Thursday, February 26, 2009

This Week's Forum South and West

Weiner Calls for Federal Help for Small Businesses

All Kidding Aside: Eric Ulrich Wins Big in 32nd Council District

Hearing on Maspeth School Proposal Postponed

Mattone Group to Manage Atlas Park Mall

Initial Contract for Ridgewood Reservoir Approved

Huge Federal Pot Bust in Middle Village

Woodhaven Man Charged with DWI Outside Astoria Nightclub

Queens Gun Buyback Nets Record Haul

Editorial: Gun Buyback is a Good First Step

Main JFK Airport Runway to be Reconstructed

Human Rights Worker Admits to Possessing Child Porn

Weiner Calls for Federal Help for Small Businesses


By Conor Greene

With small businesses throughout Queens closing “at an alarming rate” due to the staggering economy, Congressman Anthony Weiner is hoping that money included in the federal stimulus plan will help jump start the fortunes of small store owners.

“Small businesses here in Queens are really struggling,” Rep. Weiner (D-Queens) told a group of reporters at a press conference last Thursday outside a string of vacant storefronts on Austin Street in Forest Hills.

The congressman’s staff recently conducted a study of 10 main shopping districts throughout the borough, including Myrtle Avenue, Woodhaven Boulevard, Sutphin Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue, and found at least 211 vacancies. According to Weiner, that number represents a 12% vacancy rate among community stores in Queens, which he called the “lifeblood of the community.”

The current vacancy rate represents more than twice as many as last year, with each neighborhood losing an average of 20 stores, according to the study. “When the economy catches a cold, small businesses catch pneumonia,” said Weiner, who is running for mayor this year. “Too many community shops… are hit hard by this downturn. The stimulus package will help jump start Queens businesses.”

A concern for Weiner is the overall effect vacancies can have on a shopping district like Austin Street. “It can have ramifications for the entire block… It leads to the mood of the whole community being down,” he said.

Aside from the “knee-deep recession” the city is facing, Weiner chalked the small business owners’ struggles up to landlords who continue to charge sky-high rents and “the city’s relentless pursuit” of shoppers committing parking violations. “The rents are not coming down with the economy” and the city needs to create a “more tolerant environment” for merchants and shoppers, said Weiner.

To help ease the pain small business owners are facing, the federal stimulus package contains $750 million to improve existing Small Business Administration loan programs and to create more loan opportunities. It will also double the amount owners are allowed to write off for equipment and property expenses to $250,000 and increase the carry back period of net operating losses from two to five years.

“Hopefully the stimulus will provide some help,” said Weiner, who was joined at the press conference by Javier Valdes, whose family owns a chain of four Latin Cabana restaurants in the borough, including on Austin Street and in the Queens Center Mall.

“It’s been rough because the rents are high,” said Valdes, who said he pays $6,000 a month for a 400-square-foot space, a rate he called “astronomical numbers for a neighborhood that is not doing as well as it was.”

“This was our number one store when we opened two years ago. It’s a possibility that we may be shutting down,” said Valdes when asked how his business was doing. “Once they get to here, they turn back around,” he noted of shoppers who don’t make it all the way down Austin Street because of the row of vacant storefronts near the intersection of 72nd Road.

Recently, business at the Forest Hills location is down about $3,000 a week, which “for a small business is a lot,” said Valdes, and the mall location is down $10,000 since December. “They are all helping each other at the moment,” he said of the four stores.

Austin Street’s vacancy rate of about 5% (ten vacancies out of 181 storefronts) is lower than other areas such as Woodhaven Boulevard (17% or 9 vacancies out of 52 storefronts between 64th Road and the expressway) and Jamaica Avenue (23% or 80 vacancies out of 335 storefronts). Still, “there is a tipping point on streets like Austin,” stressed Weiner, at which point the area is no longer attractive to investors. “It’s about where we are at now.”

At least one other small business owner said Austin Street’s struggles have more to do with high rents than the economy. “This guy is just greedy. The street’s not in great shape but I don’t think it’s this bad,” said Marla Cornego, referring to the three vacant stores in front of which Weiner held the press conference.

“He’s greedy – that’s why it’s empty,” continued Cornego, who owns 5 Burro Café on Austin Street. “If the landlord weren’t so greedy and allowed you to make a living… This is not indicative of the rest of the street.”

According to Cornego, the owner of the hair salon that formerly occupied one of the empty spaces paid $10,000 a month at that location. She has since moved down the block to a larger space that costs her $6,000 a month, said Cornego.

A call to Sutton Garrett Real Estate, which is seeking tenants for its Austin Street property, was not returned.

While Grand Avenue in Maspeth wasn’t included in the congressman’s survey, local business owner Tony Nunziato said it appears that newer stores are struggling the most. “The larger, newer stores that came in within the last year or two, some of them are closing,” said Nunziato, owner of Enchanted Florist. “I would think they’re the ones hit the hardest because they didn’t have time to acclimate.”

Nunziato expects the next six months or so to be make-or-break for many small businesses.“October was when everything really started to go bad, so everyone will hold on for six months. By the summer, that’s when you will see who can hold on. Up to June I believe is the most crucial.”

“The beauty of Maspeth is that most of the stores have been here a while and they serve the town,” added Nunziato. “When residents support [the local businesses], then Main Street thrives. It is rough definitely, every business is down, but they’re holding on.”

Weiner warned that this is a problem that will continue to get worse without help from the federal government. “This is not just a passing fad. It is a trend we’re seeing all over Queens,” he said.

All Kidding Aside: Ulrich Wins Big

By Patricia Adams

An electrified crowd of hundreds of supporters greeted City Councilman–elect Eric Ulrich, winner of the much talked-about special election in the 32nd Council district, as he made his way through the entrance of his victory party at Villa Russo on Tuesday evening. “When I walked through the door, I just couldn’t believe all those people had shown up.”

“I don’t know who is paying for all this food, but this is some party,” Ulrich joked with the exuberant audience. But there was something beside humor and happiness that contributed to the infectious mood throughout the room. It was an unmistakable sense of pride and accomplishment shared by all those in the room.

Before he actually took to the podium, Ulrich made several stops in the crowd to thank some special people. But one in particular got the biggest greeting from the second youngest member ever to be elected to the New York City Council—his grandmother Rosemary. “I was born to a single mother and my grandmother has been a major part of my upbringing. I thank her for her constant support and love. I would not be here without her or the rest of my family.”

Ulrich, who is well known for singing the praises of grandma's baking skills, couldn’t resist the opportunity to tell the crowd that Rosemary had personally baked cookies for all the polling sites.

Ulrich spent the special Election Day visiting poll sites from Rockaway to Ozone Park. On Tuesday afternoon he told The Forum, “I think we’re going to win it. I think there is tremendous support for my candidacy on the peninsula as well as the mainland. It’s a great feeling to have many of the Rockaway seniors whispering in my ear, ‘Hey Eric, we’re voting for you.’ When asked how he would best describe his feelings about the day, Ulrich thought a moment and said, “I am truly humbled.” And the humility carried through to the first statements Ulrich made to his soon-to-beconstituency.

“We all got to this victory together,” Ulrich began. “It’s been hard because of everything that happened in this election. People write you off and they say a lot of things. They talked about my inexperience and they said I was a kid. Well tonight I am the comeback kid.” After a thunderous round of applause, Ulrich added one more promise to his loyalists. “I have my foot in the door and they’re gonna have to pry me out of it.”

Before concluding his remarks the new Councilman to be thanked one more special person, his fiancé Yadira. The couple met at St. Francis College and plan to be married in November. “I promised her that if I won I would go get measured for a tuxedo.”

After receiving a call from Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Eric will spend his first day at City Hall on Thursday. According to campaign sources, the election commissioners will meet next week and the date for a swearing in ceremony will be announced.

Hearing on Maspeth School Postponed

Crowley Vows to Fight for Local Priority

By Conor Greene

The debate over whether the city should build an 1,100-seat high school on the former Restaurant Depot property in Maspeth will rage on for at least another month.

This week, a City Council land use subcommittee agreed to delay a hearing on the proposal for thirty days at the urging of Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley. That gives the community more time to iron out several issues before the city seeks approval to build the facility on land at 57th Avenue and 74th Street.

Meanwhile, the city’s attempt to buy the property is moving forward on a parallel track, according to William Havemann, spokesman for the Department of Education. As reported in last week’s Forum West, a meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. today (Thursday, February 26) in PS 58 on Grand Avenue regarding the city’s possible use of eminent domain to acquire the land from owner Lucky Star Elmhurst LLC.

