an unrelated matter. The suspect had allegedly struck De Los Santos’ 17-year-old son Ariel, who was in his custody following the disappearance. The boy was from the victim’s first marriage and suffers from Tourette syndrome and additional dissociative disorders.

A caretaker, assigned to Ariel from the Administration of Children’s Services (ACS), told police that she found the boy, on at least two occasions since December, with bruises on his mouth and face from being struck in the head. The couple also shared a biological daughter, Thais who is now with her father's family. Ariel is presently in the custody of his mother's family. Fuentes is prohibited by law from having any contact with either of the children.

Although there was insufficient evidence against him at the time, police investigators have now pieced together the deadly puzzle leading up to De Los Santos’ murder that is studded with domestic violence and death threats. In April of 2007 there is testimony from a witness who heard Fuentes threatening to kill his wife and another witness who reportedly observed the defendant choking the victim in May of 2007 and threatening to kill her if she ever left him.

In addition, Fuentes is also alleged to have told police that he was once a butcher. When asked by the police if he thought he was going to get away with the murder the defendant allegedly replied: “I sure as hell am going to try.”

If convicted he faces 25 years to life in prison.

Officials Have Differing Views on Aqueduct Redevelopment

Addabbo, Pheffer, Braton Call For End to Delays

By Conor Greene

Local officials and community leaders have mixed feelings on whether the Aqueduct redevelopment project should immediately move forward after the governor’s pick has been criticized as politically motivated.

The decision to pick Aqueduct Entertainment Group (AEG) to rebuild the Ozone Park racetrack into a racino featuring 4,500 video lottery terminals has come under fire over the past few weeks. Critics say AEG was chosen in part because of connections between Gov. David Paterson and several of the consortium’s key partners. There are also complaints that AEG was allowed to unfairly revise its bid to beat out the other competi- tors.

According to reports, the U.S attorney’s office has issued a subpoena to the state for all documents related to the bidding process, and federal investigators have been discussing the process with losing bidders.

This week, the Daily News reported that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is waiting until the Inspector General completes his investigation before signing off on the deal. “I think everything should wait until that information is available,” the Manhattan Democrat told the paper. “I think what’s important is we know we’re signing on to something that’s appropriate, and if not, we’re not going to.”

The decision to choose the politically-connected AEG over other bidders with more experience in the casino industry has been widely criticized since it was announced. In an effort to quell the skepticism, Gov. Pater- son last week released certain documents related to the bidding process. However, a recent Siena poll revealed that only three percent of respondents view the deal with AEG as “fair and appropriate”.

However, local officials say, despite legitimate questions over the process, the time has come to move forward on the project, eight years after the state approved video lottery termi- nals at Aqueduct. In a joint statement, Senator Joseph Addabbo, Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer and Community Board 10 Chairwoman Betty Braton argue that, “two governors later, VLTs are still not up and running at Aqueduct, a community is in a frus- trated limbo, and our cash-strapped state is still not realizing much-needed income.”

In the statement, Addabbo, Pheffer and Braton argue that the same selection process was used this year as last, when Delaware North was initially chosen but backed out after it was unable to provide the state with the promised upfront payment. “There was controversy then, as there is now, about the use of that previous process,” the officials wrote. “That selection was met in the local community with much skepticism... Yet no call for a special investigation or media attack was evident then.”

Now, according to the officials, “the media- driven firestorm now calling for details, criteria used and investigations, is to some, unfortunate and very late.”

Addabbo agreed that the selection process created a year ago is “flawed” due to its lack of transparency and objective criteria. “But what is not fair game is to scrap the entire project at this point... The potential jobs this racino project offers are needed now, not later,” he said in the statement. “The state has to deal with its budget now, not later.” He added that many area residents have been calling for this project to move forward for years.

Pheffer said it is “imperative” that the state moves quickly to finalize the contract with AEG and called the project “an economic engine that is vital to the future of the local economy.” She criticized the attacks on AEG at this point, as there has “been ample time for all the calls for documents from all bid- ders to be released and calls for scrutiny of all investors in each of the bids over the past year.”

While also agreeing that the process employed in Albany is “not the best way to make this kind of decision,” Braton also called for the project to move forward without delay. “Our criteria in looking at the information provided to us by all the bidders could be summed up by five questions,” she said. “Can they build it? Can they run it? Will this proposal mesh well with our community? Will the company be open to working with us to minimize any negative impacts? And will the state realize a big pot of money that will help ease the burden on New York taxpayers? The AEG selection meets our criteria and we can work with them.”

Deception Burglaries and Frustration Over 311 System Plague 104th Precinct

By Conor Greene

This month’s COP 104 meeting in Maspeth Town Hall focused on two issues impacting residents throughout the precinct: deception burglaries targeting seniors and frustration over lack of follow up by officers on complaints registered to the city’s 311 system.

Recent Crime Stats

Major crime is up just more than seven percent through the first six weeks of 2010 compared with the same time period last year. There have been no homicides and one rape, 27 robberies – up one from last year – and 58 burglaries – down one from last year. Auto theft is down one from this time last year, with 36 so far in 2010.

However, there have been sharp increases in felony assaults, with 24 compared with 18 last year, and grand larceny, with 56 this year, up from 47 in 2009, according to Deputy Inspector Keith Green, commanding officer of the 104th Precinct.

In all, there have been 202 total major crimes, up from 188 at this point last year. The good news, said Green, is that arrests are also on the rise, up 15 percent this year for all crimes and nearly 13 percent for major crimes. Over the past two years, arrests are up 24 percent, according to Green.

“So far, we’ve kept the burglaries at the same level as last year, which is very big for us,” said Green. “It has traditionally been a big problem in the 104 and the rest of Queens.”

Police Warn of Deception Crimes

Police are warning residents, especially the elderly, to be aware of individuals posing as utility workers to gain entry into homes. There have been two recent so-called deception burglaries within the 104th Precinct in the past two weeks, according to Green.

The recent incidents have occurred in Glendale and Ridgewood, and are believed to possibility be part of a larger pattern happening throughout the borough and city, said Green. The thieves generally approach the elderly, especially those living alone, and say they need to enter the house to check on pipes or electrical work.

“They convince you they need to access the house to check on something. They are very convincing,” said Green. Once inside, one perpetrator will distract the homeowner while the other slips away and looks for items to steal. In one case, the victim was approached outside her home and allowed them inside before realizing they weren’t legitimate. While she was able to get them out quickly, they managed to steal a check off her table.

There were no injuries reported in either recent incident, according to Green, who said the perps generally don’t get physical and look for jewelry, cash and other small valuables they can quickly grab. “There are professionals who travel around and do this,” the commanding officer said. “Don’t ever let anyone in your house you didn’t call. There is just no reason to,” he said, adding that residents who are approached should call 911.

The suspects in the most recent incident, which took place at a two-family house on Stanhope Street, were described as two white men ages 35 to 45. In the Glendale incident two weeks ago, the victim didn’t get a good look at the suspects. However, a mailman saw the incident and blocked the street with his mail truck. The suspects were forced to back down the one-way street in a silver truck and fled the scene, according to Green.

Tough Times in Upper Glendale

Civic leader Kathy Masi reported that it has been a “rough time in upper Glendale” with a recent rash of incidents in the vicinity of Doran Avenue. In recent weeks, there was an incident with a man flashing a pellet gun after an incident at a nearby bar, along with several attempted and suc- cessful home burglaries.

“We’re convinced that it’s coming right from the block,” she said of possible perpetrators. “We’ve had quite a bit in upper Glendale, and I don’t know what we can do. It hasn’t been a good two months here.”

The burglary incidents have had a “terrible effect on seniors,” added Masi, adding that one woman fell down her stairs and was badly injured while checking to make sure her basement door was locked. “It’s really frightening,” said Masi. “You’re not even seeing what’s going on that doesn’t factor into the [precinct’s crime] numbers.”

No Response to 311 Complaints

A family from Admiral Avenue in Middle Village aired frustrations over a lack of response to complaints they have logged with the city’s 311 phone number.

