Thursday, April 9, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Students Rally Against Library Cuts

Crowley: Not Enough Support to Block School

Forest Park Carousel Needs Operator

Woodhaven Woman Killed in Hit and Run

Hearing Set on Natural Gas Island Proposal

Seniors Show Gratitude for Troops

Nanny Sentenced in Shaken Baby Assault

Corona Man Accused of Molesting Girl

Ex-Cop Sentenced in Howard Beach Rape

Woman Accused of Spray Painting Trains Across Queens

Crowley: Not Enough Support to Block School

Council Approves DOE's Plan for Maspeth High School

By Conor Greene

In the end, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley was unable to get the backing of enough of her colleagues to reject the city’s plan to build a 1,100-seat high school in Maspeth.

Crowley (D-Middle Village) maintains that by the time she took office, it was too late to convince the city Department of Education that the former Restaurant Depot property at 57th Avenue and 74th Street isn’t a good location for the school. She also said that despite her efforts, she was unable to get enough fellow council members to vote against it.

City Council voted 38-10 last Thursday to approve the DOE's plan for the school, which will include two separate 500-seat high schools and 100 special education seats. The project is expected to cost about $80 million.

“By opposing the site from day one, the end result would have worked against the community more than this end result does,” she said in an interview Tuesday in her Dry Harbor Road office. “If I opposed this one hundred percent, it would have likely been a citywide school with 1,650 students” as the DOE originally proposed. “At the end of the day, I knew I didn’t have the votes,” she said.

According to Crowley, the project was being pushed by the Bloomberg administration and had the backing of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. In addition, Crowley said she was unable to gain support from the Council’s Minority Caucus. That group, which has 25 members, felt like Crowley was “getting a sweetheart deal” since the city agree to give priority zoning to students in District 24 and reduce the size of the school.

“I built reasonable expectations so that the DOE could meet the community at least halfway,” said Crowley. “At the end of the day, we did get more than any councilmember has ever gotten in terms of priority zoning… I knew I didn’t have the votes because the Minority Caucus wasn’t with me.”

Many residents testified at hearings over the past year that the site is not appropriate for a school due to the proximity of two existing schools within three blocks. Responding to criticism that she should have opposed a school at the site instead of pushing for it to be zoned for local children, Crowley said the process was too far along by the time she took office to block it.

In the end, the city agreed to give priority to students in District 24, which stretches from Long Island City to Corona and south to Ridgewood, but refused to set aside seats for students in Maspeth. According to Crowley, a student living directly across from the school has just a one-in-twenty chance of being enrolled there under the city’s current plan. “It’s the mayor’s fault the DOE spent a year and a half on this,” said Crowley.

The problem, according to Crowley, was that two-thirds of the council would be needed to quash the project for good. She refuted claims made in an NY1 story that she didn’t explicitly ask her colleagues to vote no. She said she contacted every member of the subcommittee and Land Use Committee and asked the full Council three times to vote no during her speech on the chambers floor.

Ultimately, Crowley says the project was essentially a done deal by the time she took office and said the process had begun during former Councilman Dennis Gallagher’s term. By the time she was elected, the mayor was pushing the plan, making it tough for a “brand new councilmember” to go “against the administration,” which had already committed two years to the project.

“I felt like the mayor and his administration were pushing this onto our community for political reasons,” said Crowley. “He tends to like things done his way and not necessarily in the most democratic way.”

Now, with the proposal apparently moving forward, Crowley has shifted her focus to lessening the impact the school will have on the neighborhood as much as possible. “Now we have to make this work for us,” she said. She plans on working with the Department of Transportation to ensure local buses can handle the influx of extra riders, especially since the Restaurant Depot site isn’t served by subway lines.

“If there needs to be service increases [including additional buses], they will have to meet those demands,” she said, adding that she will allocate discretionary funds to mitigate traffic issues and will continue to push for implementation of the Maspeth Truck Bypass Plan, which would reroute trucks away from Grand Avenue.

Students Rally Against Library Cuts

Weekend Service Threatened by Budget Woes

By Conor Greene

Chanting “No more budget cuts” and “save our libraries,” dozens of second graders from PS 87 rallied in front of the North Forest Park branch of Queens Library on Tuesday to bring attention to huge cuts the system is facing.

