Thursday, October 9, 2008

This Week's Forum South and West

Bloomberg Pushing Term Limits Amendment

Hearings Scheduled for Oct. 16 and 17, Vote Expected on Oct. 23

By Conor Greene

A one-page bill introduced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Tuesday calls for permanently allowing elected officials to serve three consecutive four-year terms instead of two. The bill is being pushed through quickly and will likely be the subject of public hearings before the end of the month.

At the same time, Councilman David Weprin (R-Hollis) introduced a bill that would require that any change to term limits be done by a referendum, since residents voted twice to establish term limits. The bill is also sponsored by Councilmembers Bill de Blasio, Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) and John Liu (D-Flushing).

In addition, Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) sponsored a resolution that would force the state legislature “to give the authority to provide in its Charter than any change in its term limits must be submitted to voter referendum.”

“If this Council votes to amend the Term Limits Law without seeking a public referendum, it will go down in history as one of the most blatantly self-serving and autocratic acts of any legislative body in this city’s history,” said Avella, who is running for mayor next year.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn has refused to comment publicly on the bill, telling reporters at City Hall on Tuesday that, “I do not have an announcement to make for you today regarding term limits.” After announcing his intentions to amend the term limits law last week, Bloomberg was in Europe this week meeting with foreign leaders.

The attempt by Bloomberg to overturn the current term limits comes as 13 of 14 City Councilmembers from Queens will be forced out of office due to term limits in 2009. Many have already announced their intentions to run for higher office, including Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills), who plans to run for comptroller. William Thompson, who currently holds that seat, has indicated that he still plans to move ahead with his mayoral bid, even if term limits are amended.

Katz has not said whether she will abandon her comptroller run and again seek her City Council seat if term limits are extended. However, due to the stricter campaign finance limits for City Council candidates, she would have to return about $400,000 that she has raised for her comptroller bid if she does so.

While Katz has not publicly endorsed a candidate to replace her on the City Council, her spokeswoman told the Daily News that she is friends with “both” candidates, referring to former Assemblyman Michael Cohen and Queens Deputy Borough President Karen Koslowitz, who represented the 29th District on City Council from 1991 to 2001.

Other candidates for that seat include Heidi Chain Harrison, Lynn Schulman, Bob DeLay and Mel Gagarin.

Other term-limited Councilmembers include Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), who is gunning for the state Senate seat currently held by Serf Maltese (R-Glendale), Eric Gioia, who is planning a bid for public advocate, Peter Vallone (D-Astoria), who is eyeing the borough president’s seat and James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), who is challenging Frank Padavan (R-Queens).

At a civic meeting on Tuesday, Addabbo said that he fundamentally doesn’t agree with the concept of term limits, but said that “what has been created by the people should be changed by the people.” He added that for the City Council to make that decision would be “self-serving and wrong” and is something he won’t support.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg, who doesn’t have a job lined up after his mayoral term ends next year, is working hard to push his bill through the City Council. Public hearings have reportedly already been scheduled for October 16 and 17, and a vote is expected on October 23.

Possibly complicating matters, Assemblyman Hakeem S. Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) was expected to hold a press conference on Wednesday afternoon announcing his plans to introduce a bill that would prevent Bloomberg from extending term limits without first holding a public referendum.

Candidates Speak at Our Neighbors Civic Meeting in Ozone Park

Addabbo, Maltese, Pheffer,Sullivan and Weiner Attended

By Conor Greene

Residents heard from several local candidates at Our Neighbors Civic Association of Ozone Park on Tuesday night, including the candidates for state Senate and Assembly.

The town hall style meeting at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church included Senator Serf Maltese (R-Glendale) and his challenger, Councilman Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), along with Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Rockaway) and challenger Gerald Sullivan (R-Breezy Point). Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-Queens), who is unchallenged in his reelection bid, also spoke at the event.

The format provided each candidate with about seven minutes to address the crowd, followed by a question and answer session with the audience.

Congressman Anthony Weiner

First up was Rep. Weiner, who is running unopposed for reelection this year, but plans on running for mayor in 2009. His focus was on the current state of the economy and the Iraq war. He said it is a time for residents to “come together and think not only about our own needs, but about the greater needs of the community.”

Weiner is calling for a “disengagement from Iraq” so that the nation has the resources to deal with pressing matters back home. “We’ve reached the point where our troops have shown that when given an assignment, they can do just about anything,” he said, noting the successful overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime.

However, the country has reached the point of a “low-grade civil war,” leaving our future intentions there “unclear.” As a result, there are other interests that “we are less able to deal with because we are there.” He argued that the war has contributed to our current economic woes.