“The process for getting the school site and the proposal approved by the City Council is slightly different than the actual process of acquiring the site,” explained Havemann. “So far, we have not been able to reach an agreement with the property owner, so we’re laying the groundwork to use eminent domain to acquire the site if needed.”

He said the department has had “ongoing communications” with Lucky Star Elmhurst, which purchased the industrially-zoned property for $12.6 million in 2006, but declined to characterize the discussions.

However, Councilwoman Crowley said her support for the project hinges on whether the DOE will guarantee that it will serve local children. “My stance on the school has never changed,” she said during an interview on Monday. “We need to make sure it is primarily for locals.”

Crowley said that a recent meeting with the office of Schools Chancellor Joel Klein “did not go very well” due to her stance that she will not support the project “if [DOE] can’t guarantee those seats are for our community.”

While it is rare that a councilmember wouldn’t support a school project in their district, Crowley vowed to take that step if the project isn’t going to serve local children. “We have to come to some kind of consensus if it is built. I hope we do because I think there is a need for more seats.”

The DOE, however, has a citywide policy against giving high schools local zoning, and instead prefers to leave them open to students around the city – especially as many are themed schools that have a specific focus.

“We believe very strongly on choice at the high school level,” said Havemann. “I don’t want to take anything off the table, but I do want to say that we’ve never done it in the past and it is bad policy.”

However, the DOE also has “not taken off the table the idea of giving priority to students within the district,” said Havemann, adding that there is a “subtle but important difference” between the two classifications. Under the current plan, priority would be given to all Queens students, with any remaining open seats being offered to students citywide. However, the DOE will consider giving that priority to District 24 students first, said Havemann.

The new school is scheduled to open in the fall of 2012. The original proposal – which was overwhelmingly rejected by Community Board 5 – called for 1,650 seats serving both intermediate and high school students. The DOE later came back to the community with the current proposal, which includes 1,000 high school seats divided into two smaller schools along with an additional 100 seats for special education students.

Even if priority is given to District 24 students, there remains a segment of residents who argue that this site is not appropriate for a school. Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, noted that there already are two schools within three blocks of the proposed site and fears the area will become oversaturated with youngsters. He also is weary of any promises the DOE makes in order to win community support for the school.

“The danger is they can promise you anything, but once it is built, what are you going to do when they change that,” argued Holden. “It’s a slippery slope. They can promise you stuff, but delivering is something else. They don’t want to make exceptions, but to get it built these people will promise you anything. But to deliver is another – they’ll come up with anything.”

Holden has also expressed concern at public meetings that the amount of seats will actually be closer to the 1,650 originally planned for once the building is completed. He pointed out that the city’s public notice advertising public meetings on the issue refer to the project as having “approximately” 1,100 seats.

According to Havemann, the proposal will go back before the City Council land use subcommittee in about thirty days. If it is approved at that point, it will go to the full City Council membership for final approval. “If it is approved we then move ahead, either with eminent domain or if we can reach an agreement with the property owner.”

Recognizing that the area’s councilmember is currently not on board with the project, Havemann conceded, “I think it would be fair to say that usually a proposal will go forward only with approval of the local councilperson… Our priority is to make sure this district gets another high school, as District 24 is one of the most overcrowded in the city. We hope we can work with the councilwoman to get this done.”

Mattone Group to Manage Atlas Park

By Conor Greene

College-based Mattone Group is taking over the management duties at the Shops at Atlas Park, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions. The decision comes about a month after the Hemmerdinger family, which built the mall on family-owned property, was removed as management team after defaulting on its loan.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale) said she welcomed the news that a local firm would be taking reins at the upscale outdoor shopping center, which has struggled since opening in April 2006. She said she had a brief conversation with Michael Mattone after learning that his firm secured the contract.

“I said to him, ‘Bring us a Target.’ I shop at Target, and my neighbors shop there,” said Crowley, alluding to complaints that the mall doesn’t have stores that appeal to the general population. While the mall might not have a large enough space to accommodate a large big box store, Crowley said she is hopeful that Mattone will bring a new vision to the mall’s management.

“They have practical stores that people in Queens can use,” she said of other area Mattone Group projects. “We can trust that they will work with our community to see that Atlas serves both their concerns and the needs of residents,” she said.

News that Mattone Group is taking control of Atlas Park came after Damon Hemmerdinger, whose family-owned company ATCO Properties developed the mall, announced on January 21 that its French lenders would be appointing a new management team.

French-based lenders Calyon and Societe Generale have declined to comment on the appointment of Mattone Group since word of the deal spread early this week. Calls to the Mattone Group were not returned.

In his January 21 letter to tenants and community leaders, Hemmerdinger, whose father is chairman of the MTA, wrote that, “despite the sluggish economy, traffic on the property was up 30% in 2008, and even held during December, as more people discovered Atlas Park, liked it and returned.” He added that 12 new stores opened last year, and “a number of new stores are forecasted to open in the next six months.”

“ATCO is a solid business, and will continue to operate its other assets, including Atlas Terminals, within the tradition of excellence that we have long upheld,” wrote Hemmerdinger. “ATCO will seek growth opportunities as the economy turns around. Once of these opportunities will be the redevelopment of our remaining properties in Glendale… Our belief in the community remains strong.”

Hemmerdinger noted that the company has “no firm plans for how and when we will proceed” with development of land surrounding the mall, near the intersection of 80th Street and Cooper Avenue. The family still owns about 12 acres there, and some residents have expressed concern over the past year that the family would build a hotel and office space on the land, which is zoned for manufacturing.

Crowley expressed hope that the new firm would eliminate the parking fee, which many residents have complained about. She noted that mall traffic seemed to increase during the weeks last summer when the Hemmerdingers temporarily suspended the fee.

She also said that rents “absolutely” are too high. “The Hemmerdingers know how to run Manhattan high-rise properties,” she said. “They had a lot of bad luck,” including nationwide bankruptcies of tenants including Bombay and Blue Tulip, and the decision by Starbucks to close its Atlas Park location in the coming months. “They don’t have enough diversity and selection, so they don’t have the volume of shoppers,” said Crowley.

She pointed out that stores in a nearby shopping complex along Woodhaven Boulevard near Metropolitan Avenue are doing well, including recently-opened Panera Bread. “They’re opening in the same economy, but they’re opening the right stores,” she said.

Crowley also criticized the MTA for “wasting money” while it has a huge budget gap in order to reroute the Q45 bus to the mall last year, at the urging of the Hemmerdinger family. Many residents opposed the move and said that Dale Hemmerdinger’s involvement with both the MTA and the family-owned mall constituted a conflict of interest.

“It’s a beautiful space, and I would like for it to be developed in the future with the community’s continued input,” said Crowley.

The Mattone Group owns and leases more than 1.5 million square feet of commercial real estate, including the Pathmark Plaza in Springfield Gardens, Jamaica Center, Waterside Estates at Cresthaven in Whitestone and the Embassy Tower building in Manhattan, according to its website.

The firm had entered into discussions with utility company KeySpan in 2003 to build a Home Depot or other large store on the former Elmhurst gas tanks property. However, the city struck a deal with the energy giant to buy the land for $1 after community groups against fought the deal.

Initial Contract for Ridgewood Reservoir Approved

Comptroller Gives Parks OK for Perimeter Work

By Conor Greene

After a false start last summer, the city comptroller has signed off on a contract for design work around the perimeter of Ridgewood Reservoir.

Comptroller William Thompson announced last week that he has approved a preliminary design contract between the city Parks Department and Mark K. Morrison Associations. It allows for design work to begin at the perimeter of the Ridgewood Reservoir, which is located within Highland Park near the Brooklyn boundary.

The project, which comes following substantial community input, will include installation of fences, lighting, steps and benches and will increase public safety on the reservoir’s walking paths. The contract also calls for MMA to issue “three conceptual plans” concerning the overall construction and design of the reservoir, including one design dedicated to “passive” recreation.

“I am happy to announce the approval of a contract to begin the design of the perimeter of Ridgewood Reservoir, which will greatly improve the safety of those who utilize the space as a means of recreation,” said Thompson in a statement. “Under this new agreement, we have ensured that the public will have a say in the ongoing design and construction process of the rest of the reservoir each step of the way.”

Last summer, Thompson rejected a $3.3 million contract Parks attempted to enter into with MMK which would have involved converting one of the property’s three basins into ballfields. Doing so would have required that between 11,700 and 27,500 large truckloads of fill would have been transported through local streets.

