Thursday, June 24, 2010

This Week's Forum South and West

Fabulous Feast

More than 25,000 people flocked to St. Helen’s in Howard Beach last week for the 1st Annual St. Anthony’s Feast.

The five-day event was held on parish grounds and was organized and hosted by St. Helen’s and the Howard Beach Columbus Day Foundation.

Msgr. Alfred LoPinto celebrated mass in honor of St. Anthony on Wednesday evening with more than 500 parishoners and visitors in attendance. After mass, there was a procession through the streets surrounding the church with devotees of St. Anthony following closely behind a life-size statue of the patron Saint of Padua.

Speaking about the venture, Msgr. LoPinto praised the Howard Beach Columbus Day Foundation for their contribution to the event. “This partnership helped to bring a feast unlike others to St. Helen’s Parish.” Msgr. LoPinto credited the great success of the event to the addition of a procession and shrine to St. Anthony as well as extensive entertainment and a wide variety of foods.

President of the Howard Beach Columbus Day Foundation Mario Faulisi also agreed that the joint venture was a successful undertaking. “At the end of the day we measure success by how many people show up and how many had a good time. In that case, this event was very
successful.” To close out the feast on Sunday, Joe Causi of WCBS radio hosted the day’s activities where crowds ate, sang, danced and enjoyed rides and games. Zeppole and cannoli eaters competed for prizes and feasters were treated to a surprise when Freestyle Queen Judy Torres of WKTU dropped and took the stage for over an hour.

Proceeds from the feast will be divided among the Foundation to support their Language Study Program and St. Helen’s School.

Straphangers Campaign Ranks M Train City's Dirtiest

By Tamara Best

The results are in for the 11th annual Subway Shmutz Survey, and for commuters in Middle Village, Ridgewood and Glendale, the news isn’t so good. The most widely used subway in the area, the M line, has been named the dirtiest line of all 22 citywide.

The survey, conducted by the watchdog group the Straphangers Campaign, measures the cleanliness of city subway lines based on 2,200 observations between September and November 2009.

The 6 line, which operates in Manhattan and the Bronx, and the C line, running from Manhattan to Brooklyn, were named the best with a rating of 65 percent for cleanliness.

Lines were rated based on MTA official standards. They were named “clean” if subway cars contained ‘light’ dirt or were ‘basically dirt free’-- generally clean overall.

“Moderately” dirty lines had dingy floors and/or one or two sticky dry spots, while “heavily” dirty cars contained spilled food, sticky wet spots and left some seating unusable. The survey did not take litter into consideration.

Commuters waiting for the M train at local stations had mixed reviews for the state of the line on Tuesday morning.

“It tends to be dirtier headed into Manhattan but to me on the Queens side it is pretty clean,” said Michael Phillips, who was waiting for a Queens-bound train.

Another traveler, Michael Ortiz, said he disagrees with the rating. “I don’t believe it’s the dirtiest train line. I’ve ridden it my whole life and there are lines that are much worse like the D train. There’s usually graffiti but that’s about it,” he said.

Diana Kinscherf, who was waiting for a Manhattan-bound train and rides the M line twice a week, described it as “pretty dirty,” with coffee cups and newspapers all over.

There is some good news about the M line. Straphangers reports that 90 percent of M line trains arrive with more regularity, higher than the average of 87 percent. The line also breaks down less with commuters more likely to get a seat.

At the end of the month, the M and V lines will merge, retaining the M line designation.
The new route will run between Forest Hills and Metropolitan Avenue, with service to midtown Manhattan instead of downtown.

Of the 22 subway lines in New York City, more than half run through Queens. In addition to the M line, the E, F, and V service Rego Park and Forest Hills, the L goes through Ridgewood and the E, F, R and V operate in Forest Hills. No lines run through Maspeth. The F and V lines were also cited for having significant deterioration from last year. Overall, fifty percent of cars were dubbed clean, down from 57 percent in fall 2008, while half grew worse according to the survey.

Gene Russianoff, campaign attorney for the Straphangers Campaign said a reduction in
the budget has decreased the MTA’s cleaning staff, resulting in more dirt in the subway.

"It’s as clear as the grime on a subway car floor: an MTA Transit cut in cleaners has meant dirtier cars,” he said. “And more cuts mean more dirt for subway riders.”

In 2009, there were 1,138 cleaners and 146 supervisors, a decline from 1,181 cleaners and 155 cleaners in 2008. The 2010 budget calls for a further decrease with 1,030 cleaners and 123 supervisors.