“We need an organized, staged, smart partial withdrawal of our troops,” he said. We should leave enough to maintain security, especially along the Iranian border which would “essentially seal the school yard.” He noted that the Iraq government currently has a $90 million surplus, and argued that 18-year-old Iraqi men “are not standing up for their country because we are.”

Weiner placed blame for the currently financial crisis across the board, including with both lenders who issued shaky mortgage deals, and the consumers who took them on. “Someone should have said no,” he said. “Banks were pushing products that were much too risky.”

He said he doesn’t support a freeze on mortgage foreclosures, and added that some of the blame must lie with the consumers who took the loans on. “I don’t like the idea that personal responsibility has been taken off the table here,” he said.

Weiner predicted that “we are going to be digging out for quite some time,” adding that in hindsight, it is fortunate that the government didn’t privatize social security several years ago, given the recent losses in the stock market.

Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

Pheffer has served on the state Assembly for 21 years total, and has represented the Ozone Park area since the district lines were redrawn several years ago. She recalled, “The concern was, how was Audrey Pheffer gong to serve us,” since she wasn’t from the neighborhood.Years later, “You didn’t even realize I didn’t live in this neighborhood,” she said, because of the numerous community events she attends.

During her time on the Assembly, Pheffer has served on committees for aging, higher education, government employees, veterans and consumer affairs, which she chairs. She noted that she has seniority within the majority party in the Assembly, which gives her extra pull during budget negotiations.

As chairwoman of the consumer affairs committee, Pheffer said she has been instrumental in enacting important legislation, including bills that made identity theft a crime when the problem first arose years ago, the Do Not Call registry and providing residents with free credit reports. “If I went to each person, there would be something in my committee that has affected your life,” she told the audience.

Other areas of progress during her Assembly career include improving funding for schools, both on the capital and operational sides, ensuring that hospitals and nursing homes don’t close, and making sure that “doctors make the medical decisions, not the insurance companies.”

“I believe we are safer because of the strong laws enacted in Albany,” she said. “It has been a wonderful, wonderful run, and there are many more things that have to be done. It’s going to be a very difficult year.” She vowed to “make those necessary budget cuts” in hopes of not affecting resident’s quality of life.

Republican Challenger Gerald Sullivan

Gerald Sullivan of Breezy Point declared that not only is the nation in a financial crisis, “we are also in a crisis in New York State.”

He noted that Governor David Paterson called the Assembly back into session to cut 5%from the budget. “They weren’t even able to cut one percent,” he said. “We are going to have to cut back ourselves – all we’re asking is for government to do the same.” He said the final assembly cut amounted to just .3%.

Admitting that his mindset might upset some voters, Sullivan declared that “nothing should be safe when it comes to tax cuts over the next few months.” He argued that the toll to Rockaway is an unfair tax on people traveling within the borough. “They should have enacted legislation to eliminate that toll years ago, but they didn’t,” he said.

He said the “most important thing” is to support the middle class, “the people who get up everyday and go to work.” He also called for more choice as to what school parents send their children to and said a larger tax break should be given to families sending their children to private schools.

When asked how he expects to push through legislation as a minority member of the Assembly, Sullivan pointed out that Pheffer voted with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver 98.6% of the time. “When you talk about majority, you’re talking about one man,’ he said. “There would be a voice for the people who disagree with Sheldon Silver. Right now there isn’t.”

Sullivan touted his experience running two small businesses as the background needed to deal with the current economic situation. He said the key was “using sound economics to run a business.”

State Senator Serf Maltese

Maltese, who has served on the state Senate for nearly 20 years, used the majority of his allotted time to discuss his personal background.

He said he comes from a “working family” which instilled in him “the value of hard work.” He told the crowd that he was educated in the area before serving two years in the Army, a year of which he fought in Korea.

He also discussed a series of jobs he held before his election to the Senate, including time in the District Attorney’s office, and his role in forming the Conservative Party of New York State in 1962. “We felt the conservatives didn’t have a choice and a vote,” he said.

Since his election in 1989, Maltese has taken on law cases on a pro bono basis, but has not accepted “a nickel” for any law work.

He called education “certainly one of my main priorities,” adding that he tries to visit all 47 schools within the district every two years. He said he is proud of$460,000 member item he secured to provide at least one Smart Board to each school. “I feel that the organizations closest to the people should have input where your tax dollars go.”

Recognizing that the 15th Senate district is overwhelmingly Democratic, Maltese said that the best candidate should be elected. “I encourage [Democrats] to speak up and express their concerns to me,” he said.

