Thursday, October 22, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Liberty Avenue Cleanup Funding Turns Political

Gulluscio, Ulrich Trade Barbs as Council Election Nears

By Conor Greene

City Council candidate Frank Gulluscio is ripping incumbent Eric Ulrich for not pro- viding money for the Doe Fund, which pays for cleanup along Liberty Avenue in South Richmond Hill. The program started under former councilman and current State Senator Joseph Addabbo but ended in July when the fiscal year expired.

Ulrich responded by calling the attack politically motivated and said he had to make decisions regarding community funding after taking office in February. He added that it isn’t his responsibility to ensure that all of Addabbo’s projects continue and faulted the senator for allowing the funding to dry up.

At a press conference Tuesday in front of Moblegott Hardware, Gulluscio and Addabbo criticized Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) for chopping the local Doe Fund from $74,000 to $38,000. That means there is only enough money to continue the program in the Rockaways, and local business owners and civic leaders say South Richmond Hill’s main shopping district has been hurt by the lack of cleanup crews over the past few months.

“This is a serious situation,” said Gulluscio (D- Howard Beach), surrounding by merchants and residents. “This community needs more respect, not less.” He said he is “very disappointed that Ulrich didn’t continue fundingthe program, which provided a valuable service along the avenue from 104th Street to Lefferts Boulevard - a “tax base” Gulluscio said the community “cannot afford to lose.”

In response, Ulrich later said he has his “own agenda and own priorities” and had to make decisions regarding discretionary funding after taking office following his victory over Gulluscio and several other candidates in last year’s special election to replace Addabbo. “This was Joe Addabbo’s project, and if he dropped the ball on it, I’m not going to assume responsibility,” he said.

Addabbo (D-Ozone Park) announced that he is providing a $47,000 state Senate grant to continue the program starting next month. While he had always intended to continue funding the program after winning election to the Senate last year, he said he discussed his council funding with Ulrich after moving on to the Senate and was under the impression that his predecessor would also provide funds, allowing the program to be expanded.

“We’ve seen the success of this program year after year,” said Addabbo. “The community asked for it, and it’s the job of elected officials to respond to the needs of the community - not to cut funding.”He called elimination othe program “absolutely wrong” and said “there is no reason it should have been cut... Unfortunately I don’t believe the current councilman hears the people,” he added.

Ulrich criticized Addabbo for allowing the program’s funding to run out and said he decided in some cases to use his share of the council discretionary funding - which totaled just less than $100,000 as a new council member - for other initiatives. “I assumed Joe Addabbo was going to continue funding something that’s still in his district that he started... I’m not responsible to fund Joe Addabbo’s pet projects. If Frank Gulluscio gets on the City Council, he can do that.”

Gulluscio promised during the press conference that, if he is elected, restoring Doe Funds in the City Council budget would be a top priority.

According to Ulrich, he and Addabbo never had discussions regarding the funding. “Joe Addabbo never picked up the phone to discuss with me Doe Funds. I wish that he had because if I had known he was going to drop the ball on this I could have made other arrangements.” He noted that Addabbo redirected funding from a number of community groups throughout his senate district after defeating longtime Republican incumbent Serf Maltese (R-Middle Village).

Gulluscio claimed during the press conference that his criticism isn’t politically motivated. “There are no politics here. This is about keeping the economic climate strong along Liberty Avenue,” he said. However, Ulrich said the timing shows it clearly is political, considering the cleanups ended months ago. “If this came out on July 1, I wouldn’t complain. They hold this until two weeks before the election and now they want to make an issue out of it. To me this demonstrates a dereliction of duty on the part of Joe Addabbo for not funding something he had previously funded and dumped on my lap.”

Ulrich said that, if he were to move up to higher office, he wouldn’t assume the newcomer would continue funding all his projects. “If I moved up the ladder and he stopped my graffiti removal program, nobody could point a finger at Frank. But somehow this applies to me. It’s an unfortunate circumstance and I was just as disappointed as everyone else, but Joe Addabbo dropped the ball on this and I’m not going to take the flak. The fact that he’s trying to use it for political gain is disgraceful.”

Local groups and programs being funded include the Greater Woodhaven Development Corp., a number of local volunteer fire and EMT organizations and an aggressive graffiti removal program along Rockaway Boulevard, Woodhaven/Cross Bay Boulevard and 101st Avenue. He said the majority of groups funded during Addabbo’s Council tenure are still receiving money from Ulrich.

