Thursday, March 10, 2011

This Week's Forum South and West

Vandals Strike Again at Bayside Cemetery; Restoration Efforts Continue

Photo courtesy Bayside Cemetery Litigation
By Patricia Adams

Three teens were arrested last week in connection with the latest act of desecration at Bayside Cemetery in Ozone Park. Andre Chowtie, 16, Michael Chaitram, 17, and Nicholas Kalloo, 19, were arrested after Police Officer David Marconi of the 106th Precinct observed them inside the fenced-in property after hours.

Marconi alerted the precinct of the activity inside the cemetery, leading to the arrests. Community Affairs Officer Kenneth Zorn said, “The perpetrators were arrested before they caused substantial damage to the property.” According to Zorn, the vandals told police they broke in because they “wanted to hang out in a scary place.”

The incident is one of many in a long history of vandalism at the cemetery. In 1993, the cemetery was vandalized twice within ten days. Vandals used black felt-tip pens to deface mausoleums, and another break-in resulted in damage to 50 headstones. In an incident in 2003, which was highly publicized, vandals broke in and desecrated 32 mausoleums. Crypts were destroyed, remains were removed from caskets and strewn on the ground and anti-Semitic graffiti was sprayed on gravestones and throughout the cemetery.

The cemetery is operated by the Congregation Shaare Zedek on Manhattan’s upper West Side, which acquired the land on Pitkin Avenue in 1842. The congregation has fallen under criticism for failing to maintain and provide perpetual care for the 35,000 Jews buried there. John Lucker, whose grandparents are buried at the cemetery, is currently suing Congregation Shaare Zedek for failing to maintain the property—Lucker’s grandparents had paid for perpetual care packages.

Efforts to clean up and restore the cemetery have been aided most recently by the Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries (CAJAC), an organization funded by the UJA-Federation of New York. “CAJAC’s goals are to serve as a watchdog for Jewish cemeteries in the New York metropolitan area,” said Andy Schultz, the group’s executive director. More than 250 volunteers have participated in the CAJAC’s cleanups so far this year—and more than half of those volunteering are between 15 and 18 years old.

Avrim Cohen, who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was on his way last week to visit relatives buried at the cemetery. “It’s always worrisome for me to come here,” Cohen told The Forum. “You never know what you will find.” He remembers the many desecrations he has seen over the years. “I must say that things have gotten better since people are helping to clean it up. I just hope it continues.”

Budget Fight Jeopardizes Senior Center

Abe Rosen, an octogenarian with cloudy eyes and a stiff smile, has lived in Howard Beach for the past 50 years. Rosen said he has been through hard times, but for the last 10 years he’s found support at the Howard Beach Senior Center, where he eats nearly everyday.

Rosen joined nearly 200 seniors gathered at the center, at 156-45 84th Street, on Wednesday to rally with civic leaders and elected officials against a state budget proposal that would force 105 senior centers throughout the city to close. Additional rallies, including one in Woodhaven, will be held throughout this week and the next.

“It would be criminal to close one center,” Rosen said. “Not one senior should suffer.”
The Howard Beach Senior Center an- nounced the rally on Monday, giving seniors only two days notice, but Assistant Director Judy Ascherman—who crosses the line into seniority in a few months—wasn’t surprised by the nearly packed room. “We’re a viable center, we have a lot of people who are really active,” she said.

The center opened in 1976, a few years after the federal government established the Older Americans Act, which was meant to improve the lives of elderly citizens. “It’s not just a recreational thing, these were originally opened as a nutrition center because seniors weren’t eating healthy, and the same thing is happening now,” Ascherman said.

Director Ike Albala told the crowd that he remembered a time before the centers when senior weren’t getting the support they needed. “Seniors weren’t getting enough to eat and they would settle for whatever they could get,” he said. “Some would go so far as to settle for pet food.”

According to Community Board 10 Chairperson Elizabeth Braton, Community Board 10 has almost 23,000 people over the age of 60*. In Howard Beach alone, there are over 9,000 seniors, making it the “oldest” neighborhood in the borough, according to Monsignor Alfred LoPinto. After the closures, CB 10 will have one senior center in its jurisdiction. More than 40 percent of the city’s senior centers face closure, which will leave more than 8,000 seniors without these services.

“It’s not just mindboggling, it’s unconscionable,” she said.