With the city and state facing huge budget deficits, Queens Library is facing a $13.9million reduction in its funding. As a result, the majority of branches in Queens will likely be closed on weekends starting July 1. In addition, Queens Library’s staff will have to be reduced by 279 positions, or 24%.

“The weekend is for many people the only time they can use the library,” said James Van Bramer, chief external affairs officer. “This will essentially shut people out from library services.”

About 55 students and their teachers marched along the sidewalk in front of the North Forest Park branch on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, holding signs urging officials to find a way to fund the libraries. They were joined at the rally by Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who called access to books and educational materials “one of our nation’s most valuable resources.”

“Cutting library hours, especially on weekends, will significantly diminish the learning experience for students and community members,” said Crowley. “Where will students go after school when their parents are still at work? We need libraries to be open after school so students can do their homework and conduct research.”

The councilwoman told the students, who planned the rally after learning about democracy and the right to protest, that they “were making a difference” and helping residents of all ages by drawing attention to the budget cuts. “I’m so proud of you today and will tell the mayor how important it is to keep the library open… We all need libraries,” she said.

Crowley and Van Bramer noted that it is particularly difficult on residents to have library services cut during such a poor economic climate. “Libraries are also important for adults, especially those looking for job opportunities,” said Crowley.

“For the sake of our kids and our job seekers, the mayor needs to look at all citywide agencies and must first cut wasteful spending rather than cutting out hours for learning.” Van Bramer said the cuts will prevent the library system “from serving the people of Queens the way we need to… That is not something that should be happening in a difficult economic time.”

As the July 1 deadline approaches, Queens Library officials plan to continue spreading word of the impending service cuts. “We’re working hard to advocate the restoration of the funding,” said Van Bramer. However, a problem they are facing is that “people become immune” to the threat of budget cuts and assume it’s just political posturing. “My concern is that people realize this time that it’s for real. We could face some drastic cuts,” he said.

Queens Library serves about 2.2 million residents annually at 62 branches. It also offers services at seven learning centers and two family literacy centers. In 2007, more than 450,000 people attended the free programs offered by the library on a variety of topics.

Forest Park Carousel Needs Operator

By Conor Greene

The carousel in Forest Park will remain shuttered this summer if the city does not find a vendor to run the historic ride, which has operated for the past two decades.

The current contract with New York One, LLC, which has operated the Forest Park Carousel for the past five years, expires on May 26, according to the Parks Department, which did not receive any proposals for a new contract when bids were due in February.

“If we do not receive any bids, the carousel will be closed until we find a new concessionaire,” a department spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail to The Forum. In hopes of attracting a new vendor, Parks put out a second request for proposals on March 16, which is due back on April 20.

According to the city, the Forest Park Carousel contains some of the last surviving creations of master woodcarver Daniel Carl Muller. It was first operated in 1903 in Darcut, Massachusetts before it was taken apart and stored for future use.

A different carousel entertained park goers until it burned down on December 11, 1966. In 1972, when searching for a new carousel, vendor Restaurant Associates found the 1903 carousel designed by Muller in the possession of an architect in Connecticut. After a full restoration, the carousel operated until 1985, when it fell into disrepair and was all but forgotten for three years. It received another meticulous renovation in 1988 and began operating again the following summer.

New York One, LLC also operates the carousels in Central Park and Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The Forest Park Carousel includes 49 horses, a lion, a tiger, a deer and two chariots arranged in three concentric circles. It also contains an original carousel band organ, according to the Parks Department. It is located just inside the park on a small hill near the intersection of Woodhaven Boulevard and Myrtle Avenue.

Woodhaven Woman Killed in Hit and Run

It wasn’t money that motivated 71-year-old Virginia Montalvo — it was boredom and the thought of just siting around the house. Every morning and every night according to friends, family and people around the neighborhood, she would make the rounds through her neighborhood collecting recyclable bottles and cans.

Monday evening at about 10:30 p.m., on a rain slicked Jamaica Avenue and 98th street, Virginia Montalvo crossed the intersection with the usual oversize bundle of collected recyclables in tow. Witness say the driver of a dark cargo van, sped up to make the light striking the woman in the intersection.

Virginia was a native Peruvian arriving here in the United States about six years ago. She shared a house with her husband Mamerto and family about two blocks from the accident scene. The victim was a mother of seven children and ten grandchildren “She didn’t have to do this. She just enjoyed being out,” said Denise Rodriguez who often spoke with Virginia along the avenue.