The family has been dealing with loud music ever since new tenants moved into the home adjacent to theirs. This has led the family to file numerous complaints with 311, only to watch as the complaint is classified online as being resolved, even though the music continues and no officers ever showed up to investigate, according to the family.

“We’ve called 311 and nothing ever happens,” one member said, adding that they are sure no officers responded because they sit outside their house for several hours waiting. “It says the police department responded and took action, but the music doesn’t go off.”

Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, said he has regularly heard similar complaints from other residents. “We’re hearing this over and over again. Something is wrong with 311 when it comes to dealing with the precinct,” he said. “This is not isolated – it’s happening all over. We’ve heard this for several years now. This is a legitimate complaint. We’ve got to find out what’s going on with 311.”

Green said he would look into these incidents and check which officers were assigned to respond to the specific calls to see what went wrong.

State Unveils Designs for New Kosciuszko Bridge

By Conor Greene

The state has unveiled four potential design options for the new Kosciuszko Bridge, which will replace the crumbling structure that currently carries vehicles on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway over the Newtown Creek.

At a public session last Thursday in Christ the King High School, state Department of Transportation officials presented residents with four renderings for the new bridge, which is expected to cost at least $1 billion. While the four designs are all similar in terms of cost and how they function, they ranged from a simple box girder option to a more elaborate cable-stayed version.

The existing Kosciusko Bridge opened in 1939 and was ranked last by the General Contractors Association of American among bridges throughout the city. Named for a Polish Revolutionary War general, it carries 160,000 vehicles per day. The new bridge is expected to have a 75-year service life and will include nine total lanes of traffic between Greenpoint and Maspeth. Construction is expected to begin in 2014 and take about five years, according to the state.

“Safety is a top priority... and these four designs offer a glimpse of a signature bridge that, in a few years, will provide safe and reliable travel for generations to come,” said acting state DOT Commissioner Stan Gee in a statement. “All four conceptual designs will improve mobility and long-term safety for all who live and work in Queens and Brooklyn.”

At Thursday’s session, DOT project manager Robert Adams stressed that construction is planned so as to have as little impact as possible, with six lanes of travel open for drivers throughout the project. “The department has been committed since the very beginning to maintain all six lanes throughout construction with no detours,” said Adams.

To accomplish this, the new bridge will be built next to the existing structure, and all six lanes of traffic will be shifted onto what will eventually be the eastbound structure. The existing bridge will be demolished, and a new structure for westbound traffic will then be built in its place.

The current bridge carries three lanes of traffic in each direction. The final product will include five lanes into Queens and four into Brooklyn, along with a pathway for bicyclists and pedestrians that promises to provide a “terrific view of the Manhattan skyline,” according to Adams. The new bridge will also feature standard-width lanes, shoulders for disabled vehicles and better sight lines for drivers, according to Adams. “This will have significant improvements on the merging problems that exist today,” he said.

The state is continuing to negotiate with property owners within the 1.1 mile construction zone to acquire easements and land needed for the project. That is expected to be completed by 2013. The state is also working with the city Parks Department on a new greenspace that is planned for beneath the approach to the bridge on the Queens side, but Parks was unable to provide details about that.

The project will be paid for with 80 percent federal funding and 20 percent from the state. While state officials are hesitant to put an exact price on the project, the DOT’s five-year capital plan includes $400 million for it. “We have money to build this worked into our five-year program,” said Adams.

The new design is expected to be chosen later this year, after the DOT finishes gathering public input and comments.

City Restores Volunteer Ambulances to 911 System

By Conor Greene

City fire officials have agreed to once again allow community-based volunteer ambulance corps to log onto the 911 system, in a reversal of a much-criticized decision made late last year.

Last month, it was reported that FDNY and EMS had decided to no longer allow local ambulance corps to log onto the 911 system, a move that was seen by many elected officials and volunteers as a step towards phasing them out of the emergency response system. In response, FDNY/EMS officials said the change was “clerical” and noted that volunteers were never dispatched to emergencies through the 911 system.

On Tuesday, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who chairs City Council’s Fire and Criminal Justice Committee, was joined by members of volunteer ambulance corps at a press conference on the steps of City Hall. Following the rally, Crowley led a hearing on the recent FDNY/EMS decision to remove the vollies from the 911 system.

During that hearing, EMS Chief John Peruggia agreed to restore the policy that allowed the groups to log onto the 911 system, according to Crowley, who called the decision a “victory for all New Yorkers.” However, she cautioned that “while this is a step in the direction, there is still progress to be made to reach a solution that will most effectively utilize these volunteer groups in partnership with the EMS... I hope today’s hearing demonstrates a willingness and a commitment from the EMS to work with our community volunteer ambulances and the City Council to utilize these free and important resources.”

There are about three dozen volunteer ambulance groups throughout the city, mostly in the outer boroughs, that respond to nearly 15,000 emergencies annually. The policy reversed last October was a 2001 EMS Command Order that allowed vollies to log onto the system in an effort to maximize all available resources.

While the FDNY stressed that the change would have no impact for patients, officials from local groups said the decision limited their roles and made it harder for them to send and receive critical information from EMS. Historically, vollies would log onto the 911 system to obtain updates on local emergencies, and to let the 911 system know the groups were available to respond.

“Especially in these times of economic uncertainty, volunteer resources stand ready, wiling and able to help and assist the city of New York, yet they’re not being utilized,” Ryan Gunning, head of the Glendale Volunteer Ambulance Corp and the state Volunteer Ambulance Regional Association, said at the rally.

After the EMS announced the vollies would be restored to the 911 system, Gunningposted a message online commending Crowley for pushing the matter during the hearing. “On behalf of the volunteers in NYC, we commend your efforts and look forward to continuing to work with you and your committee on this issue,” Gunning posted on Crowley’s Facebook page.

According to Crowley, the vollies are more important than ever since the economy has forced the city to make “crippling cuts” to its emergency services. In the past few years, three Queens hospitals have closed, and ambulance tours have been cut, according to the councilwoman. “This is why we must [reach] a solution that utilizes our volunteer ambulances services so they can continue saving New Yorker’s lives,” she said. “In light of President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg’s push for nationwide community service, these groups exemplify the highest level of volunteerism.”

DNA Cold Hit Links Woodhaven Man to Rapes

By Conor Greene

A Woodhaven father has been charged with two rapes over the past decade after police matched a DNA sample he provided following a recent grand larceny conviction to samples collected from his victims.

Mauricio Rosales, 32, of 88-17 Jamaica Avenue, has been charged in connection with both the 2000 rape of an 11-year-old girl inside the bedroom of her family’s Woodhaven home and the 2003 attack of a 19-year-old Kew Gardens woman in her driveway.

The charges were filed last week after investigators matched a DNA sample taken from Rosales following a petit larceny conviction last November for stealing $3,000 from a former employer. In 2004, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown indicted “John Doe” for the rapes based on the DNA samples from the victims to prevent the statute of limitations from running out before an arrest was made.

According to the charges, Rosales broke in a Woodhaven home at about 6 a.m. on Oct. 20, 2000, entered the 11-year-old victim’s bedroom and raped her while her family was asleep upstairs. He told her that he would kill her if she told anyone about the attack and stole several items before fleeing the scene.

In the second incident, Rosales approached a 19-year-old woman while she was sitting in front of her Kew Gardens home at 11 p.m. on July 17, 2003. He pulled her at knifepoint into her driveway where he allegedly raped and robbed her before fleeing, said police.

Authorities are now looking into whether Rosales is responsible for several other unsolved rapes, according to reports. He was arraigned last Thursday on an indictment charging him with two counts of rape and one count each of burglary, robbery, sexual abuse and attempted robbery. If convicted, he faces up to 50 years in prison.

The married father of five had been working as a food deliveryman in Brooklyn before his arrest. He was located at a Brooklyn food dis- tribution center by detectives from the Special Victim’s Squad after the State Police laboratory matched the DNA samples, the New York Times reported. Following his arrest, Rosales denied the rapes but admitted to being inside the 11-year-old’s bedroom and to encountering the 19-year-old victim.

“This case underscores the crucial importance of DNA evidence, which is irrefutable proof of innocence or guilt,” said District Attorney Brown, adding that “it is time for the legislature to once again expand the DNA law to authorize collection of samples from all convicted defendants – not just the approximately 50 percent of convicted defendants who now are required to submit DNA samples.”