This Friday, in Woodhaven, another rally will be taking place. The center, run by Catholic Charities Neighborhood Services, has been closed for months of renovations. The rally was originally scheduled as a celebratory re-opening of the Woodhaven-Richmond Hill Senior Center, at 78-15 Jamaica Avenue. Its grand reopening may now be short-lived. It’s on the Mayor’s list of centers that will be closed if funding is cut.

The Woodhaven Residents' Block Associa- tion has called on residents to gather at the
center this Friday at noon to show support for the area's seniors.

"The senior center is a home away from home for so many people," said WRBA Di- rector Roger Hennin, who is also a member of the senior center. "These cuts are terrible. When this center closes, it will really hurt a lot of people's quality of life."

The list of centers facing closure was released by Mayor Michael Bloomberg after Governor Anthony Cuomo proposed budget shifted a source of discretionary funding, called Title XX, that has been used to support senior centers for more than 20 years. His proposal, to siphon the funds toward other, federally mandated spending, is not new.

Governor David Paterson made the same proposal last year. Paterson proposed using
the Title XX funds to pay for senior services, rather than senior centers—which would have been forced to close. His efforts were unsuccessful.

The Title XX grant is roughly $102 million of Federal funding to the State. Adult protective serves receive $66 million of that, while $36 million is allotted locally, usually for discretionary spending. Under the new budget, that $36 million will be spent on child welfare services, which is federally man- dated but usually paid for with other funds.

The mandatory child welfare spending is normally split between the city and state, with Albany paying 62 percent, and the city covering 38 percent.

The $25 million in Title XX funds that NYC receives will now be spent on child welfare programs, but will be included in the State's 62 percent share of child welfare spending.

“The Governor's Title XX proposal achieves state savings while supporting a federal mandate to protect abused children and serve families in crisis,” State Department of Budget Spokesperson Jeffery Gordon said. “The City will continue to receive the same amount of Federal Title XX funding in total.”

While the $25 million will be spent in the city, it will essentially be taken from Bloomberg’s pocket to cut Cuomo’s spending.

Either Bloomberg will have to come up with an additional 25 million to save the senior centers, or Cuomo will have to find money to fund child welfare services. For now, Bloomberg has released a list of senior centers that will be closed. Some see this as a strong-arm tactic to increase the Mayor’s bargaining power.

“[The Mayor] is using the seniors while we are in the middle of negotiations,” said Jo Ann Shapiro, Chief of Staff for Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Ozone Park).

Shapiro had arrived to the rally in Howard Beach to find two seniors who couldn’t find the door, she said. They told her they were there to join the center for the first time.

“This is not about closing senior centers that aren’t working,” she told the crowd. “This is a vibrant, thriving, growing center. The money will be restored.”

According to spokesperson Nick Roloson, Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) favors passing legislation that circumvents the shift in funds by making the senior center funding mandatory in Title XX funding, rather than discretionary.

“When money is cut from these programs, these services are put in serious jeopardy and are at risk.” Miller said. “Enough is enough. I am fully committed to ensuring that the discretionary Title XX money is used to care for our seniors as it has for so many years.”

Senator Joseph Addabbo has proposed methods for the city to increase its revenue, freeing up new funds for the senior centers.

Addabbo has proposed collecting outstanding debts and fines by waving late fees and penalties or utilizing city workers more efficiently, instead of “contracting.” He suggested that if the City used its sheriffs more than the outside marshals, it would save significant amounts of money.
“There is enough money to keep senior centers open in the city,” he said. “Our senior centers do not have to close, regard- less of the amount of money the city receives from the state budget.”
Nevertheless, Addabbo said he is committed to ensure Title XX funds are used for senior centers. “Why mess with tradition,” he said. After the rally, he rushed off to Albany, where his colleagues were preparing to debate the budget.

Senator Shirley Huntley (D-Jamacia), on her way into a budget hearing in Albany, said that she doesn’t believe the Gov- ernor would allow the senior centers to close. “I just don’t think he’ll let that happen,” she said. “We’re trying really hard to save the senior centers and day care and all the things that matter.”

As the rally ended in Howard Beach, the center welcomed the crowd, the politicians and the press to stay for lunch. Small groups of seniors helped each other fill out petitions as Abe Rosen sauntered back and forth among the crowd, making small talk with other members.

What You Can Do

Aside from writing or calling your local representative, Councilmember Eric Ulrich suggests dialing 311. “The Mayor loves 311,” he said. “So call. Say ‘I have a message for the Mayor. Stop using seniors as pawns and don’t close my senior center.’” If you don’t have email, Carol of the Howard Beach Senior Center will assist you in sending emails to your representatives on Thursday morning. Stop by the center to participate.