When he rejected the contract last July, Thompson noted that he has “consistently urged the city to rethink its plans to develop” the 50-acre site, which he called “an accidental wilderness” in a New York Times op-ed piece he co-wrote with Robert F. Kennedy.

In the letter to Parks rejecting the first contract, Thompson argued that due to the “sensitive ecological nature of the location,” the project’s environmental review process is of heightened importance and “must have maximum transparency.” He also expressed concern that under the proposed contract, the vendor responsible for the environmental review would be a subcontractor working for the architect, “who has a vested interest in pursuing construction of a $38 million project.”

The news was well received by advocates who are pushing to have the reservoir’s thick shrubs, trees and wetlands preserved for hiking, bird-watching and other passive recreation. On the other side are those who want the property developed for active recreation, including ballfields.

To prevent the public from being excluded from discussions about the future of the property, Thompson and Parks “also have established a protocol within the contract that requires the public to have a say in the design process prior to and after the initial design concepts are created.”

The reservoir, which sits on the Brooklyn-Queens border, was built in 1848 to provide drinking water to Brooklyn residents. It was converted as a back-up reservoir in 1959 and taken off-line in 1989. Since then, tree, plants, turtles, fish, frogs and more than 137 bird species, including eight rare ones identified on the National Audubon Society’s “Watch List,” thrive on the land, according to the comptroller’s office.

Since rejecting the initial contract last June, representatives from Thompson’s office have attended a number of meetings to address the concerns of the project with community members. “This contract creates a level of community input that enables this process to be open and transparent,” he said. “By involving all parties in the process, the final result will better reflect the best interests of all involved.”

The reservoir property was controlled by the city Department of Environmental Protection until 2004, when it was turned over to the Parks Department. Through Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative, $50 million has been allocated for improvements there – leading to the current battle over what type of development should occur.

“The Parks Department is pleased that the Comptroller has approved the preliminary design contract so that the Parks can begin the design process and incorporate the input gained in numerous public listening sessions, meetings, surveys, and tours with the community, local elected officials, community boards and local environmental organizations since 2007,” a spokeswoman wrote in a statement.

The statement adds that Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe took Comptroller Thompson on a tour of the reservoir last fall, and that Highland Park is one of eight large parks being redesigned through PlaNYC, which aims to ensure that every New Yorker lives within a ten-minute walk of a park or open space.

Huge Federal Pot Bust in Middle Village

Investigation Started with Routine Traffic Stop

A routine motor vehicle stop by officers from the 104th Precinct last year has led to one of the biggest drug busts in Queens history.

Last week, federal drug agents seized 50,000 pounds of marijuana and arrested ten people in connection with a scheme that led from Canada to Queens, according to authorities. Over the past six years, the ring smuggled pot worth millions of dollars from British Columbia to New York, with the drugs entering the country through the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation on the Canada-New York border.

The ring used a house on Penelope Avenue in Middle Village to package and distribute the marijuana. However, authorities caught wind of the operation after officers from the 104th Precinct conducted a routine motor vehicle stop at the intersection of 61st Drive and 84th Street for a minor traffic violation last February.

A computer check revealed that the driver, Mersim Kolenovic, 28, of Forest Hills, was driving with a suspended license. While questioning Kolenovic and the passenger, 28-year-old Slobodan Pavicervic of Middle Village, the officers saw a gravity knife inside the vehicle.

As a result, the two men were taken into custody. The men’s Lexus sedan was taken to the precinct stationhouse, at which point police noticed a strong odor of marijuana. The precinct’s Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit found 18 large bags of pot inside the vehicle’s trunk containing a total of nine pounds of the drug.

According to report, it was that traffic stop that opened the investigation into the cross-border smuggling ring. Canadian nationals Randolf Square, 34, and David Sunday, 37, allegedly masterminded the operation and face 20 years in prison if convicted. They were arraigned last week in Brooklyn Federal Court and ordered held without bail. Eight others, who helped package and distribute the drugs from the Penelope Avenue home, face up to 10 years in prison.

A federal source told the Daily News that it was the men’s sloppiness that led to their downfall. “His sloppiness led to this bust. He was driving with a suspended license while carrying nine pounds of pot,” he said. “This will go down in history as one of the biggest pot busts ever.”

The federal government is now moving to seize assets used in the operation, including $100 million in alleged profits and the titles to several homes, including one on Penelope Avenue in Middle Village. The group is believed to have moved more than one ton of marijuana over the past six years.

Woodhaven Man Charged with DWI Outside Astoria Nightclub

Seven Run Down While Standing on Astoria Sidewalk

A 24-year-old Woodhaven man has been charged with running down seven people outside an Astoria nightclub while driving drunk, according to authorities.

Renis Kuci, of 83-25 98th Street in Woodhaven was arraigned on Monday morning in Queens Criminal Court on charges of second-degree assault, first-degree reckless endangerment, second-degree vehicular assault, reckless assault, DWI and speeding. He was released on $5,000 bail and faces up to seven years if convicted on all charges.

Authorities said Kuci was driving his black BMW at more than 70 miles per hour while drunk when he lost control near the intersection of Steinway Street and Northern Boulevard, in front of El Noa Noa nightclub, at 4:30 a.m. Sunday. While attempting to make a turn, Kuci spun the vehicle in a circle and drove it onto the sidewalk, striking seven pedestrians.

The victims ranged in age from 20 to 34 years old, according to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, and suffered injuries including a broken leg, cuts and bruises and swelling. Following his arrest, Kuci told officers from the 114th Precinct that he had “a few drinks” and refused to take a breathalyzer test, said Brown.

“This defendant’s alleged choice to drive after admittedly drinking alcohol turned his vehicle into a dangerous weapon,” said Brown. “Seven innocent people were injured and are lucky to be alive. This case will be vigorously prosecuted.”

Kuci had recently been laid off from his job with an air conditioning company, according to his mother, who told the New York Post that her son “isn’t one to drink.”

Witness Rezaul Rabby, 21, described the vehicle as traveling as fast as 90 miles per hour in the 30-mile-per-hour zone. “[People] were under the car, and all I could see were legs and hands,” he told the paper. “It was, like, torture.”

Witnesses said a handcuffed Kuci kissed his girlfriend and told police, “I don’t know what I did” before he was led from the scene, according to the Daily News.

Queens Gun Buyback Nets Record Haul

The recent gun buyback program held by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown and the NYPD collected a record 919 weapons at sites throughout south Queens and the Rockaway Peninsula.

“Our one-day gun buyback effort has proven to be a huge success – far exceeding our expectations – by taking more than 900 weapons out of circulation,” said Brown. “I think it is fair to say that the citizens of Queens County are safer today as a result.”

The buyback program was held last weekend at six churches in Jamaica, Laurelton, Saint Albans and Far Rockaway. Individuals in possession of illegal or unwanted guns were allowed to anonymously trade them in for a $200 bank card, while functional BB guns and air pistols were exchanged for $20bank cards. The cards can be used as a debit card or to withdraw money at any ATM.

“Six churches in St. Albans, Jamaica and the Rockaways helped us collect 919 guns – the most ever collected since we began our buyback program,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said the total number of guns collected citywide through buyback programs has reached 3,500. “That’s 3,500 guns that won’t end up on our streets in the hands of criminals, won’t be involved in tragic household accidents or crimes, and won’t ever be pointed at police officers or civilians.”

According to NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, the city has collected an additional 5,000 guns over the past seven years through its program of offering $100, no questions asked, to individuals who return guns to any precinct stationhouse in the city.

“Our partnership with the city’s clergy and their congregations has worked miracles,” said Kelly. “That’s 5,000 guns [collected at stationhouses] over seven years. But over the course of just six Saturdays, we have recovered over 3,000 guns by having them turned in at houses of worship and by doubling the reward to $200 with matching contributions from our district attorneys. It is a life saving program.”

Added Brown: “The Queens gun buyback initiative is another example of the partnership that exists in this city between police, prosecutor and the communities that we serve to improve the quality of life of our residents and to lower the level of violence in the city."

Editorial: Gun Buyback is a Good First Step

Kudos to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly for finally holding a gun buyback program in Queens, after holding one in every other borough last year. While it took some prodding by Councilman James Sanders, we are very pleased to see that funds for this worthy program were set aside.

The program is especially needed in south and east Queens, where homicides increased by a staggering rate last year. Within the areas covered by Borough Patrol Queens South, which includes precincts in Richmond Hill, Jamaica and Ozone Park, homicides jumped from 43 in 2007 to 71 last year.