Richmond Hill Man Arrested in NJ Double Homicide

Victims are from Howard Beach and Ozone Park

By Patricia Adams

A Queens bar owner was arrested on Saturday and charged with two counts of Murder, and Possession of a Weapon for an Unlawful Purpose after a homicide investigation conducted by New Jersey law enforcement officials.

Nicholas D. Kiriakakis, 25, of Richmond Hill, was charged in the shooting deaths of two other men from Queens. Jonathan Beneduce of Howard Beach and Michael Mirasola from Ozone Park were shot and killed in their vehicle on Wednesday while parked on a residential street in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Police officials say Kiriakakis met with both victims in Queens and that the three men then drove to Teaneck in separate vehicles. The alleged killer drove his own vehicle, with the two friends driving a 2007 Ford Explorer.

Police are investigating the reasons that the three men travelled to the location. Multiple searches conducted at the Kiriakakis’ residence, his place of business at Pearl, a restaurant/bar on Bell Blvd, and his vehicle resulted in theseizure of two simulated handguns, a stun gun, and illegally obtained prescription drugs.

Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli said the three men headed to New Jersey around 7:30 pm and that there is no evidence to show that anyone else was involved in the double murders. The prosecutor also said that law enforcement is investigating the possibility that the incident was tied to a drug transaction. Molinelli told reporters however, that no drugs were found on either or the victims or in their SUV.

The distraught father of one of the victims, Nick Beneduce, told The Forum that he was unable to comment on the case because of a request from police not to comment during the ongoing investigation.

Bail for Kiriakakis was set at $3 million. He was also charged by the NYPD with Criminal Possession of a Weapon, Possession of Prescription Ledger Drugs without a Prescription, and with being a Fugitive from Justice for the Bergen County charges. He is currently being held in the Queens Detention Center awaiting extradition to New Jersey.

Armed Robbery at Local Synagogue

By Patricia Adams

The Rockwood Park Jewish Center was the scene of an armed robbery early Friday morning. Two gunmen took more than $7000 in cash from a card game in the basement of the synagogue.

According to police, the 106th Precinct responded to a call reporting a man with a gun at the center located on 84th Street in Howard Beach at about 3:35 a.m. Officers arriving at the scene were met by seven complainants who stated they were robbed at gunpoint by two black men, wearing masks, and brandishing black firearms.

One witness at the scene, identified only as Tony M., told police he was exiting through the rear door at the center after playing cards and was accosted by two perpetrators who came from behind him. Holding a gun to the man’s head, the bandits forced another patron to open the door, allowing them inside.

The men ordered all the card players onto the floor and proceeded to take approximately $7,000 in cash from the victims according to police. During the robbery, there was an alleged altercation between one of the gunmen and a victim who got one of the suspect’s knife and stabbed him with it before the two masked men fled the scene. The perpetrators drove away in an unknown direction in a black SUV with tinted windows--the license plate was not reported.

After fleeing, the men drove to Elmhurst Hospital where the injured suspect sought medical attention for his stab wounds. Hospital personnel recognized the seriousness of the situation and alerted police. An arrest was subsequently made.

President of the RPJC Bernard Fisch was contacted for comment about the incident and referred The Forum to the police. “I don’t know anything. I have nothing to say,” Fisch said before abruptly hanging up the phone.

Police are still investigating the crime and sources say the investigation may extend outside the precinct if the Public Morals division decides to investigate why there was a card game at the premises to begin with.

City Reverses Course and Removes Eliot Ave Meters

By Conor Greene

Members of the 75th Street Block Association were successful in their push to have the city remove seven parking meters recently installed along Eliot Avenue.

Without warning, the city Department of Transportation installed the meters on the north side of Eliot Avenue between Lutheran Avenue and 74th Street in Middle Village last November. The decision made the spots virtually useless to 75th Street residents, who used to park there when their dead-end block was full.

After residents appealed to Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) and Community Board 5, DOT crews removed the meters late last week, according to block association members Frank Toomey, Mike White and Dmytro Fedkowskyj.

“We’re reasonable people, and when you drive by and see empty meters all the time, you wonder why they’re there,” said White, adding that he is not surprised the DOT agreed to remove them, considering they weren’t generating much revenue. “Nobody was parking there,” he added. “That’s seven additional spots, and it doesn’t sound like a lot, but seven spots is seven spots.”

The residents have now turned their attention to four meters on the south side of the avenue they say are also unnecessary. There are three additional meters near Phillies Pizza that White said make sense to have, but the four closer to Lutheran Avenue that aren’t in front of businesses should be removed in his view.

One result of the new meters, according to residents, was spillover of drivers searching for spots in front of homes on nearby residential blocks such as 74th Street. “Our densely populated neighborhood got back some free parking spots that mean a great deal to the neighborhood,” said Fedkowskyj, who thanked Crowley, Community Board 5 District Manager Gary Giordano and the block association for their efforts. “More importantly, this action sends a message to city officials that we’re watching what you do within our community,” added Fedkowskyj.

“It was unreasonable to have parking meters in an area that is mostly residential,” said Crowley. “That is why I asked the [DOT] to review this area and they understood our po- sition and acted accordingly.”

A DOT spokeswoman said the meters were installed after a survey was conducted at the request of a local business. She confirmed that the meters on the south side of the avenue will remain, while, those on the north side were removed to restore general parking. The DOT refused to reveal to either Crowley or The Forum which business had submitted the request for meters.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

This Week's Forum West and South

Civic to Mayor: Clear Snow off City Property Before Threatening Residents

By Conor Greene

After the snow finally stopped falling following last week’s blizzard, Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a stern warning to property owners: start shoveling, or risk being fined.

However, in the aftermath of last week’s storm, which dumped up to 15 inches of snow on the city, many municipal-owned walkways and properties throughout Queens were not cleared, even as another storm arrived Tuesday. In light of that, the Juniper Park Civic Association is calling on the mayor “to get his house in order before threatening home and business owners” with fines.

“The mayor loves to preach but this is a good example of how out of touch with reality he really is,” said civic President Robert Holden, who on Friday photographed about a dozen city-owned properties around the Middle Village, Maspeth and Elmhurst area that remained snow and ice covered, more than a day after the storm ended.

“I’m sure that public areas in Manhattan are cleared but the mayor should try getting into his SUV and drive through Queens and the other boroughs,” continued Holden. “Most city-owned sidewalks in our neighborhood are never cleared of snow.” He stressed that homeowners who don’t shovel should be fined, but thinks the city should have its properties in order before issuing summonses to residents.

The city’s lack of snow removal was especially insulting in light of the mayor’s warning that property owners would be fined if they failed to clear sidewalks – a warning that was subsequently followed by ticket blitzes in several neighborhoods. “It’s reasonably warm, so the shoveling should be easy,” Bloomberg said during a press conference last Thursday while issuing the warning.

According to city laws, snow must be cleared from sidewalks within four hours after the snow has stopped falling or by 11 a.m. if the snow stopped falling after 9 p.m. the night before. The fine for not doing so starts at $100, and Sanitation officers reportedly began issuing tickets in some neighborhoods as soon as the grace period ended.

Residents who are unable to remove hard or frozen snow can spread sand or other material to provide traction within the same time window to avoid a fine. However, the JPCA urges residents to avoid piling snow from sidewalks on public streets or around fire hydrants.

Holden said the JPCA has received numerous phone calls from residents - many elderly - who say they have been unable to get around the neighborhood because of sidewalks and pedestrian overpasses that are either snow covered, or blocked by a mound of cleared snow. In one case, a civic member in her early 70’s said she has been unable to reach her local bus stop and get to work because of huge piles of snow blocking pedestrian areas.

Frustrated that the city is seemingly above the law, the JPCA designed a symbolic “NYC Citizen’s Notice of Violation” form as a way for residents to voice their frustration with the city as they encounter treacherous areas while traveling around the neighborhood. Holden wants this effort to also expand to other violations city workers commit on a routine basis, such as the workers he witnessed parking in a bus lane while they ran into a deli to buy bagels, or city cars that are routinely parked in front of fire hydrants.

