Thursday, January 28, 2010

This Week's Forum West and South

City Entering Final Study Stages of Maspeth Truck Bypass Plan

Routes to Presented to Community in September

By Conor Greene

The city is moving forward with the long-anticipated and much-needed Maspeth Bypass Plan, which would reroute trucks off Grand Avenue and away from the neighborhood’s main shopping district. At an information session this week, officials vowed to have a return to the community in September with concrete proposals for the route. However, after years of waiting, that timeframe isn’t soon enough for some community leaders.

The Department of Transportation has hired a consultant to study specific engineering questions and issues that arose during the 2007 study conducted on the plan, according to Queens Borough Commissioner Maura McCarthy. The consultant and DOT will continue gathering data over the next three months so that proposed routes can be brought back to the community for approval later this year, she added.

“Tonight is about give and take with the community,” she said at Tuesday’s meeting in Martin Luther High School. The DOT will then return with proposals so “the community to decide what the best way to move forward is.” The route suggested by residents several years ago, which would force trucks to use 58th Street after exiting the expressway, will definitely be one of the proposals, said McCarthy. Other potential routes would be developed by the consultant over the next couple of months.

However, Maspeth businessman Tony Nunziato said the city has taken too long to implement the plan. He pushed for the timetable to be moved, something McCarthy said was unlikely. “It’s embarrassing. We’re talking year after year,” said Nunziato. “It’s really unacceptable… I really believe this has to be moved up… We know what the community wants. I’m not waiting another year. We have to address this.”

Robert Holden of the Juniper Park Civic Association said the DOT promised several years ago to at least install signs urging truck drivers to follow the proposed route as an interim measure until the bypass plan could be implemented. Although money was set aside for those signs, they were never erected, according to Holden. He vowed to organize a rally and block traffic along Grand Avenue if the plan is further delayed.

Throughout the session, which featured large poster boards showing the study area and route proposed by the community instead of a formal presentation, McCarthy sought to look forward instead of dwelling on the past delays. “I can’t speak to the past, I can only tell you where we are now,” she said several times. “I’m totally empathetic to the community’s feelings, but I can’t go backwards, only forward.”

She refused to say whether the timeframe has become unacceptably long, and chalked the delays up to the amount of time it took to hire the new consultant to complete the engineering study. “That’s a long wait… but we’re in a position now where we have a consultant on board and are nearing the end of data collection.”

McCarthy also refused to estimate how long it will take to implement the plan after a final route is chosen later this year, noting that it depends on what type of infrastructure work is needed. “If I was a community member I would be pretty annoyed also,” she conceded. “The community is right, they’ve been promised this for a number of years.”

The plan can’t be implemented soon enough for the Maspeth Chamber of Commerce, whose leaders say truck emissions is having a negative impact on the local shopping area. “When the large trucks go up Grand Avenue, they emit black smoke that contains carbon, and people shopping are breathing this in,” said chamber President Jim O’ Kane.

Past chamber president Maryanna Zero noted that it’s an older community, and many of the senior citizens face dangerous conditions while crossing the avenue. “People are upset by it – they don’t like it,” she said of the overwhelming truck traffic. She added that the noise and fumes associated with the truck traffic has made it tougher to rent second floor apartment space and makes it impossible to leave windows open on summer days. “I think it’s a good start, but you will definitely need enforcement,” she said of the plan.

As a businessman, Nunziato understands the importance of moving goods by truck and says the idea isn’t to stifle that industry. “We’re not here to hurt the truck drivers – they have to make money,” he said. “We just need to let them know which route to take.”

Several local elected officials released statements this week reiteriating the importance of quickly implementing the plan.

“The Maspeth truck bypass is an important project that the community has been waiting on for far too long,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village). “It’s time for the [DOT] to move forward with this project to drastically improve the flow of traffic for this overburdened area.”

Assemblywoman Marge Markey (D-Maspeth) said she has been pushing this issue since the late Frank Principe, who was a civil engineer, helped create a proposal on behalf of Community Board 5.

“A decade of pressure and lobbying by elected officials and community leaders is finally getting us results,” said Markey. “At long last, there is a sucessful end in sight to a decade of frustration about the city’s failure to implement a solution to the longstanding concerns about truck traffic through residential and retail areas of Maspeth.”