“We saw a pretty distinct decline between 2008 and 2009,” said Cate Contino with Straphangers. “We will do the survey again next year and see what happens.”

The MTA also conducted their own semi-annual survey, citing that the overall cleanliness of cars improved over the second half of 2009, according to a report published in February 2010.

However, the MTA and Straphangers differed on its assessment of the percentage of clean cars and overall improvement. MTA cited that an average 95 percent of cars are clean, in comparison to 50 percent cited by the Straphangers Campaign.

MTA surveys are conducted only on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. while the Straphangers’ surveys are random throughout the day and night and on weekends.

The MTA released the following statement in response to the survey’s findings:
With the current budget challenges being faced by MTA New York City Transit, we acknowledge that some subway car floors may not be as clean as our customers expect or deserve. However, we will monitor conditions and shift forces as necessary. We also take the opportunity to remind customers to pitch in and help keep the subway as clean as possible by utilizing proper refuse receptacles.

Despite a harsh review for the M line by the Straphangers Campaign, experienced commuters say it’s all a matter of perspective and subway experience. “All of the lines are dirty,” acknowledged seasoned rider Samantha Villafane. “It’s New York City— you have to get used to the dirt.”

Authorities Look to Curb Underage Alcohol Sales

By Tamara Best

With the official start of summer here, local law enforcement officials say they are looking to curb the annual trend of underage drinking which peaks this time of year.

Since February, the 104th Precinct has been conducting a series of stings on major streets in the area, penalizing businesses that sell alcohol to underage customers.

“It’s definitely a quality of life issue that we have to address and we take it seriously because the alcohol leads to other problems,” said Special Operations Officer Lt. James Lombardi, who helps coordinate the precinct’s efforts to reduce the sale of alcohol to minors.

Between May 17 and June 13, the precinct issued a total of 264 summonses, of which 112 were alcohol related. In 2009 for the same time period, 370 summonses were issued with 160 for alcohol sales. Though numbers are on a slight decline from last year, the 104th Precinct is gearing up to conduct more stings in coming weeks.

***Got I.D.?***

In an effort to identify businesses selling alcohol to minors, officers from the 104th Precinct conduct undercover visits to local stores and bars.

Auxiliary police officers between the ages of 18 and 20 who are specially trained for underage alcohol sales attempt to purchase alcoholic beverages. The auxiliary officers are from other precincts to ensure their personal safety and are always under the supervision of officers from the 104th Precinct while working. Officers are not allowed to participate if they are within six months of their 21st birthday, Lombardi said.

“They are really professional and they love it,” he said of the auxiliary officers.

The auxiliary officers enter a business and attempt to buy an alcoholic beverage, without presenting any form of I.D. If the seller asks the officer to present I.D., they are not issued a summons. Officers are required to reveal their real age if and when asked by the seller.

“We’re not trying to fool the owners, we just want them to ask for I.D.,” Lombardi said. “I would prefer to give zero summonses.”

If the seller provides the undercover officer with alcohol, another officer in uniform will then enter the business and issue the seller with a summons. The purchased alcohol is poured out and the officers move on to another location.

Since February, the precinct has conducted undercover operations at 56 locations and has issued 21 summonses over the last 28 days alone. Most stores checked for violations have I.D. signs posted for the sale of tobacco but very few for alcohol.

Out of the 56 visits, there was a heavy concentration of sales on Woodward, Onderdonk and Seneca avenues in Ridgewood. Woodward Avenue had some of highest numbers of stores with more than one violation including Rodriguez Deli, Anais Deli and Woodward Supermarket.

Management at Rodriguez and Anais Delis were unavailable comment upon store visits by press time. However, management at Woodward Supermarket, who declined to give their name, said the two sales were an honest mistake.

“The guy came in and looked like he was in his 30s, he didn’t look young so the clerk didn’t think to check for I.D. But now, we always check,” they said.

Businesses that receive three or more summons are cited for nuisance abatement, which penalizes entities that pose a recurring problem to the public. Businesses cited for nuisance abatement face possible fines and closures of their store, according to Lombardi.

***Booze and Consequences***

According to The International Institute for Alcohol Awareness, underage drinking cost the state $3.2 billion in 2005. New York ranks 38th in the highest amount spent for the cost of youth for underage drinking.

Aside from costing tax buyers money, underage drinking poses problems for law enforcement.

“The drinking leads to other behavior, sometimes violent,” Lombardi said, adding that alcohol is often a factor in assault and other violent domestic cases.