By Tuesday evening the only evidence of the hit and run was a large electronic NYPD sign informing passersby of the fatal hit and run and asking for anyone with information to contact Crime Stoppers by calling 1-800-577- TIPS.

Outside Peruvian restaurant, El Anzuelo Fino at the corner of 98th Street and Jamaica Avenue, an employee of the restaurant carried three large glass candles to the corner and placed them down on the ground. “I light them for her,” Mariella said. “I saw her everyday at the side of the restaurant. I used to give her all the cans and the bottles.” As she crouched to her knees to light the memorial candles she looked up just shaking her head. “It was so terrible.” Pointing to a short distance off the curb she said, “Her shoes they were there. All the bottles and cans wee all over the street. And she was over there.”

After being struck by the van Virginia was rushed to Jamaica Hospital where she died. Neighbors were shocked and saddened over the tragedy; some were there to witness it. It’s such a shame,” said Juan Martinez. “She was a sweet lady. How could someone just drive off.” Another neighbor on the scene was outraged. “Whoever was driving that van knew they hit somebody. To just drive off like that is unforgivable. I hope the police get the driver very fast.”

Virginia’s son-in-law- Estaban Cobos spoke to reporters through an interpreter. “We all warned her not to go out there alone into the neighborhood, especially at night.” But Virginia Montalvo did not heed the advice of loved ones. Now the family hopes that the driver will come forward.

After detectives interviewed several people that witnessed the accident, they believe the van could have been speeding, and were still trying to gather proof of that theory. Although there was video surveillance from nearby stores, the impact was not visible. Police continue to search for a dark blue or gray cargo style van, but they had not found any videotape from a nearby store showing the impact. The vehicle, possibly a dark blue or gray cargo van, had not been located as of Wednesday afternoon.

Hearing Set on Natural Gas Island Proposal

By Conor Greene

At the urging of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn and Queens), the United States Coast Guard has agreed to hold a public hearing for city residents on a private company’s proposal to build a liquefied natural gas terminal 17 miles off the Rockaway coast.

The hearing is set for 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 19 at PS 114. Public meetings on the plan have already been held in Long Beach, NY and Eatontown, NJ, so Weiner called on the Coast Guard to go beyond the minimum requirements and ensure that city residents hear from the agencies firsthand.

The Atlantic Sea Island Group has applied for federal permits needed to build the island, which would be at least 60 acres at the surface and more than 110 acres at the ocean floor. Tankers from foreign nations would deliver the liquefied natural gas to the island, where it would be converted to natural gas and transported to consumers through a pipeline.

“This is too important an issue to permit only hearings to the east and west of Rockaway,” wrote Weiner in his letter to the Coast Guard. “If we are going to make an informed decision, my constituents need to hear the proposal details directly from the responsible federal agencies and the Atlantic Sea Island Group.”

The plan is being opposed by some residents and environmentalists who are worried about the impact the project could have on the surrounding area. Aside from the environmental implications, there is concern about the potential for a largescale accident or terrorist attack. “The bottom line is, at the end of the day nobody here benefits from this,” Dan Mundy, Jr. of the Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers told a crowd of nearly 200 residents at a meeting about the proposal last month. “It’s the first step in basically an industrialization of the ocean.”

The Atlantic Sea Island Group has never attempted this type of project in the past, something that further concerns residents. Currently, state governors have the ability to veto these projects, which is why similar proposals for off the California shore and for the Long Island Sound didn’t materialize.

According to people fighting this proposal, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine has supported LNG islands in his Energy Master Plan, but Gov. David Paterson has yet to take a position and still has the ability to nix the Safe Harbor Island proposal.

Seniors Show Gratitude for Troops

Members of the Howard Beach Senior Center spent much of the afternoon of April 2nd creating care packages for our troops fighting abroad. Over the past few months, the center’s members and the community at large donated countless toiletries, sports equipment, snacks, hand-knitted scarves and other items. Last Thursday, the seniors packed up the items into dozens of boxes, which will be shipped to California before they are sent overseas. Rosalie Hawk, administrative assistant at the center, said the response to the drive was “overwhelming.”