Councilman Joseph Addabbo

The evening’s final speaker was Councilman Addabbo, who started out by expressing his love for Ozone Park. He told the audience that his father had moved five times within a one-mile radius, staying within the neighborhood. “If it is good enough for my father, it’s good enough for me,” he said.

A centerpiece of Addabbo’s campaign has been ensuring that families can stay in the neighborhood, which depends greatly on maintaining the quality of the schools and keeping property values strong. “I want families to stay here. I want extended families to stay here,” he said. To do that, you have to “pay attention to local issues,” he argued. “It’s the local issues [including graffiti and street maintenance] that keep people here.”

Addabbo said that his experience working on one of the toughest budgets in the city’s history following 9/11 has given him the knowledge to tackle the current financial mess. “We have to make some serious, tough decisions,” he said. “We had to cut good programs because we couldn’t afford them.”

Six years later, the City Council has been able to reduce the tax rate, he noted. “That is the experience I think we need right now in Albany.” He also blasted the state Senate for increasing spending when they “had no money to pay for it… More than ever, now you need fiscal responsibility in Albany,” he told the audience.He said his plan includes going after insurance and Medicaid fraud, the latter of which costs the state $5 billion a year.

Addabbo said he is in favor of a freeze on foreclosures, given the impact they have had on the Ozone Park area. By doing so, homeowners would have one year to work out a payment plan with their lenders “so a person doesn’t wake up in jeopardy of losing their home.”

He argued that surrounding property owners are affected by foreclosures in their neighborhood. “Your area property values go down and crime goes up,” he said. That could lead to a “flight problem out of Ozone Park, and we don’t want that.”

In one of the few jabs Addabbo took at Maltese, he vowed to be present in the district as much as possible. “The days of only being present during an election year are over,” he declared.

He later ducked a question about his position on same sex marriage, telling a resident that he doesn’t have a “definitive stance” on it without being able to study any proposed legislation.

When asked about recent reports revealing how much various Senators, including Maltese, have spent on office and staffing costs, Addabbo said he would have two offices within the district, but vowed to employ an appropriate amount of staff. “It starts with me too – I have to watch my spending," he said.

Addabbo Calls for State to Support Small Businesses

Takes Issue with Tax Breaks to Large Corporations

By Conor Greene

With the economy clearly the main issue for voters, Councilman Joseph Addabbo is making funding for small businesses a major issue in his race for the State Senate.

The main target of Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) is a state program providing hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to companies, including major corporations, which he says needs to be reformed. The tax breaks, provided under a program called ICIP, don’t come with requirements that the company create quality jobs that pay decent wages and provide benefits.

Addabbo, who is challenging longtime Senator Serf Maltese (R-Glendale), held press conferences recently in Ridgewood and Maspeth to focus on issues he has with the program. To highlight the program’s inequities, he recently joined business owner Howard Mishler of Ay-Host Paper Company outside a Hess gas station which receives$13,761 in ICIP subsidies.

“My business is suffering because of outsourcing and a bad economy, but a big international corporation like Hess gets close to $14,000 to stay in the neighborhood,” said Mishler. “I have been here for thirty-eight years, employ local people and give back to my community. Gas is nearly $5 at the pump and the oil companies are busy lining their pockets at my expense. Our tax dollars and representatives should be working for us, and they’re not.”

Addabbo noted that a recent report by the Center for Urban Future found that while the 15th senate district is home to almost half of the Queens businesses receiving ICIP money, the area still includes three of the lowest performing zip codes for economic growth: Ridgewood, Middle Village and Woodhaven.

In contrast, neighborhoods in south Queens, including areas Addabbo represents as a councilman, have seen employment increases of 80%.

According to the Center for an Urban Future report, Middle Village has seen an 8% decline in employment, while Ridgewood has been hit twice as hard, with a 16% decline in employment. While some areas in the northern portion of the district have seen strong economic growth, such as 15% in Maspeth, it still pales in comparison to the southern portion of the council district represented by Addabbo, which includes Ozone Park (80%), South Richmond Hill (49%) and Howard Beach (20%).

“I’m proud that my council district has seen record growth, but I’m concerned about our neighbors to the north,” said Addabbo. “It’s appalling that the state continues to offer incentives to corporate entities while family owned businesses close their doors. We need to end corporate tax breaks for companies which outsource jobs and detract from our tax base. In these tough financial times we cannot afford to lose millions of dollars in revenue.”

While the state legislature approved a bill reforming the ICIP program in June at the urging of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it failed to address the underlying problems of ICIP by continuing to permit corporations to receive subsidies, the Addabbo campaign argues. The candidate cited a report by the Manhattan Borough President that found that 75% of companies receiving ICIP funding would have proceeded with their projects regardless of the subsidization.