“Why is the mayor above the law? He turns a deaf ear towards Queens and doesn’t get out of Manhattan,” said Holden of Bloomberg. “You walk around Manhattan, and there is no snow downtown or in Midtown… Pedestrian safety is not a priority, and seniors and children are not a priority with this mayor. We have no recourse – this at least is a record of complaints, even if it is symbolic,” he said of the civic’s Notice of Violations.

“The mayor has some nerve threatening homeowners – the vast majority of who are shoveling,” added Holden, pointing to a path near the Long Island Expressway in Maspeth. “This is a week now, and is the mayor’s responsibility” he said of the icy walkway. “What we’re saying to residents is, send a copy [of the symbolic ticket] to the mayor to make sure he knows about it.”

The mayor’s office did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Rising Republican: Ulrich Looks at Year Ahead

By Patricia Adams

Three months after a powerful re-election victory — capturing 58 percent of the vote — Councilman Eric Ulrich is meeting the challenges of his work at City Hall head on, and with a smile. “I love my job,” the 25-year-old quips, and behind the big toothy grin that accompanies the statement, is a definable air of truth.

Ulrich, one of five Republicans on the council, speaks plainly about the current economic and political climate he is facing. “The city is going through unprecedented challenges and there are so many difficult decisions to be made by the council.”

Among the most crucial are those that involve consolidating services and cuts to funding. “It’s almost like robbing Peter to pay Paul,” a look of concern appears as the newly appointed Minority Whip continues; “Do you fire cops, teachers? Do you close firehouses? The decisions we make obviously have to be the ones best for everyone, but none of them come easily or without consequence.”

While it’s much easier to be an elected official in good times, Ulrich seems determined to make the most out of whatever these times can bear. On his agenda for the upcoming year is a pilot program he is investigating for high school students. “There is tremendous focus on Regent’s testing in our public high schools, but no focus on a crucial step in the preparation for college, the SAT’s.”

The councilman has met with executives from Stanley Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions and is currently in negotiations for institutional instruction rates with the testing experts. “Kaplan has a strong track record and they guarantee elevated scores.” The program would be the first of its kind in Queens and ongoing negotiations also include a strategic progress tracking for enrolled students.

In addition to meetings with Kaplan, Ulrich sat with each of the high school principals in his district and discussed establishing one SAT prep course in each of the 5 schools. The focus is on results and he says it’s imperative to give students who want to succeed the opportunity to do so. “For these kids a boost in their SAT score could mean admission to a more desirable college or a scholarship.” The program, which will be funded entirely through the councilman’s budget, will make the course available to those who would otherwise be unable to take it due to prohibitive costs.

Among other items on his agenda for the district is the expansion of the successful graffiti cleanup program he began back in August. “We’ve had great results and people really feel the impact of the program on their quality of life.” He is particularly enthusiastic about adding the Liberty Avenue corridor to the project and also about taking the initiative to a “higher” level. “In addition to the same type of cleanup initiative, we will expand the program to target graffiti on second floors and the tops of buildings.

Education is a priority for Ulrich and this year his plans are to direct more capital money to district schools. “I’ve met with principals and administrators throughout the district and we have successfully identified the needs of individual schools.” To that end Ulrich says he is committed to addressing the diverse needs of district schools.

On the immediate horizon for the councilman is a trip to Israel as part of a 13-member contingency from the New York City Council. The group that includes Ulrich and Council Speaker Quinn will travel to the Middle East on Saturday and return on February 26.

One of the real upsides of the venture according to Ulrich is that it is not being funded at all by taxpayer dollars. “The entire trip has been arranged and paid for by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the City of New York.” The purpose of the trip is for council members to meet with journalists, elected officials and state leaders, police and military.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for us to speak with people who deal with the looming threat of terrorism every day,” Ulrich said. “There are so many ideas and valuable experiences we can bring back to the city with us.” The delegation was chosen by the speaker and put together to include ethnic, political and gender diversity. “It’s a true reflection of the makeup of our city council,” said Ulrich, “and it’s a very unique and exciting opportunity.”

And on the more “normal” side of life for the City Council’s youngest member, he celebrated his 25th birthday on Saturday evening with a few close friends and family members at a quiet dinner party hosted by wife Yadira. “I was a little disappointed they didn’t bring Tiny with them,” Ulrich says laughingly referring to the couple’s Yorkshire terrier. His joking is something Ulrich maintains everyone around him has had to get used to. “I always try to introduce a little levity and keep my sense of humor on deck. I take my responsibility very seriously but we have to maintain good spirits—we’ll get through all of this. We just have a lot of hard work to do.”

As for the whirlwind Republican climate he’s a part of, Ulrich says there’s much to be hopeful about in the future. “Electing Republicans on a local level is a testament to the decision by voters, to cross party lines and elect candidates on issues not ideological platforms.” And Ulrich says he believes strongly that the trend will continue. “I value and respect the honor that my constituents displayed in electing me. And if I didn’t deliver for them, I fully expect they would not return me to office.”

The immediate future for Eric Ulrich is crystal clear — “I have no plans beyond doing the best job I can in the Council. Anyway for me it’s not a job, public service is a calling.” And then comes the levity again—“I am sure my wife has a few things to add to the list of my future plans, and if you think you can’t fight City Hall…”

Law Aims to Close Sex Offender Loophole

By Conor Greene

In light of a news report that a registered sex offender is running a karate school in Glendale, a state Senator has introduced legislation that would prohibit convicted sexual abusers from working with children in any capacity.

This week, Fox 5 New York broadcasted an undercover investigation into Edwin Rodriguez, owner of Gem Shotokan Karate on Myrtle Avenue. The outlet reported that, nine years ago, Rodriguez served six months in jail after being found guilty of sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl. He was also sentenced to five years probation, which ended more than three years ago, and must register his home address with authorities.

However, while current state law prohibits Rodriguez from holding certain jobs such as teaching or even selling ice-cream, there is nothing that legally prevents him from running the karate school. When approached by Fox 5, Rodriguez claimed he only helps his wife out with the school and only teaches children while supervised.

“I don’t know what to tell you… you know it was just circumstances that happened you know I made a mistake in the past and I’m definitely not a child molester, I’m definitely not a pedophile,” Rodriguez told the station. “You know I can see why everyone would be concerned about this… I can assure you… as I stand right here in front of God that it’s nothing really to be concerned about in terms of what transpired before and what’s going on now.”

In response, state Senator Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) this week introduced legislation to prevent sex offenders from working or volunteering with children. The senator notes that prospective teachers and school bus drivers must undergo background checks, and being on the sex offender registry disqualifies them from those jobs. However, most other jobs that require substantial contact with children do not carry these protections.

“It’s outrageous that a man who committed such a horrendous assault on a young girl could have daily and close contact with other children,” said Padavan. “We cannot wait until this predator strikes again. New York State needs to close this loophole immediately to keep sex offenders away from children.”

According to Parents for Megan’s Law, the typical pedophile commits an average of 280sexual crimes during their lifetime. Rapists repeat their offenses at rates up to 35percent, while offenders who molest young boys repeat their crimes up to 40 percent of the time.

Similar legislation that would ban sex offenders from working with children was introduced in the state Senate twice in recent years, but has not made it to the Senate floor for a vote since Democrats gained the majority in Albany, according to Padavan. The state Assembly has never acted on the legislation, he added.

Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law, told Fox 5 that it is especially disturbing that Rodriguez put himself in a position where he is around children, instead of avoiding any controversy all together. “We are deeply concerned because this is a guy who targeted a minor and he’s put himself in a position in the community where everybody thinks he’s the pied piper… which makes him really dangerous,” she said.

Man Pulls BB Gun After Bar Dispute

A 21-year-old man was arrested early Saturday morning after pulling a BB gun during an argument outside a Glendale pub, according to police.

Thomas Falzone, of Medford, was charged with criminal possession of a weapon, menacing and criminal trespassing after Officer Jonathan Zak of the 104th Precinct took him into custody at about 1:30 a.m. Saturday near the corner of 88th Street and Doran Avenue.