However, the most significant threat underage drinking poses serious injury and loss of life.

Consumption of alcohol by teens contributes to three of the most common causes of death according to the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS). Last year 1,900 people under 21 died in alcohol related accidents, 1,600 from homicide and 300 from suicide in addition to injuries ranging from fall, burns and drowning.

Organizations devoted to curbing underage drinking say prevention and education on the part of retailers is crucial to efforts to stop minors from having access to alcohol. OASAS has an “Underage Drinking Not a Minor Problem,” campaign, a toolkit which gives others who want to spread the warning about underage drinking through flyers, public service announcements and other resources.

The New York State Liquor Authority also provides a handbook for retailers that offer tips on how to check for valid I.D. when presented by customers.

Additionally, this week state Senator Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester) introduced legislation aimed at curbing underage drinking by offering incentives to bar owners who participate in training programs.

"As we enter the high season for underage drinking - with proms, graduations, summer festivals, block parties and July fourth right around the corner - we've got to be on alert and ready to take action,” he said. “By enlisting local bars and restaurants we prevent more minors from being served and together ensure a safer summer for all New Yorkers."

Overcrowding, Standardized Tests Key Concerns In District 24

By Tamara Best

Improving performance on standardized tests, overcrowded classrooms and budget cuts were among key topics at the Community Education Council 24 meeting Tuesday.

“Seniors, public safety and education—those are three things you don't cut,” said Nick Comaianni, president of council. “Fill my pothole next year, I'll drive around it. But don't cut education,” he said.

Comaianni and other parents said they were thankful that MTA decided not to cut the student MetroCard program, which provides free or reduced fare cards to students.

A representative from state Senator Joe Addabbo’s office said legislators are diligently working to meet the June 28 deadline to complete the budget and are hoping to avoid cuts to the education system.

***Standardized Test Performance***

Madelene Chan, community superintendent for District 24, offered parents a preliminary assessment of state standardized test scores for spring 2009. The official scores for spring 2010 are not expected to be available until July, she said.

Enrollment across the district, which covers Ridgewood, Maspeth, Glendale, Middle Village, Corona, Woodside and parts of Long Island City and Sunnyside, hit 49,525 students this year, an increase of 1,000 from last year. Chan reported that the district is also in good standing, meeting testing benchmarks for the 2009-10 school year.

Preliminary results of spring 2009 show that students in third through fifth grade, performed well in areas of math and science. Ninety one percent of students performed at or above the state standard in math, followed by students with disabilities at 72 percent and 80 percent for English language learners.

In the science assessment for fourth grade, 84 percent of all students performed or at above the standard, followed by 63 percent of those with disabilities and 64 percent of English language learners.

The trend in math continued with six to eighth graders, in all three categories, scoring above 50 percent. However, Chan said there is still much work to be done to improve overall performance.

"Some subgroups didn't meet all the target goals," she said, adding that improving reading is a top priority.

Only 41 percent of students with disabilities performed at or above the state on the English Language Arts test, with 47 percent of English language learners met the target for grades three through five.

In grades six through eight, the results were worse with only 31 percent of students with disabilities performing at or above state standard, followed by 24 percent for English language learners.

Chan said the overall performance of special populations in District 24 is a primary area and focus for improvement in the coming year.

***Overcrowding, Charter Schools and Gifted Education***

“Our biggest enemy is that we can’t find space to build a school fast enough,” said Comaianni of the overcrowding, adding that parents should have a say in where schools are built based on need.

The board is waiting to receive updates on a new school expected to be built at Metropolitan Avenue and Tonsor Street at the site of a former Rite Aid.

The lack of seats for students in need of gifted education was also a hot issue among parents at Tuesday’s meeting. Some expressed frustration that their children passed the test only to be told that there were no seats available at their respective schools.

“No one is going to set the bar higher for education higher than parents,” said one audience member.

Comaianni said in addition to increasing the performance index, more attention needs to be given to opening seats in the gifted program.

“Special needs is not just for kids with special needs but for students who excel,” he said. Comaianni also hailed the progress being made with reform to state charter schools. “It’s no longer we take the crème de la crème,’ he said.

In May, the state legislature passed legislation that widened the statewide cap for charter school enrollment from 200 to 460 and limits the role of those who profit from the schools operation, according to the United Federation of Teachers. Twenty three schools can be opened in September 2011.

The bill now requires charter schools to accept students with disabilities, English language learners, bars for-profit organizations from operating schools and give parents a voice in co-location issues.