Politics aside, business owners and residents including members of the Richmond Hill South Civic Association say the program went a long way towards keeping the area inviting for shoppers. “This is not about politics. I fight for what I believe in,” said the group’s president, Margaret Finnerty.“I cannot stand by and listen to, ‘Somebody else is going to fund it.’”

Betty Braton, chairwoman of Community Board 10, said that talk of fixing the economy must be met with real action. “It’s one thing to talk about economic development, but it’s another to fund the programs that help the local shopping strips,” she said.

Along with helping keep the area trash free, the program provides snow removal and helps business owners avoid Sanitation Department fines for litter in front of their stores - as has been happening lately. It also helps keep the storm drains from filling with trash, which is a major cause of flooding, noted Addabbo. In addition, it provides employment opportunities for ex-convicts and other having difficulty finding permanent work.

Romeo Hitlall, owner of Avenue Lounge, said the Doe Fund has been “very helpful” for businesses like his that typically open later in the day, often times to a ticket for litter. “For the Councilman to cut the funds and take it somewhere else, I don’t think he has respect for this community.” He agreed there has been a huge difference since July.

“The complaints have been out of control,” added Finnerty.

Queens' Changing Healthcare Landscape

By Conor Greene

The borough’s healthcare system was met with more bad news this week, as a bid by the owners of Parkway Hospital was denied in federal court. Meanwhile, the former St. John’s and Mary Immaculate hospital properties were sold at auction last week for $26.6 million to a group headed by a Brooklyn developer who has a shady past.

A mandatory injunction to reopen Forest Hill’s New Parkway Hospital, which was ordered by the state to close in late 2006, was denied on Tuesday in U.S Federal Court. The hospital’s owner and chief executive officer, Dr. Robert Aquino, is claiming that he was forced to close after refusing shakedown attempts by disgraced former Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio. There are now fears the building will be considered for other non-medical uses such as a federal detention center.

Mark Fogel, a licensed private investigator working on behalf of Parkway told the Forum that the judge is requesting additional information about Dr. Aquino’s financial plan for the hospital. “We are going to put that together and try to answer that for the judge,” he said. “The judge wants to see a credible, valid business plan on how it is going to reopen and operate and that there is sufficient funds available to reopen. The facts are pretty simple, when Dr. Aquino took the hospital over, he turned it around so it could make money, and then the Berger Commissioner came out and said it should close,” said Fogel. “That made all the doctors run away, and without doctors you don’t get patients. That’s what caused the decline.”

Since Parkway owes more than $30 million, the court appointed Thomas Seaman as a receiver on behalf of Medical Capital, which holds a mortgage on the property. His duties include maximizing the recovery of assets so that investor-victims can be repaid, and he notes in his report that the best chance for repaying the debt is if the site is home to an operating hospital. “Simply put, an operating hospital has a far better chance of repaying Medical Capital’s debt, and if the hospital is not allowed to reopen, I will be forced to foreclose on a vacant non-operating hospital without a license to operate.”

Seaman notes that there is a shortage of hospital beds and emergency room centers in the area, a problem that was worsened earlier this year with the closing of St. John’s in Elmhurst and Mary Immaculate in Jamaica. According to the Borough President’s office, there are just 1.6 beds per 1,000 Queens residents, compared to 6.8 beds per 1,000 residents in Manhattan. As a result, “the reopening of Parkway Hospital as a fully licensed and operating hospital would be in the community’s benefit and would be a financially successful proposition due to the apparent demand for such health care services,” wrote Seaman.

However, if Medical Capital is forced to foreclose on Parkway in a non-operating condition, Seaman has been informed that “there would be few viable uses for the building such as a low security correction or detention center or a halfway house.” While recognizing that such uses “would likely meet community opposition,” Seaman determined that the “given the configuration of the [hospital] building, and the well-known need for facilities to detain immigration holds and for halfway houses, that could be the only viable use.”

Fogel said he believes Dr. Aquino’s team has one more shot at convincing the court to allow the hospital to reopen. “I think they have one more chance, that’s my opinion. The judge just gave them what could be a roadmap for how to reopen.”

Meanwhile, the St. John’s and Mary Immaculate hospitals, owned by Caritas Health System and closed earlier this year, were purchased at auction last Friday by Brooklyn development firm Guttman Realty for $26.625 million. The bid was subject to approval during a Bankruptcy Court hearing set for this Thursday.

The package includes the 257,000-square- foot St. John’s building, which sits on a two- acre property on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst, and the 301,499-square-foot building on the four-acre Mary Immaculate property in Jamaica. The Elmhurst property includes a 291-space parking garage and the Jamaica property includes a parking deck and two lots.