The incident began when Falzone was denied entry into Yer Man’s Irish Pub because he was intoxicated, according to a neighbor. After making several attempts to enter the 88th Street establishment, he returned with a pellet gun. An off-duty officer in the bar at the time intervened, at which point Falzone fled up Doran Avenue. As a result, there was a huge response involving more than a dozen officers and several ambulances.

In the end, Falzone was arrested after the officer spotted him hiding in a backyard, which resulted in the trespassing charge, according to the 104th Precinct

Council Delegation Prepares for Israel Trip

Local City Council members Karen Koslowitz and Eric Ulrich are part of a 13-member delegation that will take part in a trip to Israel next week in an effort to boost international relations.

The trip, which is sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and is not funded by tax dollars, has taken place annually for at least two decades. It will include meeting with business leaders, government officials and security experts.

“I am extremely honored to attend the JCRC trip to Israel next week. As a proud Jewish American, my long time commitment to Israel – both as an elected official and a private citizen – has given me a strong foundation and understanding of its great importance,” said Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) in a statement to The Forum. “I look forward to traveling with Speaker [Christine] Quinn and my fellow Council colleagues to learn firsthand about the struggles, challenges and triumphs of the State of Israel.”

Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), who is a member of the Council’s Public Safety Committee, said one of his top priorities will be to study counter terrorism measures and strategies. “To help better understand the needs of New York, I look forward to meeting with Israel security and government officials who are experts at counter terrorism and public safety,” he said. “Both Israel and the United States share common threats against terrorism and I am hoping to gain a greater perspective in security- related solutions that can be implemented in our city.”

The JCRC has been sponsoring the trips for more than 20 years to give local lawmakers a firsthand look at the situation in Israel. “Constituents of the members of the City Council have opinions on the situation in the Middle East, and we have felt for many years that it is important that elected officials see Israel with their own eyes and arrive at their own conclusions,” the group’s CEO, Michael Miller, told the New York Sun in 2007.

During that year’s trip, the 11-member City Council delegation was forced to take cover in an underground room after the border town of Sderot came under fire from a Palestinian Arab rocket, the paper reported.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ex-Assemblyman Seminerio Sentenced to Six Years for Accepting Illegal Payments

By Conor Greene

Disgraced former Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio has been sentenced to six years in prison for illegally accepting consulting fees from individuals and companies doing business with the state over the past decade.

Seminerio, 74, pleaded guilty last year to theft of honest services for accepting about $1 million from companies including Jamaica Hospital through a consulting firm he ran from his home. Last Thursday, he was sentenced to prison by a federal judge, despite pleas from his attorneys to grant him home confinement. He must repay $1 million.

“When you were elected, you were given a great privilege,” the Justice Naomi Reice Buchwald, told Seminerio while handing down his sentence. “You abused the trust placed in you... You decided to take a piece of the action.

Seminerio represented the 38th Assembly district for more than 30 years before resigning in disgrace last year after the consulting scheme came to light. When pleading guilty, Seminerio admitted to pulling strings in Albany for Jamaica Hospital while accepting more than $300,000 from the facility. In return, the hospital received state funding.

“I’ll be OK,” the fallen politician reportedly told friends and family as he exited the federal courtroom in Manhattan last week. When approached by reporters, he added: “I’m 74 years old. How much time have I left? I’ve been through enough, please. Be kind.”

Following Seminerio’s resignation last year, Democrat Mike Miller was victorious in a special election to represent the district, which includes Woodhaven, Richmond Hill, Glendale and Ozone Park. “The criminal justice system has run its course, and as a result of his criminal conduct, Tony Seminerio now faces several years in prison and the forfeiture of $1 million,” said Miller in
a statement issued to The Forum.

Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D- Ozone Park), who has served in Albany for more than two decades, said the sentencing is the culmination of a long and painful investigation into the behavior of a former colleague. “I think he thought it wasa death sentence,” she said. “He is not young, and he’s not doing well, but the judge could have given him 14 years. The judge said it – he violated the public trust. It’s about integrity. People expect that we’re not doing anything illegal.”

The impact of Seminerio’s fall from power on the district includes problems with funding earmarked for various local non-profit and community groups that never material- ized, something both Miller and Pheffer touched on. “While the Seminerio case is closed, vital community groups continue to suffer as a result of his scandal,” said Miller. “The time has come for our community to move forward and focus on rebuilding these programs.”

Said Pheffer: “It seems that the district was upset about the delivery of member items and discretionary funding. There was money lost in the turnover. I think some groups were adversely affected by the loss of funding.”

Questions Surround Gov's Aqueduct Pick

By Patricia Adams

The sigh of relief that came with last week’s award of the bid to redevelop Aqueduct Racetrack was followed this week by a sigh of contempt from local elected officials and residents alike.

The focus of local furor centers on allegations swirling rampantly about Albany that David Paterson is on the cusp of a possible resignation from the governorship -- and that the bid award was motivated by political agenda. The contract in question is for the installation of 4,500 video lottery terminals at the struggling Ozone Park venue.

On Friday afternoon Paterson’s lead counsel, Peter Kiernan, made statements admitting politics was a critical factor in choosing the Aqueduct Entertainment Group as the winner. Kiernan’s statements came on the heels of protestations from groups who lost out on the bid, citing a flawed process complicated by what they called political favoritism.

James Featherstonhaugh, a veteran Albany lobbyist who represented Delaware North in the bidding, called the process and its associ- ated delays, “bizarre,” adding that he “never witnessed anything like it in 40 years of experience in Albany.”

State Senator Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) spoke out on Friday during an interview with NY1. “I have been a critic of it [the process] ever since I felt that we had the same number of bidders for the last eight months and we’ve had all their financial information for the last eight months. We could have made this decision some time in 2009,” said Addabbo, “it took us this long to make this decision and then when the decision is made, it’s questionable.”

Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer has been involved from the inception of the Aqueduct proposal. “It’s a very serious issue that we have these potential complications,” Pheffer told The Forum. “The state needs this money by April 1 and we can only hope that everything will move forward. I assume they [AEG] are going to come up with the $300 million and if they can’t I trust that they’ll tell us so that we can move on.” Pheffer says she was particularly encouraged by the transparency AEG displayed throughout the process.

During an interview with The Forum, Community Board 10 Chair Betty Braton expressed confidence in the winning bidder. "AEG's proposal to develop the VLT facility is a solid one, the company has been communicating with us and has been forthcoming over the course of the past year with any information the Community Board requested,” she said. “The conditions set forth as part of the decision are certainly reasonable ones and AEG has indicated the company can meet them. We expect that it will.”

Braton indicated that she shares the dismay of both Addabbo and Pheffer over extended delays and agrees that the focus must be on progress. “It's time this project become a reality. We look forward to working with AEG and their NY and Queens partners: Levine Builders, Turner Construction, and Green- Star Services to create the VLT facility along with the thousands of much-needed jobs it will create.”

Jeffrey Levine, a partner in AEG, said his group “was selected by Governor Paterson, Senator Smith and Speaker Silver because our bid represents the best value for the taxpayers of New York and the best plan for the residents of Queens. We will pay the $300 million upfront licensing fee by March 31, 2010, and are working towards signing the MOU and breaking ground as soon as possible."

Andrew Frank, a spokesman for AEG said the consortium was “very pleased to have been selected. We understand that the other bidders are disappointed. Had we lost we would be [disappointed] too.” Frank expressed confidence in the future of Aqueduct project under AEG’s lead. “We put ourselves in a po- sition to have been selected and we’ll get through it. We are going to pay the state $300 million, provide the jobs we promised and build it.”

On Tuesday, Paterson called a press conference and struck what was defined by one observer as “an almost defiant pose” following an interview with the Albany bureau of the New York Times. Paterson maintained that he would not be leaving the governor’s mansion unless the decision was made “at the ballot box” by the voters. The only option for Paterson leaving office before his termwould be “in a box.”

Now the state and local community sur- rounding Aqueduct will wait to see if AEG can meet the conditions imposed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in order for the deal to be final and move through the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) process.

As part of the agreement to accept AEG, Silver laid out four “non-negotiable” terms:

--AEG must pay a $300 million up-front licensing fee.