Man Pleads Guilty in Fatal DWI Hit and Run

Stole Running Vehicle Minutes Before Crash

By Conor Greene

A 28-year-old Middle Village resident has pleaded guilty to manslaughter for drunkenly mowing down two young pedestrians last February while speeding through the neighborhood in a stolen car, authorities announced.

Kenneth Guyear, of 64-02 72nd Street, pleaded guilty last Thursday to first-degree vehicular manslaughter and faces the maximum allowable sentence - between seven-and-a-half and fifteen years in prison - when sentenced on February 23.

In pleading guilty, Guyear admitted to killing 16-year-old Robert Ogle (right) of 62nd Avenue and Alex Paul, 20, of Cypress Hills, on Feb. 1, 2009. The pair was walking to the Ogle home after attending a nearby party and was near the intersection of 80th Street and 62nd Avenue when they were struck.

Guyear later confessed to stealing a 2001 Kia that had been left idling with the key in the ignition outside a deli on Woodhaven Boulevard near Alderton Street. After stealing the vehicle, Guyear drove at a high rate of speed through the residential area until he struck Ogle and Paul, who were just blocks from their destination. He was stopped near Dry Harbor Road and Woodhaven Boulevard a short time later by officers who were canvassing the area following 911 calls reporting the struck pedestrians.

Police immediately noticed a strong odor of alcohol on Guyear and took him to the 112th Precinct stationhouse, where an intoxilyzer test showed he had a blood-alcohol level of.126. Guyear also admitted to police to having drank five or six alcoholic beverages and taking two Xanax pills before causing the wreck.

“The defendant has admitted his guilt to a terrible and tragic crime and will serve serious prison time, giving him time to reflect upon his reckless actions that resulted in the untimely death of two young men,” said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. “This case once again underscores the impact of a person’s decision to get behind the wheel of a car while under the influence of alcohol.”

Following the tragedy, a bill pushed by Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) that raises the penalty for leaving a running vehicle unattended was signed into law. The fine, which was just $5 at the time, has since been raised to $250.

Ogle was a junior at Brooklyn Technical High School, where his mother teaches foreign language. Robert Ogle played football at Brooklyn Tech until breaking his leg during his freshman year, and previously played with the Pop Warner Queens Falcons team. An aspiring journalist, Robert also had a part-time job at the New York Hall of Science. Paul lived in Brooklyn and had met Robert that night at a mutual friend’s party.

Robert’s father, Brendan Ogle, said he has been in contact with Brown’s office and is “satisfied” with the plea bargain. While there were more serious charges that could have resulted in a longer sentence, there was also the chance Guyear could have been found guilty of a lesser charge. “We have no control over that and at least this gives it closure,” said Brendan. “I am relieved that this chapter ended. I can just go on with my life.”

According to police sources, Guyear has a long history of arrests and had been sent to Rikers Island eight times before the incident in Middle Village. His past charges include stealing a motorcycle while drunk on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and for robbery and assault after participating in a robbery during which the victim’s ribs were broken. He attempted suicide while in jail following his arrest for the Ogle and Paul deaths.

A civil suit filed by Robert’s parents against Guyear is still pending.

Seller Beware: Wide Range in Prices Offered for Gold

Sellers Must Shop Around Before Parting with Jewelry

By Conor Greene

With the economy down and the price of gold up, many residents are turning to their old and broken jewelry for a source of some quick cash. However, if you’re not careful and don’t take certain steps, there is a good chance of being ripped off in the process.

In light of this trend, a local elected official is warning would-be gold sellers about one particular scam, in which a company called Cash4Gold often pays between just 11 percent and 29 percent of the current market price for gold. Local pawn shops are only marginally better, generally offering between 35 percent and 70 percent of the value.

On a recent afternoon, The Forum took a first hand look at the market residents face in order to get a better idea of how close local pawnshops and jewelry stores come to offering full market value for an assortment of old gold bracelets and pendants. To do this, a reporter took the items to Marlowe Jewelers in Howard Beach, where owner Dennis Croce determined that the jewelry was worth about $1,995.

While the reporter knew exactly how much the items were worth, he set out to six local buyers, playing dumb in order to see what kind of offers would be made. First up was Gold Rush, located at 105-14 Crossbay Boulevard in Ozone Park, just south of Liberty Avenue. After checking each piece of gold, the clerk offered just $1,125 for the jewelry. Likely based upon the expression on the reporter’s face, he quickly said he could make a much better price and punched some numbers into the calculator before offering $1,350.