The effort began with the donation of dozens of scarves and quickly expanded from there, said Hawk. “We decided we wanted to do something more – I don’t understand how the government doesn’t supply our soldiers,” she said, adding that the seniors really got into the effort. “They think it’s great - anything for the soldiers. You feel like you want to do something but you don’t know what,” she said.

Each box costs about $30 to ship to California, so the center is now focused of raising money to cover that cost. Several local politicians offered to help defray the cost, and Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Queens), who stopped by the senior center, made a personal donation.

Pheffer, whose life-partner Glenn Riddell’s son is in Iraq, told the seniors that the troops really appreciate receiving the care packages. “Whatever’s in them it is wonderful,” she said. “It means so much to them – the most exciting thing is getting a care package.”

Top: Lou Mascaro, Irene Shlakman, Rose Stanton and Eleanor Martuscello pack up a box of supplies to be sent to troops fighting overseas. Right: Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer helps Tony Gugliucci use old newspapers to protect the contents of a care package.

Nanny Sentenced in Shaken Baby Assault

A Glendale nanny has been sentenced to eight years in prison for assaulting an infant girl in her care. The victim, now nearly four years old, has permanent brain damage.

Alma Calderaro, 35, of 78-37 73rd Place was sentenced last Wednesday by Acting Queens Supreme Court Justice Robert McGann. She was convicted earlier this month of first-degree assault and endangering the welfare of a child after violently shaking a baby she was watching three years ago. She had faced up to 25 years in prison.

According to testimony at Calderaro’s trial, the defendant took seven-month-old Fiona Qirjako to the emergency room at St. John’s Queens Hospital on January 11, 2006. The infant was in a non-responsive state and having difficultly breathing when she was taken to the hospital. She was later transferred to Long Island Jewish Hospital where medical personal observed bleeding in the brain and eyes and extensive brain damage – injuries consistent with the non-accidental inflicted trauma of Shaken Baby Syndrome, which occurs when a baby is repeatedly and violently shaken.

At trial, Fiona’s parents testified that their daughter was in perfect health up until the time she was dropped off at Calderaro’s residence. While on the stand, Calderaro testified that the baby was gasping for air and that she shook Fiona in order to revive her. However, medical experts testified that the defendant’s account of how the baby was injured was inconsistent with the nature and severity of the injuries Fiona suffered. The child now has permanent brain damage.

“At the heart of this case lies every parent’s worst nightmare – the person they entrusted to care for their baby instead is responsible for severely injuring their child and robbing her of a normal life,” said District Attorney Richard Brown, who added that Shaken Baby Syndrome is the leading cause of child abuse deaths.

“Its victims are innocent and helpless children, often injured by those charged with protecting them. These tiny victims are often impaired for life or killed. Caregivers of children should heed the important message that these cases unfortunately bring to our attention – never, under any circumstances, shake a baby.”

Corona Man Accused of Molesting Girl

By Conor Greene

A 50-year-old man who works at a Corona preschool has been charged with sexually molesting a 9-year-old girl for whom his wife babysat.

Jose Duran, of 99-18 41st Avenue, who is a custodian at the Therese Cervini Head Start Program on 104th Street, was arrested last week on charges of first-degree sexual abuse, second-degree sexual conduct against a child and endangering the welfare of a child. If convicted, he faces up to seven years in prison.

“The defendant is accused of turning a young child’s visits with her babysitter into a terrifying sexual ordeal that not only robbed her of her innocence but will forever soil her childhood memories,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who called the charges “very disturbing.”

According to the charges, the defendant sexually abused the girl in his apartment on multiple occasions between November 1, 2008 and this past March 30. District Attorney Brown is now asking anyone with additional information or who believes that they may have been a victim to contact his Special Victims Bureau at (718) 286-6505.

Duran allegedly warned the victim not to tell anyone, and the actions didn’t come to light until the victim told a guidance counselor that she had been sexually abused after attending a puppet show at her school about sexual abuse.

Following Duran’s arrest, Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens immediately suspended him, according to a spokeswoman. While the alleged victim doesn’t attend Therese Cervini, the agency’s early childhood administrators are available to address any concerns parents might have.

“Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens takes allegations of sexual abuse against any staff member very seriously,” the spokeswoman said in a statement. “Our primary concern is the safety of the children in our care. Prior to employment, all staff working with or near children must undergo rigorous background checks. Once employed, all staff must take mandated sexual abuse and child abuse training.”