--Anyone with a felony conviction within the past 15 years is barred from being a partner in the deal.

--The project must be environmentally sound.

--Legislative leaders must have veto power over any subsequent changes to the plan.

Following the announcement by Silver, AEG announced that the Darman Group would step down as a key partner in the project because of a misdemeanor conviction against one of its leaders, Darryl Greene. Greene has closes ties to AEG partner former congressman Floyd Flake, and state Senate President Malcolm Smith.

AEG released a statement on Tuesday to address the situation regarding political affiliations. "We can unequivocally state that Senator Smith nor any government official involved in this process will ever be employed by Aqueduct Entertainment Group or any of its partners, investors or affiliates.”

City Nears Deal to Buy Former Rite Aid Property

Ridgewood Site Eyed for New 600-Seat K-6 School

By Conor Greene

The city has reached an agreement to purchase the former Rite Aid property at Metropolitan Avenue and Tonsor Street in Ridgewood and plans to build a 600-seat school there to help alleviate local overcrowding.

A spokeswoman for the city Department of Education confirmed that the agency has “reached an agreement to buy the property” but was unable to reveal the purchase price until the deal is finalized. The plan is to build a K-6 school at the site, according to Community Board 5, which is holding a public hearing on the plan on February 24 at 7 p.m. in Grover Cleveland High School.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) said she is “pleased” that the SCA is looking at potential locations in the area for new schools. “I will continue to work with the DOE, the SCA and the community to ensure this process is done with the best interests of the surrounding neighborhoods and for our future generations," she said.

The property, located near Grover Cleveland High School, most recently housed a Rite Aid pharmacy but has fallen into a state of disrepair over the past few years. It had been eyed as a potential location for a new supermarket, which is needed in the area, but was determined by one company to be too ex- pensive to modernize for that use.

It was one of several local sites identified by members of Community Education Council 24 to be included in the city’s upcoming five-year capital plan, according to the group’s president, Nick Comaianni. “This is a site we found a few years back and has stayed empty, so we told the SCA to pursue it for years,” he said. “It is a perfect site for a school - nice and big, the location is good on the main avenue and it’s in the right place to alleviate overcrowding in Ridgewood and Maspeth.”

The property measures about 100,000 square feet, meaning there is plenty of room for a building and other facilities such as a playground, said Comaianni. “To me, that’s going to be a great school,” he said, adding that it is accessed by a main road, meaning nearby residential areas wouldn’t be impacted by increased traffic. He recalled a number of chain stores failing at that location during his lifetime, including several supermarkets, and thinks it will be more appropriate for a school than another business.

Comaianni said CEC 24 has suggested several other local properties to the School Construction Authority as possible locations for schools, but he declined to specifically name them to preserve the city’s negotiating leverage. “What I’ve always pushed for with SCA is, when you find a spot, even if you don’t have the money to build on it now, purchase the property for the future,” he said. “Worst case scenario, the market is slow, so you can resell it as the market improves later on.”

The SCA is still finalizing the purchase agreement, and will need City Council approval to move forward with the deal, according to Crowley. It would take at least three years before the school is completed, said Comaianni, who added that the revised five-year capital plan still needs City Council approval as well.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

This Week's Forum South and West

Firm Finally Chosen to Develop Aqueduct Racino

AEG Will Have to Meet Further Conditions

By Patricia Adams

After eight months of delays, Gov. David Paterson announced Friday that he and legislative leaders have chosen the Aqueduct Entertainment Group (AEG) consortium that includes multiple builders and a former Las Vegas casino executive to construct and operate Video Lottery Terminals (VLT’s) at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens.

“After an extensive review of the five remaining bids to operate the video lottery terminals at Aqueduct racetrack, I have chosen and the leaders (of the state Assembly and Senate) have agreed the organization that best fulfills our selection criteria,” Mr. Paterson said, in a press statement. “All of the groups have valid proposals, but AEG presented a comprehensive bid that enjoys community support and also offers strong marketing appeal.”

The selection of AEG is however, subject to conditions according to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who said he agreed with the governor’s choice. The award of the bid ends delayed construction at Aqueduct since it was first approved in 2001, and one big modification is the additional $100 million dollars AEG will have to add to its upfront payment to the state. Now the deal will include a boost to licensing fees--from $200 million to $300 million.

The increase comes as a result of matching the highest offer that had come from Penn National Gaming Inc. A series of other demands have also been imposed at the last minute to get final legislative approval, including a serious investigation of all individuals tied to AEG before a contract will be awarded.

The announcement of the winning bidder comes on the heels of recent pressures in Albany to make a choice. Paterson said AEG had financial viability and best fulfilled the selection criteria, though all five groups under consideration had valid proposals.

Lawmakers originally approved a plan to install as many as 4,500 VLT’s at the track more than eight years ago, with a percentage of revenues paid to the state. Paterson spokesman Morgan Hook said Friday that the administration hopes to have the memorandum of understanding signed within 30 days, with the upfront payment due then.

Jeffrey Levine, Founder and CEO of Levine Builders and partner in AEG spoke on behalf of the consortium. "Aqueduct Entertainment Group is honored to have been selected to operate the video lottery terminals at Aqueduct racetrack. As we have said since day one, Aqueduct Entertainment Group has the best team to design, develop and operate the facility. We know we will be a great partner with the state and the residents of Queens for years to come. We look forward to completing the memorandum of understanding and beginning construction."

Local lawmakers Senator Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) and Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Ozone Park) have both involved in the project since its inception.

“Months ago, AEG claimed that they can deliver the racino faster than their rivals, which would start an expected flow of $1 million a day to the state that much sooner,” said Sen. Addabbo. “AEG has strong New York partners, such as Turner Construction Company and Levine Builders. After many discussions with them, I am confident that my district office and I can work with AEG on creating an environment at Aqueduct that is beneficial to New York State, NYRA and the people of the surrounding communities.”

“The racino will bring welcomed economic growth to our community by providing jobs, both during the construction and also full-time permanent jobs for the operation of the facility,” said Pheffer. “This project will be a strong economic engine for the local economy by providing added revenue for New York State, increased educational funding and much needed employment.”

According to Pheffer, AEG has widespread support from local groups including Community Board #10, the Queens Chamber of Commerce and many community and civic organizations. “We have had many false starts in the past and I am thrilled that we will now begin to move forward with a successful project for Aqueduct,” stated Pheffer.

The partners in AEG, are the Navegante Group led by Larry Woolf, former chief executive of MGM Grand Hotels in Las Vegas; building contractor Greenstar Services Corp.; Turner Construction Co.; Levine Builders; the Darman Group Inc. and Empowerment Development Corp.; PS&S Design; Siemens; and merchant bank Clairvest Group Inc.

Fire Companies Again on Chopping Block

Mayor Seeks to Close $4.9 Billion Gap in Preliminary Budget

By Conor Greene

With a sense of déjà vu, local elected officials are ready to fight back against Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to eliminate at least 20 fire companies in an effort to close the $4.9 billion gap in the city’s $63.6 billion budget.

The fight is a familiar one for City Council members – last year’s budget also included the elimination of 16 fire companies, including Engine 271 on Himrod Street. Those closures were eventually avoided when Council members used discretionary funding to restore the FDNY budget. However, that was a one-time solution that is unlikely to be repeated year after year, especially with the number of closings increased by four.

Last Thursday, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled his preliminary budget for 2011, which includes reductions to almost every city agency. However, as bad as it is, he warned that deeper cuts would be needed if Governor David Paterson’s proposed budget is adopted. That would result in an additional $1.3 billion gap, forcing the firing thousands of city employees, including 8,500 teachers and 3,150 police.

“New Yorkers continue to feel the harsh impact of the deepest national recession in more than 60 years, and as many businesses and families continue cutting back on their budgets, so too must city government,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Because of the early steps we took to diversify our economy and keep our fiscal house in order, we’ve avoided the very worst-case scenario, but we still face a very large deficit that will require very difficult decisions.”

However, as bad as the economic situation is, and as difficult as the decisions are, local Council members all say that cuts to emergency services shouldn’t even be considered.