According to CB Richard Ellis, which conducted the auction, five bidders submitted offers, with four targeting both properties and one bidding only on the St. John’s site. In a statement, the firm said the buyer “envisions several options for redeveloping the Mary Immaculate site, including an educational facility, non-profit organization use, government operations or a religious facility.” The St. John’s site “may be used for office development,” they noted on behalf of the buyer in a statement.

“Despite a weak economy these development sites sparked a heated and highly competitive bidding process,” said Larry Weiss, vice-president of CBRE. “Although driven to sell by a bankruptcy, the excellent central Queens location of these sites, including outstanding public transportation and a dense residential and retail population produced great buyer interest.”

Joshua Guttman, who headed the winning group, gained citywide notoriety when the Greenpoint Terminal Market burned down in 2006. The fire at the 21-acre site on the Brooklyn waterfront marked the largest in the city (not counting the 9/11 attacks) in a decade and destroyed 15 buildings. Guttman, who received more than 400 violations for failing to properly maintain his waterfront property, denied any involvement in the arson, which burned in a six- square block area for hours. According to reports, four other buildings owned by Guttman have burned in suspicious fires.

Caritas Health, which purchased the properties for $40 million several years ago from Saint Vincent Catholic Medical Center, filed for bankruptcy in federal court this past February, and the two hospitals closed for good on February 28. Those closings, coupled with the prior shuttering of Parkway, have left Queens residents and officials concerned about the future of health care in the borough.

Family's Request for 9/11 Benefits Stonewalled by Federal Government

Richard Pearlman's Family Fights to Correct Injustice

By Conor Greene

On 9/11, Richard Pearlman, an 18-year-old member of the Forest Hills Volunteer Ambulance Corps, died while assisting fellow New Yorkers at the World Trade Center. He had been delivering legal papers to One Police Plaza when he heard the call for all first responders and was taken to the scene in an NYPD squad car. Despite his heroic efforts, which were chronicled in a photo in Newsweek magazine, his mother is still fighting for benefits due to her under a federal program.

“It’s a smack in the face,” said his mother, Dorie Pearlman. “Any information they asked for, I supplied them. It’s my government and they turned their back on me... I’m not just doing it in the name of my son, I’m doing it in the name of all the EMS workers who seemed to be shoved under the carpet.”

Years after her son was the youngest victim in the World Trade Center, a neighbor told Dorie, 54, about the Department of Justice’s Public Safety Officer Program, which was created in 1976 to provide benefits to families of Americans who are killed in the line of duty while protecting fellow citizens. She applied in March 2008 but was told the time limit had expired. She requested an extension and filed again the following month only to be informed in August 2009 that her application was denied.

In their denial, the feds claimed that Richard wasn’t certified to perform first responder services, even though he was certified by the Red Cross and was at the scene as a member of the ambulance corps, which is certified by the state Department of Health. "This isn't some fly by night organization," said Dorie. Much of her frustration is because it isn't even clear why her application was denied. "Various legal terms I don't understand," she said. "When I called they just referred me to a section of the law."

She approached several area politicians for help, including Rep. Anthony Weiner, who she ran into in September when the ambulance corps dedicated a wall at its headquarters in her son’s honor. In 2001, Weiner (D-Forest Hills) passed legislation that increased payments made by the federal government from $100,000 to $250,000 to help the families of first responders.

“On 9/11, my constituent joined hundred of other heroic first responders who selflessly rushed into the World Trade Center to save lives,” wrote Weiner in a letter to Hope Yankas, director of the program at the Justice Department. “Mr. Pearlman answered the call to help his fellow New Yorkers and made the ultimate sacrifice in the process. His mother should not be denied the benefits due to her.”

Weiner joined Richard's parents at the FHVAC headquarters on Monday to call attention to their plight. “Many in the neighborhood know the story of Richard,” said Weiner. “Clearly, this family is eligible under the law... It’s as simple as that – volunteers are included if supported by groups” such as the FHVAC.

However, Richard’s case is “unusual” since he was “a volunteer, urged to be there by law enforcement” after the call for first responders went out over the radio at One Police Plaza, said Weiner. Even so, the benefit program “is intended for people exactly like your son” and their families, he added.

“The money isn’t important - it’s justice. If I can’t get justice in his name, and for all the EMS workers, what good is the Justice Department? I’ll be the same person no matter what I get. I’m a mother who lost her son,” added Dorie. She recalls “waiting by the phone day and night.” His body was eventually found on Easter Sunday, 2002. In all, eight EMS workers died on 9/11.