However, Comaianni said he still has concerns over the lottery system used for enrollment and accountability. Additionally he said that when “public funds are used for a private school, some oversight is needed,” adding that school administrations should have to answer to the community at local education council meetings.

After 50 Years of Service, DA Richard Brown Still Going Strong

By Tamara Best

Over the better part of the past two decades, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has just about seen it all.

Brown is the longest serving district attorney in county history and has more than 50 years in public service. On Thursday, Brown was honored with a plaque for his work by the John F. Kennedy Regular Democratic Club.

“We had him as a guest speaker and he’s a very special individual to us,” said Jeff Gottlieb, president of the club. “He’s very personable and approachable, He treats everyone the same and does a great job.”

Raised in Queens, Brown held several judicial positions including Justice of the Supreme Court in Queens County. He said having a judicial background has helped in his work as the district attorney.

In 1991, he was appointed Queens district attorney by then-Governor Mario M. Cuomo. Brown said he can still recall the struggle he faced when he was elected district attorney for the first time in the early 1990s.

“When I started out in 1991 it was a very bad year,” he said, adding that the county - much like other areas of the nation - grappled with the crack epidemic that left communities paralyzed with drug addiction and violence. “We had 361 homicides in my first year.”

Brown was later elected to a full four-year term as district attorney in the November 1991 general election and re-elected in 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007.

In his role as district attorney, Brown said a key emphasis is being visible and accessible.

“I get to the crime scenes because it is important to maintain a close relationship with law enforcement,” Brown said.

Three days a week, he meets with different bureaus to stay up to date on the cases. “If I ask a question I want an answer,” he said adding that “it helps everyone stay on their toes.”

Over the years, Brown said he has dealt with many memorable and tragic cases such as the College Point massacre of 1995 in which six people held hostage in a Queens apartment were killed. However, out of all the cases he has worked on, Brown said the Sean Bell case was the most “physically and emotionally taxing.”

“The Sean Bell case was the most difficult case I’ve had in a long time,” said Brown. “Emotions were high on both sides.”

Sean Bell, a 23-year-old man Queens man, was shot and killed on Nov. 25, 2006 outside of a Jamaica strip club just hours before his wedding. Bell, along with two friends, was inside a Nissan Altima, when five officers fired 50 bullets into the car. It was later determined that Bell and his two surviving friends were unarmed.

At 5:30 that morning, Brown said he took immediate action after receiving a call from an assistant district attorney alerting him to what happened.

“That morning I called three people: the mayor, the police commissioner and Al Sharpton.”

The case sparked controversy across the country, centering on discussions of race and use of deadly force by police. In 2008, Justice Arthur J. Cooperman acquitted the officers of all charges they faced in Bell’s shooting death.

High profile cases aside, Brown said each year and situation presents new challenges. One of the most substantial in the last few years has been the budget.

“We’ve taken budget reduction since 9/11, about 20 percent,” he said, resulting in a decrease in the amount of assistant district attorneys and forcing law enforcement to do more with less.

When asked by members of the Democratic Club his thoughts on the current budget deadlock in Albany, he said he hopes it will resolve itself soon.

Despite the early days and late nights of the job, Brown said he still looks forward to going to work everyday.

“The agency is busy 24/7 and I love it,” Brown told the audience.

As for when he will retire, he says it’s too soon to tell. “It’s been a wonderful career and it’s not over by a long shot.”

Baseball Ticket Fees Add Up

Yankees and Mets fans who buy tickets online hoping to save time are being hit with added fees.

According to Rep. Anthony Weiner (D- Forest Hills), who conducted a study on baseball ticket fees, the Yankees and Mets have some of the highest fees amongst Major League Baseball teams.

Fans are required to pay a series of fees depending on whether they buy their tickets over the phone or online. Convenience fees, which allow customers to choose which venues their buy their tickets from, cost fans between $3.60 to $10.95 for Yankees tickets and between $4.00 and $15.00 for Mets tickets.

Tickets printed at home for each team costs $2.50, in addition to an order processing fee of $3.30 for the Yankees and $5 for the Mets. The only way to avoid the fees is by purchasing tickets at the stadium.

And fans of both teams say they are less than happy about the added costs.

“It definitely curbs my desire to buy tickets,” said Liz Peterson, a Mets fan. “In fact, it generally annoys me so much I rethink tickets I've already decided to buy when I get hit with a $5 fee for calling for tickets, then fees to e-mail tickets, then fees for if the tickets themselves weren't overpriced enough.”