Update: We incorrectly said 23,000 people over the age of 60 live in Queens. There are 23,000 people over the age of 60 within Community Board 10 while approximately 400,000 seniors reside in Queens. Also, it was Monsignor Alfred LoPinto who claimed Howard Beach is the oldest neighborhood in the borough.

Pia Feva Continues

Proposed School, Rezoning at Board 9 Meeting

By David Harvey

Many of the area’s elected officials were conspicuously absent from Tuesday’s Community Board 9 meeting on Tuesday, but it was politely excused—nearly all were in Albany pushing back against the Governor’s budget proposal that would force the closure of senior centers throughout the city.

Though he said he understood, the absence made it difficult for CB 9 Chairman Ivan Mrakovic to gauge politicians’ sentiments on U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner’s proposal—announced during a press conference on March 4—to sell the iconic Civic Virtue statue now standing outside Queens Borough Hall.

“Few things are more important than senior centers and building schools,” Mrakovic said. “But this is an irksome issue.” Each elected officials’ representative promised to bring a statement on Weiner’s proposal to next month’s meeting.

Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer’s representative announced the delay of the renovated Aqueduct Race Track’s casino opening, from spring to summer, and Nick Roloson said his boss, Assemblyman Mike Miller, is working with the attorney general to combat the recent string of deception robberies involving a fraudulent gas company.

NYPD officer John McCoy from the 102nd Precinct said several graffiti vandals have been arrested over the last month—including one who was over the age of 40 and driving a Jaguar. Board members asked McCoy about regulations for the motorized bicycles that have become popular among deliverymen and he plans to have firm answers next month.

Director of the Queens Office of City Planning John Young gave a presentation on the proposed rezoning of several blocks in Woodhaven and Richmond Hill, which consists of “surgical” changes to match the code with current development. “We want to make the zoning simple,” he said. City planners will present their proposal to the board again after conducting an environmental assessment.

School Construction Authority officials gave a presentation on a new school they plan to open at the site of a former parochial school at the corner of 101st Avenue and 90th Street in Ozone Park. Father Paul, who is connected to the former school built in 1923, said important relics would be collected and enshrined at the nearby church. “We can’t maintain the school,” he said, adding that it was great to see another educational facility take its place.

According to SCA representative Chris Persheff, the Department of Education does not yet own the property—the department needs City Council approval for the purchase—but that the school will be K-5 with roughly 400 students, and the site will include a sizable school yard. Details as to the type of school and whether it is locally zoned will be decided later.

While voting on support for liquor license renewals—the State Liquor Authority makes the final decision—the board voted against renewing a license for The Link, a bar at 110-12 Jamaica Avenue in Richmond Hill, which has a reputation among residents for hosting unruly patrons and “has not been a good neighbor.”

Nick Comaianni, President of Community Education Council for District 24, brought a letter opposing the DOE’s plan to take the “rainy day funds” from principals who spent less than they were budgeted. The DOE had originally proposed taking 50 percent of the funds back from individual schools, but has since proposed taking back only 30 percent. “We are unequivocally opposed to roll-over budget cuts,” he said.

Comaianni said he would bring a similar statement to the board addressing teacher layoffs next month.

The board also had it’s annual vote for executive postitions, and chairman Mrakovic said he would not run again, as he was joining the Richmond Hills Historic Society. Andrea Crawford was named the new chair. Her nomination went uncontested.

Near the close of the meeting Mrakovic mocked Weiner’s press conference, in which Weiner suggested selling the Civic Virtue statue on “Isn’t that an adult service site?” he joked. “I don’t think any of our politicians should be talking about selling city property online.”

Parents, Crowley Trash DOE Plan to Take Money From Schools

By Eric Yun

As budget cuts continue to endanger schools, the city Department of Education (DOE) has found a way to make some extra cash—take it from individual schools’ reserve accounts.

Since 2007, principals have been allowed to save money and roll it into the following year’s budget. The DOE now wants to take 50 percent of those funds away under the “Deferred Program Planning Initiative” (DPPI).

“The funds would help offset system wide cuts,” Barbara Morgan, DOE spokesperson, said. But the possibility of schools losing more money outraged some parents.

“The principal is smart and saved for a rainy day, and now they are being punished,” Matthew Tymus, a parent of two children at P.S. 128 in Middle Village, said.

Tymus grew up in Middle Village, and said he stayed in the neighborhood because of the quality of P.S. 128 and its teachers. He’s worried that good teachers will have to be fired and the school will suffer.