Addabbo continued with the economic theme last Friday at a press conference outside the Comfort Inn on Maurice Avenue in Maspeth. Joined by members of several union groups, he bashed the program for providing funding to numerous hotels that employ nonunion workers. The Comfort Inn receives $237,644 in ICIP tax breaks according to Addabbo, who noted that 92% of Queens hotels enrolled in the program are non-union.

“Currently, there is no oversight of the ICIP program to ensure job creation, nor des the legislation require that companies pay employees a living wage or provide benefits,” said Addabbo. “We need to both grow the economy and lower the cost of living by providing good jobs that offer health benefits, fair pay and pensions. Albany is essentially bankrolling these projects, many of which are of questionable value, on the backs of working families.”

Addabbo argued that the hotel industry exemplifies many of the problems with the ICIP program, including its lack of discretion and lack of job quality requirements. “Because ICIP is an as-of-right program, with no discretion for local elected officials, there is now no opportunity to decide if a given project is worth subsidizing,” the Addabbo campaign noted.

Maspeth resident Laura Tapia, who is a RWDSU organizer, said that Addabbo is needed in Albany to support workers with living wages. “When elected officials like Serf Maltese vote against raising the minimum wage [in 2004], he hurts all workers,” she said. “And when elected officials like Serf Maltese don’t mandate that businesses receiving subsidies from programs like ICIP pay living wages and benefits, it hurts all workers.”

The ICIP program cost the city $512 million in taxes it otherwise would have collected in 2008 alone, according to the Addabbo campaign. That is more than double the $190 million that the program provided in tax breaks in 2002.

The Maltese campaign did not respond to a message seeking comment on the Senator’s views on ICIP and small business.

Kew Gardens Man Killed in Afghanistan

Leaves Behind Wife, Three Children

By Conor Greene

A Kew Gardens man serving in Afghanistan with the New York Army National Guard was killed when his vehicle rolled over last week.

Specialist Jason von Zerneck died on October 2 in Qara Bagh Karze while taking part in a logistical convoy, according to the Department of Defense.The 33-year-old leaves behind a wife and three children and is also survived by his parents.

Von Zerneck was assigned to B Troop, 2nd Squadron 101st Cavalry based in Jamestown. The unit was responsible for training the Afghan National Army in eastern Afghanistan.

“All members of the of the New York National Guard will morn the loss of this solider who died defending his country and seeking to help the people of Afghanistan,” said Major General Joseph Taluto. Von Zerneck was promoted to Specialist posthumously.

His father told NY1 news that his son died doing what he felt was the right thing. “He came to love his brothers, his comrades, the fighting 69th,” said Richard von Zerneck. “He spoke with such glowing terms of them. The e-mails we got from him in Afghanistan, he sounded happy. He sounded that he felt he was doing the right thing.”

His mother, Barbara, told the Daily News that she fell to the floor when she saw Army officers come to her door on Monday. “I knew what it was,” she said. “He loved his family… He was hopeful that he would be coming home in January.”

The die-hard Yankees and Rangers fan was a graduate of Bronx Science High School and served with the New York National Guard since 2006. He was a compliance officer with Bank of America. Before his unit shipped out in January,Von Zerneck told the New York Times that the hardest part of the deployment was leaving behind his family.

“My wife is going to be a single mother for a whole year,” he said, adding that many New Yorkers don’t realize how many city residents are serving overseas. “Some of the soldiers in this unit come from the poorest neighborhoods. These are the people who are putting their lives on the line for the city and the country and sometimes that is forgotten.”

The family has requested a private funeral.

“We mourn this loss with his family and we will do everything possible to help them through this tragedy,” said Major General Taluto. “We are united, though, in our admiration for Specialist von Zerneck’s dedication to his mission, to his brothers and sisters in arms, and to the people of New York and the United States of America.”

Von Zerneck is the seventh member of the New York Army National Guard to die in Afghanistan since the 27th Brigade Combat Team deployed there in April. He is also the third member of the 1st Battalion 69th Infantry to die in Afghanistan. There are currently 1,500 members of the New York Army National Guard serving in Afghanistan and about 500 in Iraq.

Sergeant Andrew Seabrooks of South Ozone Park was killed on June 21 when his Humvee was struck by an improvised explosive device near Kandahar. First Lt. Daniel Farkas, a police officer assigned to the 112th Precinct in Forest Hills, died on July 4 at Camp Phoenix in a non-hostile incident that is still under investigation.