Fortunately, the gun buyback program, held last Saturday at six churches throughout the area, proved successful and will hopefully lead to others in the future. A total of 919 working guns were collected, including 254 revolvers, 137 semi-automatic pistols and seven assault rifles. That marks a record for a single-day buyback in the city, eclipsing the 700-plus total reached last October in Manhattan.

Individuals were invited to bring working, illegal weapons to one of the churches in exchange for a $200 Chase bank debit card, no questions asked.

With lives constantly being lost in association with illegal guns – and our federal gun control laws severely lacking –the city’s monetary investment in this program is a priceless investment. In this case, the 919 weapons cost the NYPD and the district attorney’s office a total of $158,880.

Officials including Councilman Sanders (D-Laurelton) are hopeful that future buybacks will be even more successful, especially as the weather improves and word spreads that individuals really can drop the weapons off without fear. Until our federal government gets serious about keeping illegal guns from flowing onto our streets, this is one of the best tools authorities have to help rid the city of illegal firearms. We hope that District Attorney Brown builds on this momentum and hosts another event later this year.

Main JFK Airport Runway to be Reconstructed

$376 Million Project to Reduce Delays

The main runway at JFK Airport – which handled nearly a half million flights last year – will be widened and rebuilt under a $376 million project announced last week.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Board of Commissioners voted last Thursday to approve the $376.3 million second phase of the airport’s delay reduction program. As part of the project, the airport’s Bay Runway will be reconstructed and widened by 50 feet to accommodate the world’s largest commercial aircraft.

Work will begin in June and is scheduled to be completed by 2011. The main runway will be closed for 120 days between March and June of next year, at which time the airport’s three other runways will be utilized to their full capabilities to mitigate delays. The main runway measures 14,572 feet long – more than two miles – and handles about a third of the airport’s annual operations, including more than half of all departures.

This phase of the ongoing delay reduction program includes construction of additional access points on nearby taxiways, new taxiways that will improve aircraft queuing and enable swifter departures and easier access from taxiways to terminal gates, which officials say will save time on the ground for every passenger at JFK.

“These projects have a single goal: to give every one of our 48 million annual customers at JFK a more efficient, passenger-friendly airport,” said Port Authority Chairman Anthony Coscia. “This robust investment also is creating construction jobs – more than 1,000 workers in the peak period – which is certainly welcome news in the present economy.”

The runway reconstruction project includes milling six inches of existing runway asphalt and overlaying with 18 inches of concrete, which has a lifespan of up to five times more than asphalt and will provide an estimated long-term savings of $500 million; widening the runway from 150 to 200 feet to accommodate the world’s largest commercial aircraft; installing new runway lighting and electrical infrastructure; and installing new electrical feeder systems and accommodations for future navigational aids.

The materials required for this project includes enough concrete cement to pave every National Football League field to a two-foot depth, and enough asphalt to equal the weight of six Titanics.

“This is economic stimulus in real time,” said Port Authority Executive Director Chris Ward. “These investments will create jobs, reduce flight delays and increase our airport’s capacity to handle more planes.”

Also at its meeting on February 19, the authority’s board voted to increase the luggage cart rental fee from $3 to $5 at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports to fund replacement and improvements to the carts and equipment.

Human Rights Worker Admits to Possessing Child Porn at JFK

The director of a human rights organization with ties to the United Nations has pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography, a month after he was nabbed with DVDs while boarding a plane at JFK Airport.

Clarence J. Dias, 65, of White Plains, an attorney and director of the New York City-based International Center for Law in Development, pleaded guilty last Thursday in Queens Criminal Court to one count of possessing an obscene sexual performance by a child. He is expected to receive a conditional discharge and will be ordered to register as a sex offender for the next 20 years when he is sentenced on April 21.

According to the charges, Dias was boarding a Cathay-Pacific Airlines flight to Bangkok on January 20 when Transportation Security Administration personnel found several DVDs containing explicit images of children during a random search of his luggage.

Among the items found was a paper cover featuring nine nude photographs depicting various explicit acts between a pre-pubescent male under the age of twelve and an adult male, according to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. An examination of a portion of the DVD also revealed similar acts being depicted.

“Child pornography strikes at the heart of innocence – sexually victimizing and violating the human rights of the youngest members of our society around the world,” said Brown. “It is often linked to human trafficking and child prostitution. This case is particularly disturbing because the issue of human rights has been the focus of the defendant’s public career.”

Dias’ offices with the International Center for Law are located within the United Nations building in Manhattan. He holds a doctorate in law from Bombay University and has consulted on human rights issues with several U.N agencies, according to his online biography. He has authored three books on human rights and laws in developing countries. The International Center for Law in Development is a nongovernmental organization concerned about human rights in the development process.

According to prosecutors, Dias tried to say the explicit DVD called “Winner Pub Pattaya” was for research after it was located during the search. The video title is a reference to a beach resort in Thailand, and Dias had faced as much as four years in prison on the charges he was originally arrested on.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Wind-Fueled Fire Destorys Woodhaven Homes

City Considers Eminent Domain for Proposed School Site

Local Victims Left in Wake of LI Ponzi Scheme

Civic Gets Detailed Look at Downzoning

State Gives Money to Hospitals; Refuses to Bail Out St. John's and Mary Immaculate

Crimes Issues Discussed at JPCA Meeting

Suspicious Package, Bank Robbery and Perp Search in 104th Pct

Budget Woes Top CB 5 Meeting

Afghan Diplomat Accused of Beating Wife "Like a Dog"

Trying Just Ain't Enought for Atlas Park

DA and NYPD to Host Guy Buyback Program

Nursing Home Worker Convicted of Sex Attack

School Considers Eminent Domain for Proposed School Site

Meeting Slated on Possible Taking of Maspeth Property

By Conor Greene

The city might use eminent domain to seize the former Restaurant Depot property in Maspeth to make room for an 1,100-seat high school, despite not yet having City Council approval for the project.

A meeting on the School Construction Authority’s plan to acquire the property at 74th Street and 57th Avenue using eminent domain is scheduled for Thursday, February 26at 4 p.m. in PS 58 on Grand Avenue in Maspeth. The action comes after Community Board 5’s executive committee voted against the project, and before the City Council has even weighed in on it.

News of the upcoming meeting, which was only advertised through a public notice published in the New York Post and City Record instead of in local papers, left Juniper Park Civic Association President Robert Holden furious.

“Nobody knows about it, and that’s how they like it and it’s at 4 p.m. on a Thursday” said Holden, who has opposed the school due to its proposed location. “This is government at its worst. They didn’t even notify the community board. It’s disgusting, the way this administration does as it pleases.”

The city did not notify CB 5 about the upcoming meeting, according to District Manager Gary Giordano. “What constitutes public notice? Unless you buy those publications, you’re not going to see that,” he said. “If you want to be responsible as far as having a hearing when people can attend, you normally do it in the evening.”

SCA attorney Gregory Shaw said on Wednesday that the hearing is scheduled during business hours because “most people are not interested” about whether eminent domain should be used. “The meetings we have at night are about the project. The eminent domain portion is really about taking the property,” he said. “This is a public hearing to discuss if we are going to use eminent domain, and if the City Council approves it, we then make a decision.”

According to Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale), the scheduled meeting does not necessarily mean the city is planning to use eminent domain to seize the property. Instead, it is a way for the city to protect itself against property owners who raise the price once it becomes known the city is considering buying the land.

“That eminent domain meeting is part of the city’s projects whenever they want to buy a building,” she said. “They’re saying the owner has no right to inflate the cost because he knows the city is interested. It is to protect fair market value and project our city dollars. They’re letting the owner know that they’re going to get a fair market estimate of the cost and are not going to pay some number out of the sky that the owner says its worth.”

Shaw said that eminent domain is being considered in this case because “the seller appears to be unresponsive to our request.” He said the SCA is not aware of anywhere the property is being advertised for sale. “We’ve gotten indications the owner is willing to sell it.”

However, according to an online listing, the property is being offered for sale by Segal Realty of Manhattan for $15 million. Calls to Josh Segal were not immediately returned.

Giordano said opposition to the school has come for two main reasons: fears the already-congested area will become overrun with thousands of school children, as two other schools already exist within two blocks of the proposed site, and the city’s refusal to promise that it will be locally zoned to ensure that neighborhood children can enroll there.

“They say they don’t zone schools locally for the most part,” he said. “That neighborhood will get all that extra traffic and little of the benefits in terms of teenagers from the local community being able to go there. Those are the main reasons it is not sitting well so to speak.”