Echoing Tymus’s concerns were Council Members Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) and Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), who held a press conference outside P.S. 128 with more than 40 parents last Thursday.

Crowley said she was outraged over the proposal. “It’s bad education policy, it’s bad management policy, and it’s bad budget policy,” she said.

Critics of the program said fiscally responsible principals are being punished. Smart principals saved money because they understood hard budget cuts would be needed, Dromm said.

“We’ve known for two years this fiscal crisis was coming. Why is [Schools Chancellor Cathie Black] punishing the people who did the right thing?” Dromm said.

Another point of contention was the manner in which the plan was presented to principals. The DPPI was mentioned to principals in Chancellor Cathie Black’s weekly e-mail to principals on February 16—with a March 4 deadline.

“Why was this slid under the radar, prior to our spring break, when nobody could react to this?” said Caroline Lee, a parent and PTA member.

At the press conference, Crowley announced the deadline has been pushed back to March 18 and promised to continue fighting until the program is abandoned.

A school like P.S. 128—currently expanding to eighth grade—would be especially harmed by DPPI. Taking away any money from the school would cripple P.S. 128 during the expansion, parents said. On top of that, P.S. 128 does not receive any federal Title I money, so its budget is tighter than most schools. Crowley said this forced P.S. 128 and similar schools throughout the city to save, and that the money should stay in the schools.

“The DPPI has allowed our schools to be fiscally responsible and ensures that money meant for our local schools, stays in our local schools. For the DOE to tap into schools’ budget funds and blame budget deficits is disingenuous,” Crowley said.

Under DPPI, principals are faced with spending all their reserves—even if it isn’t needed—or surrender half of their money to the DOE.

One principal told GothamSchools, an independent non-profit news organization covering city schools, that with a mid-April deadline to make most purchases, the DOE is inviting a shopping spree. “The likely result is that approximately $80 to 100 million that could have been used by schools to preserve teaching positions, extracurricular activities, and supplementary academic programs next year will instead be spent on laptop carts and copy paper,” the principal said.

The backlash prompted the DOE on Monday to revise its plans to take only 30 percent of school funds rather than 50 percent. In a statement, Black said, “I heard thoughtful feedback from principals across the five boroughs about how we can help them continue making prudent, long-term budget decisions, and we’ve crafted a solution to let them do that.”

However, Crowley was not impressed. “This is not a compromise; this is about doing what is right for our schools and what is right for our students. To take back funding that is already given is nothing more than robbery,” Crowley said.

Community Gives Proposed MTA Depot Site Emphatic No

By Eric Yun

Residents of Maspeth, led by Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), gathered at the corner of 49th Street and Galasso Place in west Maspeth on Friday afternoon to tell the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and the city to stay away.

Two weeks ago The Forum reported the MTA was looking at the Maspeth site to relocate its Access-a-Ride facility from Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Last week, Van Bramer told The Forum he would battle the plan.

On March 1, Van Bramer and a coalition of local elected officials sent a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and at the press conference, Van Bramer said his actions “shook up the Mayor’s office.”

“I am outraged. Absolutely outraged and livid that the city of New York would attempt to sneak a depot into Maspeth,” Van Bramer said.

Maspeth residents have been fighting to get commercial traffic off the streets— complaints that were emphasized as truck traffic barreling down 49th Street frequently drowned out speakers at the press conference.

“We’ve all worked together to alleviate the amount of trucks that are currently in Maspeth,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village). “Enough is enough. Maspeth is not a doormat.”

The MTA already operates two depots in Maspeth—a bus depot and maintenance facility on Grand Avenue and an Access-a-Ride depot on Maurice Avenue. Concerned residents said they don’t need more MTA vehicles in their community.

“This is not a NIMBY issue,” said Assemblywoman Marge Markey (D-Maspeth). “We already have two depots in our community. We’ve had our fair share.”

Gary Giordano, chair of Community Board 5, noted the Grand Avenue facility is within walking distance of the proposed site. Calling it an “unwise” decision, Giordano said Maspeth already feels too much pressure from commercial traffic.

Residents and Van Bramer stressed they understood Greenpoint residents’ fight for a park. “But I wish the city of New York and the Parks Department paid as much attention to adding green space in Queens,” Van Bramer said.

The fight against the new depot comes as local officials and community groups have been pushing for the city to purchase the former St. Saviour’s church site at 57th Road and 58th Street.
“We’re trying to get a park, but the city doesn’t have money for that. Yet in the meantime, they can find money to mitigate this site,” said Roe Daraio, president of Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together (COMET).