Yankee fan Jerry McGuire says he’s glad to have the new stadium but is disgusted by management tactics to soak fans for ticket extras.

“If I want to give my tickets to someone for one of my games, I shouldn’t have to pay the team for that privilege,” he said. “They continue to make idiots of us and the worst is we keep going back for more.”

However, the biggest issue with the added fees is the impact on ticket specials. For select games, the Yankees offer a $5 ticket special with fees sometimes adding up to $ 9.40.

“It is reasonable to pay some convenience fees when buying tickets online, but a $9.40 fee on a $5 ticket is ridiculous,” said Weiner. “Why should New York fans pay more in fees than their ticket is worth?”

Student MetroCards Saved

By Patricia Adams

New York City students will still be able to get discounted rides to school after a decision last week by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) not to suspend the issue of free student MetroCards.

In an e-mail sent by the MTA on Friday, the authority realized "charging students would have a life-changing impact on the ability of New Yorkers to receive a quality education."

Threats to start charging students half fare began when MTA Chairman Jay Walder announced that unless the city and state contributed more money to the program the agency would have to make up for the lack of funding by charging students. According to the MTA, the student cards cost $214 million per year.

By instituting a charge for students, the authority was depending on about $30 million in student revenue through 2010 and an additional $62 million for the year through 2011.

Now the agency says although the student contributions would have made a “small but important contribution” to closing the $750 million deficit, the consequences would be devastating. "The budget deficit that we are facing will increase," the MTA said in its statement about continuing the free cards, "but the alternative is far worse."

As of 1994, city and state contributions to the program were $45 million each but as of this year, the state had proposed to lower their kick-in to $6 million as a result of the budget crisis. Now the city will continue with its $45 million while the state will be responsible for a $25 million contribution according to a proposal issued by Gov. David Paterson in January.

The heated debate over student fares has played out for the last several months, with politicians and public officials displaying more resistance and hostility over proposed changes for students than the agency’s plans to eliminate bus routes, subway lines and make other service cuts.

Following the announcement by the MTA to continue funding the cards, local elected officials expressed their feelings on the restoration. Councilmember Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) who vehemently opposed the cuts said, “This represents not only a victory for my constituents, but for families of the more than 500,000 city school children who rely on free MetroCards to get to and from school each day. It was totally inappropriate to use students as pawns in the budget negotiating process, and I am glad to see that the state legislature and MTA have decided
to finally do the right thing.”

State Senator Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), who earlier this year organized a petition drive in his district to stop the cuts said, “Together we rallied to send a clear message that eliminating student MetroCards that allow students to ride the subway and bus at a substantially reduced cost would be catastrophic for working families.Our message was heard loud and clear.” The MTA says it will set out to address the agency’s budget deficit as early as next month.

Ulrich Law to Crack Down on Noise

Legislation seeks to strengthen residential noise control

Noise complaints still hover at the top of the charts when it comes to 311 complaints. City
Councilman Eric Ulrich says residents in his district are continuously plagued by noise, which is causing a serious decline in their quality of life.

“These complaints continue to represent one of the main issues for residents throughout my district,” and according to the Councilman, law enforcement officials and courts need a stronger noise control ordinance, “so that inconsiderate neighbors, especially chronic offenders, are held accountable for their bad behavior.”

Statistics from July 1, 2009 through June 15th show that a total of 5,424 noise related complaints were filed through 311 by residents in Community Boards 9, 10 and 14.

The new law would close a loophole in existing legislation allowing action only against noise made by a device. Under Ulrich’s bill, enforcement officials will be able to act against all excessive noise, including that of a human voice.

Highlights of the Bill:
•Prohibits noise above 35 decibels between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. and noise in excess of 42 decibels between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., as measured from the complainant’s property.
•Fines between $250 and $1,000 for the first offense. Officers have the option of issuing a warning for a first offense if the noise is below 50 decibels.
•A second violation within 72 hours, even if a warning was given the first time, results in fines of between $500 and $2,000. The person is then considered a willful violator, and the sound device can be impounded by police.
•Penalties ranging from $750 to $5,000 if three violations are received within two years for the same offense. Four violations within one year results in misdemeanor charges.
•If at any time the sound is found to be excess of 75 decibels, the individual is considered
a willful violator and the sound equipment can be confiscated, even on the first offense.

The bill only applies to residential homes and apartment buildings, and not to commercial
establishments, which are already covered under the existing noise control ordinance. It has been referred to the Committee on Environmental Protection for review.