Criminal checks are performed on all staff members and are rechecked every two years. Duran’s last criminal check was completed in January, according to the spokeswoman. He has worked at the program for more than ten years, cleaning the classrooms daily after the children were dismissed.

“Our children were never left unattended,” the spokeswoman said. “Thankfully, there have been no incidents involving our children.”

The program is operated by Catholic Charities Neighborhood Services, Inc., a subsidiary of Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens.

Ex-Cop Sentenced in Howard Beach Rape

DNA Linked Woodside Man to ‘06 Attack

A former NYPD officer has been sentenced to up to 16 years in prison for the 1996 rape of a young woman in her Howard Beach home. The defendant was caught ten years after the attack as the result of a DNA cold hit.

Ronald Murgo, Jr., 38, of 35-09 Crescent Street in Woodside, who was formerly assigned to the 67th Precinct in Brooklyn until he was fired in 1995, had pleaded guilty in January to first-degree rape. Acting Supreme Court Justice Barry Kron imposed an indeterminate sentence of between 8 and 16 years in prison.

According to the charges, Murgo entered the Howard Beach home of the 21-year-old victim through a first-floor rear window at about 3 a.m. on November 6, 1996. Murgo then jumped on the victim’s bed, tied her hands with her own bra, placed a pillow over her head and told her to be quiet before raping her. He then stole jewelry and money from the victim before fleeing out the front door.

The victim immediately called 911 and was treated at a local hospital, where detectives interviewed her and submitted a rape kit for DNA testing. Under the John Doe Indictment Project – a 2003 citywide initiative that uses DNA profiles of unidentified sex criminals to indict them before they are apprehended to prevent the statute of limitations from expiring – a grand jury indicted the defendant as John Doe in 2006.

Murgo, who now works in construction, was fired from the NYPD in 1995 after assaulting a woman in Astoria. Police in that case suspected that Murgo intended to rape the victim after he dragged her to an unlit area. He was connected to the Howard Beach rape after the victim’s DNA was matched to a DNA sample Murgo submitted following a 1998 sexualabuse and child-endangerment conviction.

“The defendant who had escaped justice for nearly a decade has now been punished for his crime,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. “The use of DNA is an important law enforcement tool that proves the old adage, ‘You can run but you can’t hide.’”

Woman Accused of Spray Painting Trains Across Queens

A Sunnyside woman faces up to seven years in prison after being charged with spray painting subway cars throughout Queens over a three-year period.

Danielle Bremner, 27, of 45-50 48th Street has been charged with second-and-third-degree criminal mischief, making graffiti and possession of graffiti instruments.

“According to the charges, the defendant is reportedly well known in the international graffiti community – and to New Yorkers who have had to put up with her ego-driven vandalism of public property, which has cost taxpayers thousands of dollars to clean up,” said District Attorney Richard Brown.

Bremner allegedly spray painted her tags “Erin” and “Dani” and other markings on six subway cars between September 30, 2005 and April 7, 2008, causing more than $6,000 in damages. Specifically, she is accused of twice tagging a number 7 subway car at 111th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, a 7 car at the Main Street station, an A line car at the Broad Channel station and an F line car at Parsons Boulevard.

While authorizing a court-authorized search warrant at the defendant’s residence in July 2008, police recovered more than 450 cans of spray paint, 50 latex gloves, 10 permanent markers, bottles of acid etch, grog ink, shoe polish, a bolt cutter and pair of pliers.

In addition, police found Polaroid photographs of the tag “Dani,” 52 pieces of paper with graffiti drawings, including the tags “Dani” and “Erin,” and several digital photographs from her e-mail account depicting her tags on trains, including one that shows her spray painting her tag on a non-New York City train.

“Graffiti is a symptom of crime and negatively affects the quality of life for all citizens through decreased property values, increased taxes and a financial burden on affected businesses and homes,” said Brown. “City officials and anti-graffiti activists have done a remarkable job over the years in cleaning up New York City’s image as a graffiti-scarred city. We will not allow one individual to mar the beauty of our city or threaten to return us to the days when our transit system and our highways and buildings were covered with graffiti.”

The investigation was conducted by detectives from the Special Investigations Unit of the NYPD’s Transit Division.