Van Bramer said the proposed depot site is polluted and would cost millions to be remediated.
City officials said they are working with the MTA to relocate the Greenpoint depot, and the Maspeth site is being explored. But nothing is final, officials said.

Van Bramer said the Mayor’s office told him, “Don’t worry, this is like the bottom of the first inning in the process.”

“But there are some ideas and some proposals that are so bad they shouldn’t even take the mound,” Van Bramer responded. “This should have never reached the bottom of the first.”

Forest Hills Resident Receives Highest Civil Service Award

Forest Hills resident Susan Dalmas received the Sloan Public Service Award for her 25 years of service as the Director of Queens Library Adult Literacy Programs.
The award, given by the Fund for the City of New York is one of the highest honors for public service employees.

“The Sloan Public Service Award winners are representative of the thousands of truly remarkable men and women who make up the backbone of our city,” said Mary McCormick, president of the Fund for the City of New York.

As the head of the Adult Literacy Program at Queens Library, Dalmas oversees the largest library-based literacy program in the nation, which served more than 6,000 participants a year.
“Susan has worked tirelessly to develop new and innovative programs for adult learners that are recognized and imitated by libraries throughout the US,” Diana Chapin, executive director of the Queens Library Foundation, said.

Dalmas began as a teacher in the Philippines and then the U.S. She joined Queens Library in 1989.

Two other Queens residents also received the award. Emmanuel Thingue of East Elmhurst was honored for his work as the senior designer for Parks and Recreation. Gabriel Taussig of Queens Village was honored for his work as the chief of the Administrative Law Division for New York City.

Winners receive a cash price of $7,500. A ceremony to honor the winners was held on Thursday.

Maspeth HS Will Open At Queens Metro Campus

By David Harvey

As predicted by concerned parents at a public meeting last month: The co-location of the first class of the new Maspeth High School at the Queens Metropolitan Campus in Forest Hills is a done deal.

The Department of Education (DOE) proposal to incubate a Maspeth High School within the campus next year was approved last week by the NYC Panel For Education Policy (PEP) in a unanimous vote.

The Queens Metropolitan Campus houses the Queens Metropolitan High School and the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, which will serve grades six through eight next year, before eventually expanding to grade 12.

The new school will have approximately 175 to 225 ninth graders next year, and the Queens Metropolitan Campus—with the Maspeth students—will be operating at only 72 percent capacity, according to the DOE. The Maspeth high school’s own building—being built at 54-40 74th Street—is scheduled to open in 2012.

The PEP vote took place as scheduled on March 1 and was preceded by several community meetings conducted by the DOE to garner public opinion—discussions that were often very contentious.
At a meeting on February 9 at the Queens Metropolitan Campus in Forest Hills, parents, community groups and City Council representatives largely expressed contempt for the proposal during a public comment period that stretched over two hours.

“Discussion has subsided since the vote,” said Queens PEP representative Dmytro Fedkowskyj. “A recent open house by the proposed Maspeth school leader was highly attended by many parents from within District 24 and parents are excited about the new high school option.”

Several concerns were raised throughout the public comment period, from possible bullying to structural problems with the current building such as missing cameras and doorknobs. The most contentious was whether the Maspeth High School students would have a building to move into after next year.

“I am extremely disappointed and dismayed that the concerns of the community and elected officials have been shut out by the Department of Education,” Councilwoman Karen Kozlowitz (D-Forest Hills) said. “The process of planning for the incubation into the Metropolitan Avenue Campus was never designed to be responsive to the community.”

After the meeting on February 9, Kozlowitz wrote a letter to Schools Chancellor Cathie Black—cosigned by Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, and Assembley members Andrew Hevesi and Mike Miller—that asked for a written statement from the DOE that the Maspeth high school students would be co-located for only one year.

Black’s response reiterated that the Department is committed to moving Maspeth High School to its long-term location by September 2012. “Based on all the information available to us, we have no reason to believe these plans will be derailed or delayed in any way,” she said.

According to DOE spokesperson Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, the school is on track to open as scheduled.
“At the end of the day, the big issue is the worry that [the Maspeth high school students] won’t move out,” he said. “The fact is, we have a close to perfect, if not perfect, track record on getting new schools open on time.”

Meanwhile, the Mayor’s budget proposal and recommended teacher layoffs will affect 35 percent of the teachers at the Queens Metropolitan Campus. Zarin-Rosenfeld said that with the budgets under revision, there is no way to determine how many teachers the new school will have, and how many will remain at the campus.