Immediately after the preliminary budget was released, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who is chair of the fire and criminal justice committee, released a statement vowing to fight against the closings of any fire companies. “It is alarming that so many fire company closures are even being proposed in the mayor’s preliminary budget,” said Crowley. “We have a responsibility to our taxpaying New Yorkers that when it comes to safety, we deliver.”

Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) said haven’t been announced, “we do know that every year when we go through the budget dance there is always one on the chopping block that would affect our community.”

He agreed that funding for emergency services “should be baseline in the budget and not up for negotiations… That should be standard, and if we have to make cuts outside that to balance the budget, so be it, but you can’t balance the budget by putting lives at risk, and that’s what the city engages in every year around this time… There are going to be cuts that will be painful, but we have to minimize the negative impact it is going to have on people, and in my opinion, closing firehouses and laying off cops is just unconscionable.”

Crowley stressed that any closings will have a ripple effect across the city. “When you start closing one company here and one there, you’re spreading the whole service thinner,” she said. “I believe we have to maintain a level of protection that is critical for all New Yorkers, and when you start closing companies, it impacts the safety of the whole city.”

Last year, the Council was able to avoid the closures by reallocating $17 million in discretionary funding to the FDNY budget. This year’s preliminary mayoral budget cuts about $22 million needed to keep the companies open, which Crowley called a “drop in the bucket” considering the city’s budget is more than $60 billion. “It is tough budget times, but I firmly believe the budget for 2011 is not nearly as bad as it was anticipated to be,” she said. “The economy is showing signs of improvement and anticipated tax revenue is higher than anticipated.” As a result, she hopes that non-essential spending will be able to be cut from the FDNY budget over the next few months.

Newly-appointed FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said recently that closing even a few companies will require an overhaul of the city’s network of engine and ladder companies. “If we have to close 20 companies, which is a six percent reduction in the number of companies we have, it is going to tax us,” he told the New York Times. “It is certainly the most challenging thing we have faced in decades.”

Several other Council members joined the chorus demanding that the fire companies are removed from the potential chopping block. “This is a very serious problem. Public safety is something we can’t cut corners on,” said Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills). “Fire companies are something we should not close, or even think about closing. It is not an option as far as I’m concerned.”

In a statement, Councilwoman Diana Reyna (D-Ridgewood) said: “In these tough economic times we must use our discretion and act strategically, going line-by-line to protect the funding that allows the brave men and women of the FDNY to continue to serve our residents with the quality and excellence they have come to expect.”

Teacher Charged with Letting Students Wrestle in Classroom

A teacher and an aide assigned to PS 65 in Ozone Park have been arraigned on child endangerment charges for allowing two fourth graders to wrestle in the classroom in order to settle a dispute, authorities announced.

Teacher Joseph Gullotta, 29, and para-professional Abraham Fox, 43, both of Long Island, were arraigned over the weekend in Queens Criminal Court and released on their own recognizance. They are due back in court on February 25 and face up to a year in jail.

According to the charges, a 10-year-old student was having a dispute with a student inside the classroom on January 28 when Gullotta told him that he should instead take it out on a nine-year-old student. When the two boys began grabbing each other’s arms and shoulders and wrestling, Gullotta allegedly told another student to close the door.

During the wrestling match, the older student’s head struck the younger student’s mouth, resulting in injuries to both children. Even though he was inside the classroom at the time, Fox didn’t attempt to stop the boys or offer them assistance for their injuries. In addition, despite the students’ injuries and Fox’s observation that the younger might need stitches, neither adult offered the boys the chance to go to the nurse’s office until two periods later.

Finally, two hours after the wrestling match, Gullotta allowed just the younger boy to go to the nurse and allegedly instructed him to lie about how his injuries occurred. However, the student voiced concern about the other student, who had complained that his head hurt. The nurse told the student to go back to the classroom and get the other student. Gullotta is accused of escorting the older student to the nurse’s office and ordering him to tell the same made-up story the younger child had told the nurse.

The incident came to light when the parent of one of the students involved in the incident overheard them talking about it. The investigation at the school, located at 103-22 99th Street, was conducted by the 106th Precinct.

Fire Destorys Building; Tenants Escape Injury

By Patricia Adams

Xavier Batista was awakened by a smoke detector Monday morning at about 7:15 in his Ozone Park apartment. “I opened the door to check on my neighbor.” Batista said he was met by heavy smoke in the hallway and tried to kick in the front door but it wouldn’t budge.

“I was afraid that he was in there sleeping but the door wouldn’t move.” The DEP worker raced back to his own apartment, called 911 and ran from the burning building escaping injury.

“The fire department was here very quickly. It seemed like no more than a minute or two, and they did a great job.” His neighbor, he learned later, had left for work at 4:30 that morning. “Thank God he wasn’t in there and that no one else got hurt. We are all very lucky.”

“My apartment is completely destroyed,” Batista said. “The firemen had to chop up the roof to get the fire out and now there is about 4 feet of water in the basement.” Until he finds a new apartment or his is rebuilt he will be staying nearby with his daughter and son-inlaw.

Fire marshalls are still investigating the cause of the three-alarm blaze at Crossbay and Linden Boulevards that began in on the top floor above the E Studio Salon and Spa and spread to the adjacent Best Cleaners and to an apartment above Heavenly Florist at the corner. Three apartments above the stores were destroyed in the fire; the building that Batista has lived in for nine years now has an order to vacate pasted to its doors.

Marlo Hirshfield and her sister Rosemarie Rossomangno, the owners of Heavenly Florist, say they began receiving calls on their cell phones to say that the store was burning. “We were devastated when we heard the news,” said Marlo, but upon arrival at the store, their devastation turned to joy. “It’s absolutely unbelievable but our store is completely intact. Nothing was damaged. We don’t even have any water in the store.”

“All I can say is that this is a blessing from God,” said Hirshfield. “We have a bride this weekend, Valentines Day is coming up and with things the way they are with the economy we would have been out of business if the fire had reached us. We are blessed.” Another tenant, living above the florist was rescued with her two children, an infant and a toddler, and taken from the burning apartment by firefighters.

State Labels Several Queens Schools as Underperforming

Grover Cleveland, Newtown, John Adams and Richmond Hill Included

By Conor Greene

Several local high schools, including Grover Cleveland, Newtown, John Adams and Richmond Hill, have been included on the state’s list of 57 “persistently lowest achieving” institutions due to low graduation rates.

A total of ten schools in Queens were named to the list, which occurs as a result of graduation rates below 60 percent or annually low scores on state English and math tests. According to the state Department of Education, they are “eligible for new funding and major intervention to turn them around, as part of New York’s School reform agenda.”

“We are entering a new era of reform in which we will build upon New York’s current initiatives to intervene in low performing schools and improve student outcomes as a result,” said Merryl H. Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents. “New federal funding opportunities will allow us to work with districts to go beyond incremental improvements to create truly excellent models of education for our students, particularly in those high schools with the lowest graduation rates.”

Schools are eligible to receive up to $500,000 provided they come up with a viable turnaround plan. Options include redesigning or replacing the school, converting the facility to a charter school, transforming the school through a process that uses “a rigorous” evaluation system for teachers and principals or closing the school and transferring the students to higher achieving schools in the area.

“Districts are being given an opportunity to use federal funding to provide focused concentrated resources to help schools improve English language arts and mathematics performance and increase graduation rates,” said Education Commissioner David Steiner in a statement. “I expect districts to develop aggressive, innovative plans that… will make a profound difference in the outcomes for their students.”

Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the borough representative on the Panel on Educational Policy, noted that the state isn’t pushing to close any of the named schools, but is recommending the four courses of action to the city DOE. “There is much confusion on the report… Much of the report still has to be disseminated, but I strongly recommend that our school communities remain vigilant on the matter and continue to ask questions of the DOE,” he said in an e-mail.

Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) said the city must find ways to keep these schools open and improve them due to the overcrowding situation the borough faces, especially on the high school level. She noted that Forest Hills High School currently serves 4,000 students on split schedules, despite having just 2,700 seats.