Crowley is meeting with Schools Chancellor Joel Klein this week to discuss issues the community has raised with the project. She said she has received a lot of input and letters both for and against the project. “The chancellor needs to realize, and the mayor as well, that if we’re going to burden our community with a high school we need a guarantee that students attending it will be from the community. If that’s not an [option], then the school doesn’t have a chance in my opinion.”

For Holden, the whole process has been business as usual for the Department of Education and SCA. He said an SCA official told him that most new schools are themed schools, which are not zoned locally. “I asked why she didn’t bring this up during the two public hearings before the community board, and she said that nobody asked,” said Holden. “This is consistent with how the DOE operates, keeping things secret.”

Local Victims Left in Wake of Ponzi Scam

Agape World, Inc. Had Office on Grand Avenue

By Conor Greene

Almost one month after the arrest of alleged Long Island con artist Nicholas Cosmo on federal mail fraud charges, local residents who invested in Agape World, Inc. are left wondering where their money went and if they will ever recover any of it.

While Cosmo’s business – which federal authorities say was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme that cheated 1,500 people out of about $370 million – was based on Long Island, it also had an office on Grand Avenue in Maspeth. That’s where many Queens residents went to invest their money in hopes of cashing on large returns.

Cosmo was arrested on January 26 following a FBI investigation, which culminated in raids of Agape’s Hauppauge, Jackson Heights and Maspeth offices. The company had promised investors the chance to cash in returns from bridge loans Agape provided to other individuals and companies. Instead, authorities say that just $10 million of $370 million provided by investors was ever loaned out. The rest is believed to have been squandered by Cosmo, who is being held in federal custody.

As the case slowly moves forward, hundreds of local investors have begun banding together in an effort to recover any of the lost money. “We have two objectives – to get information so that we feel connected to the process, and secondly to give each other hope,” said Dom DiColandrea of West Babylon, who has helped mobilize a group of victims and posts updates on a victim’s blog,

“We’re hoping that while Agape may have nothing left, we’re hoping that some of the other parties responsible are going to be held accountable by the law,” continued DiColandrea. “If not under yesterday’s law, we’re hoping that today, lawmakers will look at this as a chance to set precedent for future victims.”

One victim, Ana Nunes, said she lost about $1 million total that she invested with her boyfriend and a friend. Like other victims who spoke with The Forum, she initially was introduced to Agape by somebody she trusted, in this case a colleague. “He said everything was working fine, there was a contract, his broker was a family member, so he was sure it was something good,” said Nunes.

She began by investing a small amount in May 2007 to test the waters before providing additional money several months later. Her confidence in the investment was bolstered in May 2008, when Entrepreneur Magazine ranked Agape World as one of its top 100 fastest-growing businesses. “I was very careful, and then I saw [the article]. Then I started investing a lot of money, and brought on my boyfriend and friend,” she said.

Like many investors, Nunes, 32, became concerned when news broke in September of the $50 billion Ponzi scheme allegedly carried out by Bernard Madoff. “I said I better take some money out and called, but there was never an answer. I called the FBI and said there is something wrong, and one week later he was arrested,” she said. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack. We couldn’t sleep and I never felt so much anger in my life.”

According to Nunes, who works in finance, the totalinvestment had grown to about $1 million by the time the scheme came crashing down. We lost everything… I don’t think he cared.”

Paul McGirr of Flushing said he invested more than $70,000 through Agape’s Maspeth office, starting in March 2007. “I had guys at work that said they were getting 14 percent returns on their money,” he recalled. “I said nobody pays that.”

A week later, a broker discussed the plan with him and said the only risk was losing one percent on the principal investment. After researching the company and calling a few of its investors, McGirr invested $70,000. Soon, his account was up to $79,835, and like most, McGirr listened to his broker’s advice to roll the money over.

In December, when he began noticing that some of the company’s loans were defaulting, he visited the Maspeth office and asked for some of his money. He was told that a check would be issued later that month. When that date came and went, he was told the check would be issued on January 20. “I waited until the 21st and started calling, but I couldn’t get through,” said McGirr. “That night one the news I heard, Long Island businessman arrested…”

Like many victims, McGirr had a “gut feeling that it was going south” over the past couple of months. “I wasn’t sure to what degree and still had some glimmer of hope the check would come on January 20. When January 21 came and the check wasn’t in the mail and I couldn’t get through on the phone, I knew we got scammed.”

A third victim, who lives in Laurelton and asked that her name not be used, invested $10,000 – the minimum amount – with her husband. She was referred to one of Agape’s brokers through her accountant, which led her to believe it was legit. “He showed us checks with these returns, and it looked good, a check for seven thousand, five thousand. Who wouldn’t want that if your account was showing you it?” she recalled.

Starting in July 2007, the couple watched as their investment grew to nearly $20,000as they kept rolling the dividends over. The return fell from 12% to 10% in August 2008, as people began trying to get their money back.

“We did get concerned and went out and talked to [broker] Anthony Massaro, but he assured us everything was okay,” she said. “When the Madoff thing hit the fan, my husband thought we might be in a Ponzi scheme.”

About three weeks after their final office visit, she heard on the radio that Cosmo had been arrested. “I could kill him,” the victim said. “I’m sorry about the people who invested so much more. I was trying to get my husband to pull out money elsewhere to put in there. We would have been wiped out clean, our daughter’s college fund, everything.”

In the same way each victim was brought into the scam in a similar manner, many have similar advice for others. “If it looks too good to be true, it’s rotten,” said the Laurelton victim. “Because it was my accountant who told me, I figured it had to be good. Whether it’s the accountant of the Pope, run away – don’t walk.”

Said McGirr: “If you’re making more than eight or nine percent, there is no such thing. Thoroughly check it out, and only go with a big house broker. This individual crap, forget about it, you got no backing, no leg to stand on when it goes south.”

Civic Gets Detailed Look at Downzoning

Effort Intended to Retain Area’s Character

By Conor Greene

Years after volunteers went door-to-door to survey the neighborhood’s existing character their efforts are starting to pay off, as a new zoning plan might be approved by the end of the summer.

A detailed look at the plan to downzone portions of Maspeth, Middle Village and Glendale highlighted Juniper Park Civic Association’s meeting last Thursday in Our Lady of Hope. The rezoning, which has been underway for three years, is intended to preserve the neighborhoods’ character and prevent out-of-context development.

The plan could be certified by the Department of City Planning (DCP) as soon as April, meaning it would go to the City Council for final approval in late summer or early fall – which can’t come soon enough for residents who have watched as developers destroyed countless blocks with huge projects allowed under the existing zoning.

“Hopefully we will have our neighborhood back from these developers who build big homes,” said JPCA President Robert Holden, who has taken the city to task over the past few years as the downzoning effort languished in the DCP. “We’ve been waiting for three long years.”

City Planning representative Tom Smith walked the roomful of residents and officials through the plan, which covers more than 300 blocks within the three neighborhoods. He explained that the majority of the current R-4 zoning “really allows for a full variety” of housing styles, including one, two and three family units and apartment buildings as tall as four stories.

“The problem is it doesn’t necessarily match up with the existing character,” said Smith. In addition, the R-4 zoning is susceptible to “infill” projects, which allows development of greater density on land surrounded by previously developed parcels. “We went lot by lot, block by block… to really match [the new zoning] to what the building character is.”

The result in the majority of the study area is zoning that allows for one-and-two-family homes as tall as three-stories, according to Smith. The densest type of development would be in R5D districts along Myrtle Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard allowing three-and four-story buildings with first-floor retail space.

However, about 40 blocks that were included in the study area will not be rezoned under the current plan, said Smith. He said the “vast majority are row homes” in areas that “don’t fit into contextual zones.” Smith described these areas as “stable with very little development.” Since they are already built out, “it wouldn’t make any sense to add to these buildings or to take them down,” said Smith.

Still, Paul Graziano, a certified urban planner who assisted the JPCA with the downzoning effort, said he is concerned that such large swaths of the neighborhood are remaining R-4, which leaves them vulnerable to infill development.

“When you get areas that are rezoning, but have areas that are not rezoned, a lot of the development pressure goes there, even if it is not happening now,” he said in response to Smith’s assertion that the areas left untouched have not been targeted by developers in recent years.

Holden blamed infill development on many of the cases where developers replace a one-family home with a three-family building. “That’s what destroys our neighborhood – no parking, congestion,” he said. “The developers are controlling what’s going on here. We’re going to take this, but we’re going to fight [against] infill.”