While she harbors no resentment towards the police and fire department, she feels like EMS workers aren’t getting the same treatment. “If it were a police officer or firefighter, it would be no problem... I begrudge them nothing - they lost like everyone else. But it is the EMS workers getting shoved under the table,” she said.

Richard joined the FHVAC when he was 14 years old because it was the only department with a youth program, taking the bus to its Metropolitan Avenue headquarters from Howard Beach. “Day and night he was here - it didn’t matter what the weather was,” said his father, Barry, 57. He said his son been accepted to LaGuardia Community College at the time of his death and was licensed in first aid and CPR.

“He gave his life to help strangers. He never told them he couldn’t help because he was out of his jurisdiction...“This was his life - the ambulance corps and the Boy Scouts [in Middle Village] was my son’s life,” said Dorie. “He literally died for them, died to help people.”

Weiner hopes that some political and public pressure on the Justice Department will result in the feds releasing the benefit to the Pearlmans. “To me, this seems like an open and shut case, but up to now it’s been shut,” he said. “We’re hopeful that with an additional push, this benefit that is due to your family will finally arrive.”

No Social Security Cost of Living Increase for 2010 and 2011

By Conor Greene

The federal Social Security Administration has made it official: for the first time since 1975, seniors will not receive a cost of living adjustment in 2010 because consumer prices have fallen over the past year.

Local seniors and elected officials rallied in recent weeks following reports that the federal budget didn’t include funding for cost of liv- ing adjustments for the next two years. This will be the first year without an automatic adjustment since it went into effect in 1975, despite outcry from Social Security recipients and elected officials including Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) and State Senator Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach).

“To say that the costs for seniors will not go up for two years is to pretend that the laws of economic gravity don’t apply to older people,” said Weiner. “Rent is up. Food prices are up. The purpose of the COLA is to help seniors keep up. The Social Security Administra- tion seems to have forgotten that mission.”

Addabbo said he is “very discouraged” by the announcement, which came last Thursday, and said he called on Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue “to scrap the agency’s plan to cut off costs of living for two years despite rising costs.

“I believe it is important to raise awareness of this critical issue, since the official freeze on Social Security payments for the next two years really puts New York City seniors under a heavy burden, particularly in the weak economy,” said Addabbo, a member of the Senate’s Committee on Aging.

In a statement, Commissioner Astrue noted that Social Security recipients received a 5.8 percent cost of living adjustment last year after consumer prices spiked, largely as a result of higher gas prices. That marked the largest increase since 1982, according to Astrue, who voiced support for President Obama’s proposal for the administration to provide another $250 recovery payment for the 57 million Americans who receive Social Security.

"Even as we seek to bring about recovery, we must act on behalf of those hardest hit by this recession," Obama said in a statement. "This additional assistance will be especially important in the coming months, as countless seniors and others have seen their retirement accounts and home values decline as a result of this economic crisis."

The White House estimated that cost at $13 billion, and Obama doesn’t want the payments to come from Social Security trust funds, since the program is projected to pay out more in benefits than it collects in taxes over the next two years. However, Addabbo was critical of that plan, especially in light of recent federal bailouts of large corporations and industries. “If President Barack Obama can bail out banks, insurance giant AIG and the auto industry, he should do better than his recent call on Congress to approve a second round of $250 stimulus or recovery payments for over 50 million Social Security recipients,” he said.

Addabbo noted that tenants in rent controlled apartments face a six percent increase, while the cost of many items in New York City has also risen, including Medicare prescription drug plans (up seven percent monthly), food prices (one percent) and mass transit (ten percent). “Our seniors need a regional cost of living adjustment. It is not a luxury, but a necessity. Seniors should not have to choose between eating, paying their rent or getting their medication,” he said.

Weiner recently said there is a notion that the Social Security Administration’s “books are being cooked a little” since it was determined months ago that there would be no adjustment, even though the increase is supposed to be calculated each October. Ever more alarming, said Weiner, is that next year’s increase has also been eliminated, more than a year in advance.

In a statement issued last Thursday, he called on the SSA to “immediately open up their books and explain to the American people why seniors will not be receiving a cost of living adjustment...” The first bill Weiner introduced after being elected to Congress would provide a regional cost of living adjustment “to ensure seniors in Brooklyn, New York are not forced to survive on the same benefits as seniors in Brooklyn, Iowa.” If the COLA Fairness Act is enacted, New York seniors would receive an additional two percent in benefits over a five-year period.