“From early in the morning to late at night students are crammed in there and now they’re talking about closing another high school. It’s ridiculous,” said Koslowitz. “These schools were good for so many years and now all of a sudden they can’t be fixed? I really feel the schools should be fixed, not closed.”

In Ridgewood, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) said it is “disappointing that the state wants to close Grover Cleveland.” She pointed out that the school’s English test scores and graduation rates are impacted by the fact that so many first generation immigrations who don’t necessarily speak the language well go there. In contrast, the school’s math and science programs are very strong, according to Crowley.

“The thing with Grover Cleveland and a lot of the larger schools is they serve students who are neediest as well, including new Americans who haven’t been in the country for very long” she said. “They might have different needs, and I don’t think the DOE has always given that extra service.”

Crowley said she plans to visit the school and meet with its principal along with Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan in the coming weeks. “We are going to advocate strongly to help bring in those services needed to prevent the school from closing,” she said.

The city DOE didn’t respond to several messages seeking comment. The state’s list, released on January 21, came just days before the city, in a separate action, voted to close 19 facilities, including Jamaica and Beach Channel high schools.

The other Queens high schools named on the state’s list are: Queens Vocational Technical, Flushing, August Martin, Beach Channel, Jamaica, and Long Island City.

Koslowitz Begins Second Stint on City Council

By Conor Greene

A month into her second tenure serving Forest Hills, Rego Park and parts of Richmond Hill and Elmhurst on the City Council, Karen Koslowitz says she has hit the ground running and is looking forward to tacking key issues that affect her district.

Koslowitz succeeds Melinda Katz in serving the 29th Council District, after defeating a crowded field in the September primaries and cruising to victory in the November general election. This marks the second stint on the City Council for Koslowitz, who previously represented the area before term limits forced her from office. In between, she served as Deputy Borough President under Helen Marshall.

“Things are going very well – the office is up-and-coming, and we’re settling in,” Koslowitz told The Forum this week. She says she has put together an experienced staff comprised of “people who are familiar with the community.” Aside from her full-time office staff, Koslowitz arranged for a lawyer to come to the office on certain nights to answer questions constituents have about tenant-landlord issues, she noted.

Koslowitz was recently named chair of the consumer affairs committee and will also serve on the Council’s education, aging and finance committees, among others. She says these committees will allow her to work on “issues that absolutely affect my community.” For example, she plans on establishing a parent advisory council consisting of the PTA presidents from schools throughout the district. “That way I can hear their concerns and bring their concerns back to City Hall,” she said. “The legislators are kept out of the loop, so I wanted to create my own panel where you actually hear the concerns of the constituents.”

Issues impacting senior citizens are also a priority for Koslowitz, who served on the aging and education committees during her first Council stint. “We have an aging populationin my community from Elmhurst all the way to East Richmond Hill,” she said. “Changes in what is going on with the meals on wheels program, the access-a-ride, what they’re planning on doing is absurd as far as I’m concerned.”

Another ongoing concern is the state of the area’s main shopping districts including Austin Street, Queens Boulevard and Metropolitan Avenue. “I think they’re hurting from the economy just like everybody else,” said Koslowitz, adding that the constant ticket blitzing by traffic agents needs to be addressed. “There are often two or three meter maids on a block. We all have to work together, every department. If a customer gets a ticket, they’re not coming back and will go somewhere else to shop.”

While there are limited options in terms of constructing a municipal parking garage along Austin Street, Koslowitz plans to revisit an idea she came up with a decade ago – allowing shoppers to park in the lot behind Borough Hall on Queens Boulevard and offering shuttle bus service to Austin Street. “Especially on weekends, if someone is eating, watching a movie or shopping and spends a few hours [on Austin Street] that would be an ideal parking place,” she said. “However, at the time [she first proposed it] the city said it was going out of the municipal parking business.”

Another major concern for Koslowitz is the state of healthcare in Queens, where three hospitals containing more than 600 beds have closed in the past two years. “It’s a big problem… with a population of 2.3 million, to lose that many beds, when we could have used more to begin with,” she said. “I’m looking into seeing if we can get smaller [facilities].”

She plans on discussing the future of the former Parkway Hospital property with its owner to see if part of that building could be used for medical purposes. “The facility needs to be used for something. There are two things the area needs that we don’t have: hospital beds and senior housing,” said Koslowitz. “Throughout the district, that needs to be revisited and I intend to do that.”

Koslowitz’s office is located at 118-35 Queens Boulevard, 17th Floor and can be reached at (718) 544-8800.

Pedestrian Injuries on the Rise

Hospital Holds Summit to Address Local Impact

By Patricia Adams

On Friday, January 22, physicians, hospital administrators, transportation and traffic safety experts and community activists gathered at Elmhurst Hospital Center (EHC) for the Second Annual New York City Summit on Pedestrian Injury. The one-day symposium, part of a public education and outreach campaign developed by Elmhurst Hospital Center’s Trauma and Neurosurgery Departments, examined pedestrian injuries and their impact on public health.

“Neighborhoods in western and central Queens have seen an increasing rise in the number of traffic accidents involving pedestrians,” said Dr. Jaime Ullman, Elmhurst Hospital Center’s Director of Neurosurgery and one of the chief organizers of the summit. “According to a recent study we conducted, traffic accidents involving pedestrians, especially those taking place on Queens Boulevard, Northern Boulevard, and Roosevelt Avenue, resulted in more than 30% of the injuries seen in Elmhurst Hospital Center’s Emergency Room.”

Ullman noted that that statistic is frighteningly high. “Pedestrian injuries typically make up 9% to 25% of injuries seen at hospitals in other parts of the city.”

Pedestrian safety remains a paramount concern in Queens County, strongly supported by the studies done at Elmhurst. Almost 1,000 patients were admitted to Elmhurst due to pedestrian injury with 21% of victims under the age of 18 and 23% of patients over the age of 65. The additional patients, roughly numbering 600, were between the ages of 24 and 65. Approximately 7% of the patients studied died as a result of their injuries and those who survived spent an average of eleven days in the hospital.

In New York City, children and seniors have both been the focus of initiatives to promote pedestrian safety. Safe Streets for Seniors was launched in 2007 by the Bloomberg administration and the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) as a program to evaluate pedestrian conditions from a senior’s perspective and make engineering changes such as extending pedestrian crossing times at crosswalks and shortening crossing distances, altering curbs and sidewalks, restricting vehicle turns and narrowing roadways.

The Safe Kids New York State program was developed to prevent injuries and death to children, and is run by a coalition of public and private organizations working primarily to promote child passenger and pedestrian safety measures. More children die annually from unintentional injury than from all childhood diseases combined.

But despite measures taken by the city 256 people were treated at the hospital for a pedestrian injury last year which is the highest number in almost 10 years. There were 240 in 2008 and 215 in 2007.

The DOT responded in a statement saying that "fatalities in NYC are at their lowest levels in the century that we've kept records, and we continue to work even harder to make streets even safer with safety engineering improvements to target our most vulnerable New Yorkers.”

The Elmhurst Hospital summit revealed a number of noteworthy trends; more injuries occurred during the fall months and on weekends. Children were the most likely affected during these periods while the elderly population was impacted more during the weekday period. The majority of pedestrian injuries occurred between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

While experts acknowledged that there have been many efforts to alleviate this problem, including the passing of pedestrian safety legislation, pedestrian injuries still have a significant impact on the community. The unique aspects of pedestrian injury involve difficulty with law-enforcement and the ability to conduct a large-scale educational campaign to include both pedestrians and motor vehicles.

According to hospital officials, the purpose of the Summit was to convene those involved in pedestrian safety, highlight individual prevention programs and their impact, and promote broader awareness of the problem, while coming to a consensus on the optimal pathways for change.

“We really need to make an aggressive, multilingual outreach effort to educate the public about these injuries,” said Dr. Ullman when asked what additional steps she thought should be taken to help reduce the number of pedestrian injury victims. “In a way, I’d like to be put out of business, because we are seeing way too many patients with serious blunt trauma injuries that were entirely preventable.”

For more about Elmhurst Hospital Center’s Pedestrian Injury Prevention Campaign, please contact Atiya Butler, Assistant Director of External Affairs, at 718.334.1259 or by e-mail at