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale) vowed to push the project forward and noted that the environmental review process, which takes about six weeks, is underway. “It really affects our quality of life day to day,” said Crowley. “It protects a lot of blocks.”

According to DCP, zoning for the area has remained unchanged since 1961 and this effort comes at the request of the community after portions of Middle Village and Glendale were rezoned in 2006. “The Department of City Planning’s blueprint for the area is intended to respect and reinforce the existing build character,” said a spokeswoman in a statement. “Last week’s meeting was an opportunity for the Department to share our draft proposal and build a consensus.”

State Provides Funding to Area Hospitals; Refuses to Bail Out St. John's and Mary Immaculate

By Conor Greene

After refusing to bailout bankrupt St. John’s and Mary Immaculate hospitals, the state Department of Health announced on Wednesday that it is providing money to other area facilities to help deal with a spike in patients.

St. John’s in Elmhurst and Mary Immaculate in Jamaica stopped admitting patients on Saturday, including to their emergency rooms, as they prepare to close completely in the coming weeks. The move comes a week after parent company Caritas Health Care filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and submitted a closure plan to the state.

Last Friday, residents, community leaders and hospital staff gathered outside St. John’s in a last-ditch effort to convince Governor David Paterson to step in and save the hospitals.

However, their demands fell on deaf ears, and the hospitals began restricting admissions at midnight – leading to concerns that other area facilities will become overburdened by the increased demand for their services.

On Wednesday, state Health Commissioner Richard Daines announced $18 million in grants being provided to local hospitals “to ensure that residents of Queens continue to have access to essential health care services.” The money will also provide job placement services to the nearly 3,000 health care workers who lost their jobs when St. John’s and Mary Immaculate closed.

“These grants will help other health care facilities in the area expand their capacity to absorb the patients previously handled by these two Caritas hospitals and assist workers in finding new employment,” said Daines in a statement.

The grants include $14.5 million to expand capacity at eight facilities serving the Queens community and the extension of a state Department of Health contract with 1199 SIEU for the Displaced Workers Program. That will make up to $3 million available for job counseling, placement and retraining for displaced workers.

According to the press release, the state DOH has given “contingent approval for the closure plan” submitted by Caritas. “Despite over $55 million in state loans to Caritas, the hospital system was unable to develop a viable plan for continued operation,” the release notes.

In addition to the $3 million contract extension to 1199 SIEU for job counseling, placement and retraining, the following grants have been awarded:

•Health and Hospitals Corporation of New York City will receive
$3.6 million to expand patient capacity and emergency room services at its Elmhurst and Queens Hospital Centers;

•Medisys will receive $4.5 million for its Jamaica and Flushing sites;

•North Shore LIJ will receive $3.5 million for its Forest Hills and Franklin facilities;

•Wyckoff Medical Center near Ridgewood will receive $2.7 million;

•The Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center will receive $650,000 to maintain primary and preventative services at the St. Dominic’s Health Care Center.

The decision to provide the grant money comes as City Comptroller William Thompson, Councilman Tony Avella, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley and other elected officials have called upon the state to provide Caritas with the funding needed to keep the two hospitals open.

“The closing of Mary Immaculate and St. John’s Hospitals would not only have a detrimental affect on the 2,500 hospital employees by Caritas Health Care, but also on the entire Borough of Queens, which relies heavily on their medical services,” said Avella. “The best solution at this point would be for HHC [Health and Hospitals Corp] to take over the administration of these two hospitals. It would improve management operations and, I believe, make it easier for the State and City to allocate funding to keep the hospitals open.”

Combined, the hospitals have about 450 beds and serve nearly 200,000 patients each year. Mary Immaculate is a level-one trauma center and houses a cancer institute and 115-bed nursing home. St. John’s is a certified stroke and heart failure center and has the borough’s only hyperbaric oxygen therapy unit.

“People will die if the Health Department closes these hospitals,” said Therese Wittner, a registered nurse and representative for the state Nurses Association at Mary Immaculate. “It is also unthinkable that 115 elderly people will be put out of the Fitzpatrick nursing home where they have lived for up to 15 years and developed close family times… The surrounding hospitals are overflowing and will not be able to handle the volume of patients. We are already seeing the consequences.”

According to the DOH, the closure date for St. John’s and Mary Immaculate is February 28.

Wind-Fueled Fire Destroys Woodhaven Homes

Two Firefighters, Two Civilians Injured in Five-Alarm Blaze

By Conor Greene

A raging fire engulfed a dozen homes along 96th Street in Woodhaven last week, forcing firefighters to battle heavy smoke and winds for several hours before bringing the blaze under control.

The five-alarm fire, which was reported at 12:30 p.m. last Thursday near 91st Avenue, destroyed 11 houses and damaged a twelfth before it was brought under at 3:30 p.m. It had already spread to several homes by the time units first reached the scene, and 235 firefighters and EMS were eventually called to the scene. Two firefighters and two civilians were treated for minor injuries.

Battalion Chief Sal Cassano said that heavy winds hampered firefighter’s efforts to knock down the fire, which spread between the homes through a shared cockloft in the attic. “Once the fire gets from the top floor into the cockloft, there is no subdivision inside to stop it,” he told reporters at the scene. “It takes off very quickly, and on a windy day like today it takes off even faster… We had heavy smoke initially when we arrived.”

One of the victims, who identified himself as a retired police officer named Mike, tried to console his wife as the couple stood watching their house burn. He said he was able to save the dog but was unable to find the family’s cats inside the smoke-filled house.

“The kids are safe, we’re ok. We worked hard for all this, but we will be fine,” he said, kissing his grief-stricken wife. “It hasn’t set in yet. I’m just still in awe… I smelled smoke inside the house and someone rang the bell and said the house next door is on fire. I grabbed the dog and ran out,” he said.

Fatima Coloa was also able to flee from a nearby house before it became engulfed in flames. “My brother actually called me while I was sleeping,” the teenager said. “There was smoke inside the house. As soon as I ran out, that’s when one of the windows busted out with the fire.”

While FDNY investigators were still working to determine the cause of the fire, neighbors said it may have been started by a person smoking a cigarette. Eleven homes were left uninhabitable, and the city ordered the buildings vacant, leaving residents with just the clothes on their backs and the few items they were able to grab on their way out.

A huge crowd gathered near the intersection of 96th Street and 91st Avenue, about two blocks east of Woodhaven Boulevard, and watched as exhausted firefighters doused the homes in water, which was blown by the wind as it came out of the hoses. Neighbors gave a blanket and coat to one girl who had fled her burning home in just her pajamas, and the Red Cross helped displaced residents find shelter.

Photos by Conor Greene
Click Here to See Additional Photos From the Scene

Crime Issues Discussed at JPCA Meeting

104th Precinct Commanding Officer Answers Questions

By Conor Greene

Residents were brought up to date on local crime statistics and incidents by members of the 104th Precinct at last Thursday’s Juniper Park Civic Association meeting in Middle Village.

Deputy Inspector Keith Green, commanding officer at the Ridgewood-based stationhouse, informed residents that major crime decreased by about three percent overall last year. In fact, there were declines in all of the seven major categories except grand larceny, which increased by about 16 percent.

“That covers a lot of different types of theft” and has been on the rise “throughout the city,” according to Green, who noted that much of the increase is due to a rash of thefts of high-end electronics from children who use them while walking down the street. “You need to educate them not to display expensive items,” he said.

Some of those incidents escalate from simple thefts to robberies or assaults involving violence, said Green, who added that many of the victims are as young as nine or ten years old. “They feel the need to hold [the electronics] right in their hands” in full view while in public, he said.

Through the first six weeks of this year crime is down 23 percent overall, said Green. The first homicide of the year occurred last week in Ridgewood, when a landlord was found dead inside his first-floor home on Greene Street. That incident is still being investigated by the 104th Precinct detectives and the Queens Homicide unit and a $2,000 reward for information leading to the suspect’s conviction is currently being offered.

Deputy Inspector Green, who was joined at the meeting by Lieutenant Jerry Lester and Officer Tommy Bell, was asked about individuals from an energy company going door-to-door to solicit homeowners. Green said the individuals tend to come through the area every couple of months.

While their practices can be “aggressive,” they are “legitimate businesses” in many cases, Green told the crowd. However, he warned them to be aware of unscrupulous people posing as energy workers to gain entry into a home. “They target the elderly and talk their way into the home,” said Green, at which point one person occupies the tenant while another sneaks into the bedroom to steal cash and jewelry. “Don’t let them in if you didn’t call, and if you’re not sure about them, call 911 and we will come and figure it out,” he urged residents.

A resident who said he is new to the area asked about measures the precinct is taking to reduce the amount of drivers speeding along residential streets, especially in light of the recent death of 16-year-old Robert Ogle on 80th Street in Middle Village, who was hit along with a friend by an allegedly drunk driver on his way home from a party.

The resident asked if the precinct conducts DWI checkpoints, as are done on Long Island. “Blatantly, they don’t care about the law,” he said. “I watch them drive 90 miles per hour through a light in front of a park and school and kids.”

Green noted that a person was arrested in that incident and has been charged with vehicular manslaughter. He said the precinct has been making an effort over the past year to increase the number of drunk-driving arrests, which has resulted in a huge increase already this year. In addition, two additional officers have been trained to operate the radar gun. “We do it where there is a need,” said Green. “It is labor intensive and we have limited resources.” His officers focus on areas surrounding Juniper Valley Park and along Woodhaven Boulevard.

In connection with the February 1 incident that claimed the lives of Ogle and 20-year-old Alex Paul of Cypress Hills, a resident asked if the driver who left his car running outside a deli before it was stolen by the alleged hit-and-run driver would faces charges. Green said that while he discourages motorists from leaving their car unattended while running, doing so for more than three minutes only results in a summons and is not a criminal act.

A woman asked the officers what is done to inform residents when a registered sex offender moves into their neighborhood. Green noted that this question was likely prompted by rumors several months ago about a violent sex offender moving into an apartment on 81st Street across from Dry Harbor School. He informed the woman that there are no restrictions as to where sex offenders can move, including near schools, parks, daycare centers or playgrounds.

Green said NYPD does monitor registered sex offenders, but does not alert the public when one moves into a neighborhood. “It’s pretty much a checking in type of thing,” he said. “Believe me, people in the neighborhood knew about it before we did.” He noted that several websites allow the public to see if offenders are living nearby.

Later in the evening, State Senator Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) said he has been informed by attorneys that it is unconstitutional to restrict where individuals can live. He is now proposing a system by which residents can sign up to be notified by e-mail or text message whenever a registered sex offender moves into the area.

A resident asked Deputy Inspector Green about recent incidents of thefts of wheels from vehicles parked overnight in front of people’s homes. The resident said he had heard of at least three more of these incidents in the past few weeks. “Is there any particular way for the 104th Precinct to target these people?” he asked. Green said that the incidents have gone back about a year and mostly involve “high end” vehicles.

Some arrests were made late last year in connection with a rash of thefts, and the trend had appeared to have slowed down. “The problem had abated but it’s coming back,” he said, adding that the individuals arrested were part of an organized team. “We’ve reduced it, but it is still going on.”

While the resident assumed these individuals were using a large truck or van to carry out the heists, Green said it was actually a Honda Accord that was used by the team caught last year. They likely used several vehicles, with one group loosening the lug nuts before another group arrived with crates to support the now wheel-less vehicle. “They are using non-descript vehicles and they are organized,” he said.

The final question was in regards to the attack of a Parks Department worker inside Juniper Valley Park several months ago. Green said that nobody has been arrested in connection with that attack, which occurred early in the morning as the worker was going into a bathroom. Officers recovered a knife from a nearby trash can, but it didn’t contain any fingerprints.

Suspicious Package, Bank Robbery and Perp Search in 104th Precinct

By Conor Greene

Suspicious Package Proves to be Empty Threat

A suspicious package found in front of the Chase Bank on Grand Avenue last Friday turned out to be an empty abandoned bag after the bomb squad investigated.

Officers responded to the bank, located at the corner of Hamilton and Grand avenues in Maspeth, at 4:28 a.m. last Friday after receiving a call of a suspicious package. Officers found a black attaché bag sitting on the sidewalk in front of the bank. They established a safe zone as a supervisor and the NYPD bomb squad and Emergency Services Unit headed to the scene.

An evacuation plan was put into place in case the situation was deemed dangerous. However, an investigation by the bomb squad determined that it was just an empty bag.

Valley National Bank Heist Nets $11K

A suspect made off with about $11,000 after holding up the Valley National Bank on Grand Avenue in Maspeth last Saturday morning.

A man, described by witnesses as a black male wearing a dark jacket and red hat, entered the bank at 64-01 Grand Avenue at about 11:40 a.m. He displayed a gun and demanded that tellers hand over money. He then fled the scene on foot, according to police.

A level-one mobilization was called and a crime scene established as officers from the 104th Precinct conducted a grid search of the surrounding area. Despite assistance from an NYPD aviation unit, the suspect remains at large.

The incident is still being investigated by the NYPD Major Case Joint Robbery Task Force and the 104th Precinct detective squad.

Suspect Flees During Vehicle Stop

A suspect escaped from police as he was being detained during a motor vehicle stop in Glendale, leading to a huge search that ended in his arrest.

Officers from the 104th Precinct stopped a black Acura at 8:36 p.m. Sunday night at the corner of 68th Street and Cooper Avenue because of its tinted windows. During the stop, the officers became suspicious and asked the three occupants to get out of the vehicle.

As the officers were patting down one of the men, the suspect informed him that he was on parole. The officer noticed a large bulge in the man’s waistband and began to handcuff him, at which point the suspect pulled away, threw a bag of cocaine to the side and fled from the scene. The officer immediately took the other two individuals into custody and called for backup.

A level-one mobilization was called and a grid search was conducted, but officers were unable to locate the suspect. Later that evening, however, the investigation led police to 70-11 65th Place, where the man was located. He was identified as 32-year-old Noel Hernandez.

The other two individuals who remained at the scene were identified by police as Nicholas Condos, 20, of Glendale and Violetta Marashaj, 17, of Hopewell Junction.

Budget Woes Top CB 5 Meeting

By Conor Greene

A discussion on the requests being submitted to the city for the 2010 budget highlighted last week’s Community Board meeting.

Board District Manager Gary Giordano informed board members and residents in attendance last Wednesday in Christ the King High School that the city’s current budget situation is “very difficult at best” as a result of the nationwide economic crisis. With about $1.5 billion less coming in through projected tax revenues, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed “significant budget cuts” in many important areas, said Giordano.

According to Giordano, proposed cuts include about $94 million from Department of Environmental Protection; $455 million from the Education Department; $1 million from Department of Buildings; $17 million from Housing; $23 million from Parks; $33 million from the Department of Aging; $136 million from Administration of Children’s Services and $9 million from City Planning.

The FDNY budget is due to increase by $5 million while the NYPD’s increases by $87 million, under the mayor’s preliminary budget. The Sanitation Department would receive a $22 million increase in its budget under the current play.

However, according to Giordano, the police and fire increases are likely due to wage increases, as the NYPD’s head count will reduce from 31,349 this year to 28,656, and the FDNY ranks would decline from 11,349 members this year to 10,929. As a result of the city’s budget woes, some items requested by the board have been put on hold.

“Lots of items we requested are difficult to pinpoint the extent to which they are going to get funded,” said Giordano. “Personally, I am more worried about police protection and fire protection than some of the capital items.”

However, Giordano did express confidence that the Cooper Avenue underpass project will move forward. “We lobbied hard for that in a lot of different directions,” he said, adding that he is expecting to receive at least half of the $20 million requested.

Other projects requested include measures to prevent flooding throughout the area, which Giordano said has begun starting in the northern portion near Calamus Avenue, and the construction of new catch basins, especially ones with brick that has worn away. A project to improve Grover Cleveland Park is being funded through the Schoolyards to Playgrounds initiative and should begin this year. Finally, Councilwoman Diana Reyna (D-Bushwick) was able to secure funding for the second phase of the Ridgewood library project.

Beyond that, “other projects are difficult” to secure funding for, said Giordano. For example, reconstruction of south Middle Village streets has been pushed back to 2013, he said. Since that entire project is close to $20 million, “I don’t see that happening,” he said, suggesting that the board may have to divide the project into smaller sections to get it moving forward.

Editorial: Voters' Choice Tossed - No Place for TKO at Polticial Ringside

In the 32nd City Council district which covers parts of Richmond Hill, Ozone and South Ozone Parks, Woodhaven, Howard Beach, Hamilton Beach, Broad Channel and parts of the Rockaway peninsula, a special election for the city council seat will take place next Tuesday, February 24.

Although for our readers in the West, the election is not directly connected to their district, we wanted to share this editorial with them because what has happened in the 32nd could easily occur in any district, leaving constituents vulnerable and at the hands of those seeking elected office for all the wrong reasons.

In many past elections, this newspaper has endorsed candidates for various elections. This time our endorsement is somewhat unconventional. It goes to a candidate who is not in the race. His name is Frank Gulluscio and the reason Frank will not win this special election in because he was removed from the ballot due to a ruling by a judge in reference to the manner in which subpoenas for his petitions were served.

The purpose of gathering signatures for nominating petitions is for candidates to demonstrate that they have enough support from their potential constituents. We agree that there should be challenges to such volumes where flaws and defects exist concerning those who actually witnessed the signatures or in meeting requisite numbers of signatures, providing, of course, they were collected with no fraud involved.

But Geraldine Chapey has succeeded in making a mockery of the petition process, hiring a top-dollar election lawyer to get her opponents off the ballot not on the merit or quality of their signatures but technicalities that do not reflect the desire of the voters. To us that would strongly suggest that the voice of the people can be overruled by an error in paperwork or procedure. This we find inexcusable and void of ethic.

Last week we commented on the Wave’s debate in Rockaway where questions regarding Chapey’s city and state taxpayer funded Trinity Services were left unanswered in the minds of many. Chapey’s contemptuous attitude when a similar question arose from an audience member re-introduced the subject at this Thursday’s debate. It infuriated the crowd. At one point Chapey directed a comment to the audience. “If you don’t want to listen then please go outside.”

Chapey’s Trinity Services has been the recipient of well over a million dollars to provide youth and senior services. It is not an unfair question to ask who is employed by the program and how much of the money is spent on staffing. It’s not unreasonable to ask any other question regarding the disbursement of those public funds by a not-for-profit agency subject to public disclosure rules.

Another question that did not get asked but in our view requires an answer has been floating around regarding Trinity. People all across this country have been questioning and expressing dissatisfaction with the role lobbyists have been playing. Many believe, that a lot of our tax dollars have been wasted because lobbyists have influenced far too much in government to “feed” their clients from the public coffers.

A roam around another of our favorite sources of public information, the city’s lobbyist and client database, reveals some factoids. Between April 1, 2005 and December 31, 2008 Trinity Services, Inc. was the client of some well-known lobbyists to the tune of more than $60,000. Whose pockets did that money come out of as it moved into the pockets of the lobbyists is a fair question. Is that what the proceeds of the annual Trinity Luncheon were spent on? Is that what the “donations” to ride the van were spent on? Who knows? But, there are voters who want to know.

As if all this were not enough, the whole “pay to play” issue took another twist this week as the Daily News reported on an odd contribution to Chapey’s campaign coffers from the Bishop of Brooklyn. Bishops don’t usually mix themselves up publicly in “big” political races, much less the most local of local races. It doesn’t take much to agree that the “smell test” has turned in a pretty big failure in this case. Seems Candidate Chapey’s mother, the other Geraldine is a member of the State Education Department’s Board of Regents. The regents have a big say so when it comes to approving charter schools.

Now we’re not opposed to charter schools, but if a scheme is afoot to create them as political “rewards” rather than as a viable public education option for our children then something smells - please excuse the pun - to high heaven. Glenn DiResto got it right when he said in the News article, "It creates a suspicion of impropriety. This is politics as usual.”

Chapey was successful in narrowing the field of candidates. Her success was the voters’ loss. As candidates, both Frank Gulluscio and Eric Ulrich stood head and shoulders above Simon, Chapey, and Ricatto in all respects. Democracy lost in this round. Frank’s out, Eric’s in. The choice for the time being is clear as a bell. In November, we can all tune in for the race that should have been now.

The Forumnewsgroup/photo by JULIE COURT

Great Debate - Some Ill Equipped, Some Ill Mannered, but Prepardness Wins Crowd Over

Politics Unusual
By Patricia Adams

The last of the locally sponsored candidate debates took place last Thursday evening in meeting room at St. Barnabus Church. The Queens Chronicle and The Forum served up the first 45 minutes of questions and then opened the floor for a 20-minute round of pre-screened audience questions. There were pointed questions regarding a number of issues asked, some were answered, others skirted, while some left the candidates downright stumped.

There was no applause meter necessary to distinguish that Eric Ulrich drew the most active and verbal support of the standing-room only crowd. Of course everyone realizes that historically, candidates pack the audience with supporters and planted hecklers, but Mr. Ulrich was not only the recipient of cheers of those who accompanied him. The supporters of his opponents liked what he had to say as well. Ulrich came out way on top of this debate and deservedly so. For his command of the issues, combined with the best speaking style and the fact that he was so well prepared, we put him at the head of the class for this event.

Lew Simon was Lew Simon. Opinions of his candidacy were expressed here weeks ago and we believe that his long-standing track record of documented untruthfulness eliminates him from consideration because of the obvious deficits in character associated with not telling the truth. And really why elect Lew to the city council? According to him he’s already doing the job for you, so why not just get two councilmen for the price of one. It is only fair to give credit where it is due however, and we must say that Lew has a somewhat effective dynamic when speaking and does have a strong command of many of the issues-- albeit seen in his own light.

Glenn DiResto is apparently a nice guy. A retired NYPD Lieutenant, DiResto makes no bones about the fact that he is not a politician or a polished speaker. He simply wants to come in and do what’s best for the district. Touting his years in law enforcement as a strong training ground for understanding what the district needs, DiResto cites the same experience as his foundation for understanding the structure and mechanisms of city government. We like DiResto and have a feeling we will be seeing more of him in the future. For now though, he is not ready, but certainly has had a great opportunity to experience some of the highs of politics and bear witness to some of the all time lows we’ve ever seen in a local race.

When speaking about Mike Ricatto we can’t really say more than Mike says himself. He’s a businessman. While we have great respect for the success of people who make the most out of a good business model, in the times we are facing currently, the savvy of business is not what will bring home the bacon to this district. A true understanding of the issues, priorities and functions of city government is the only formula for any semblance of holding on for the upswing; for according to the proposed budget, there is no bacon to bring home. His obvious unfamiliarity of the area, centered both on geography and major issues, and his political inexperience will not send Mike Ricatto to the City Council this time around.

The remaining candidate, Geraldine Chapey, brought with her something the other candidates seemed to have left at the door — an attitude. A bad one. Chapey spent most of her opening statements reveling in a tale about a “kindergarten epiphany” when her mother, also named Geraldine Chapey, essentially explained to the teacher that while other children were quick to give up tasks, her Geraldine always took them on and finished them. Her answers to the questions were indirect, lacked substance and often spoke about connections to other governmental representatives with whom she had good working relationships. The position of city councilmember is just that. The district is not seeking an ambassador.

Chapey largely emphasized her academic achievements but if this were a classroom, we can’t see her even approaching a passing grade for this event. Her answers drew boos from the crowd and in a collective opinion, an angry audience delivered a message to Chapey—they were disgusted with her antics. Her apparent unwillingness to answer a direct question did not bode well. Transparency, when it comes to the spending of public money is something voters all across this country are clamoring for. The public has a right to know. Elected officials and wannabe elected officials are subject to open questioning from those they seek to represent. Voters have the right to seek information and it is the obligation of a candidate to answer direct questions directly without dissembling.

But it wasn’t until the last round - when candidates got to pose questions to each other — that were taken from interesting and informative, to shall we say — a new level. When Eric Ulrich brought what he called to the room “the eight-hundred pound gorilla,” he touched on the subject that has everyone up in arms over the legitimacy of this race. Ulrich asked a pointed question of Chapey — “Geraldine why don’t you want Frank Gulluscio in this race?” Her first response was to ask Eric why he challenged the petitions of another candidate. Once again Ulrich rose to the top expressing that Frank Gulluscio belongs in the race because of all his work and experience in the district and making perfectly clear that his challenge to Mike Ricatto was because in his eyes, Ricatto was a ‘Johnny-come-lately to the district’ carpetbagger.

It was at this point when Chapey revealed herself to be, not a viable candidate for city council, but one who considers this election comparable to a game. “When you go into the pool hall,” Chapey said, “the rules are posted on the wall.”

Well guess what Dr. Chapey, you are trying to head for City Hall, not a pool hall where random balls are sunk into felt pockets using cue sticks. You don’t need a cue, you need a clue. This is no game.

Your answers and your attitude were not one bit reflective of the academic, Christian and proud Irish heritage you claim is the fabric of your existence. In an all important special election in the 32nd, you’ve created an upheaval not at all deserved by the people of this district, especially in an already difficult set of circumstances.

Until next week…