Next up was Village Cash for Gold at 80-10 Jamaica Avenue in Woodhaven. The clerk immediately boasted that he doesn’t “play around” and makes fair offers. He came pretty close to the gold’s actual value, offering $1,700. However, the clerk looked like he expected a deal to be made, and it took a minor amount of insisting that the offer needed to be mulled over before the clerk handed the gold back to the reporter.

A few blocks down at Metropolitan Pawnbrokers, 92-16A Jamaica Avenue, the reporter encountered what would ultimately turn out to be the fairest offer of the day. The clerk, who was one of just two who asked where the male reporter had gotten the women’s jewelry, urged him to shop around and then come back with the highest offer, and said the gold was worth at least $1,900. He also advised not to tell other buyers what offers had been made prior in order to get the best price possible.

The fourth store visited was The Gold Standard on Austin Street in Forest Hills, where the clerk first offered $1,500 before upping the price to $1,650 – at least in the ballpark of the gold’s value. However, the reporter noticed that the scale there only read 85.5 pennyweight, while the jewelry actually weighted 86.7 pennyweight.

From there, The Forum headed to Ridgewood, stopping first at Gemelli Jeweler’s Fresh Pond Road store. Despite being a jewelry store that carries many expensive items, the girl behind the counter there offered just $1,385 before saying she could pay $1,400 at most. The last stop was Liberty Pawn Brokers on Weirfield Street, which offered $1,400.

The Forum’s look at the local gold buying industry comes after Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) released a study showing that Cash4Gold, which advertises on late-night television, is preying on cash-strapped New Yorkers through deceptive marketing, low payment policies and misleading return policies. Residents mail the gold in an envelope, and the company assesses it and sends a check in return.

According to Weiner’s study, Cash4Gold intentionally low-balls offers to customers and then, if a customer complains, increases the offer. Customer service agents are reported to receive a commission for keeping the payout low, the congressman added. As a result, Weiner has asked the Federal Trade commission to investigate the misleading practices and plans to introduce the GOLD Act, which would seek protect consumers.

“It’s time for the government to take a stand against predatory companies like Cash4Gold,” said Weiner. “There’s no reason to allow Cash4Gold to continue their policy of kicking struggling consumers while they are already down… Cash4Gold is using these tough times as a golden opportunity to fleece customers. These deceptive practices must end.”

On the local level, there are simple steps sellers should take to ensure they receive a fair deal, according to Marlowe Jeweler’s Croce, who says his store has seen more people getting rid of old jewelry in recent years. “It seems to me like every time there is a spike in gold on the up side, you get a rush of people,” he said. “I guess people are definitely following that trend, we get a lot more people paying attention to the price than a few years ago.”

He says the typical sellers are either older folks who need the money to squeeze by in these tough times, or younger people who don’t necessarily need the money but just want to get rid of old jewelry while the price of gold is still high. “Some older people tell me they can use the money to pay bills,” said Croce. “The older people are more sentimental, but have to pay the bills, while the younger generation, once they’re tired of it they don’t care [about holding onto old jewelry].”

Croce’s advice is to simply shop around and only go to reputable stores that are licensed. While there is no law regulating how much a store has to offer, there are other regulations that licensed brokers must follow. “If you don’t feel comfortable with the place, don’t use them,” he added.

Other tips include getting an offer without revealing the amount other stores suggested, and to try to sell plain gold that doesn’t include stones in order to get a clearer idea of what the jewelry is worth. “Shopping is the most important thing. If they shop around, they are usually going to come back to me, since I give them a fair number,” said Croce.

Officials Seeks Details on Removal of Vollies from 911 System

By Conor Greene

The FDNY is insisting that recent changes to the city’s 911 system concerning local volunteer ambulance companies is simply “clerical” and won’t have any impact on the ability to respond to emergency calls. Even so, local elected officials are looking into the matter to ensure that public safety isn’t compromised by the change.

The confusion over the situation began when the New York Post published an article claiming that the city’s 35 community-based volunteer ambulance organizations, or vollies, were kicked off the 911 system. However, according to the FDNY, the vollies were previously given access to the system “as a courtesy” but were never dispatched to respond to emergency calls.

“There are volunteer ambulances out there that previously had access to our system, but that was done as a courtesy,” said FDNY spokesman Steve Ritea. “They are not dispatched through our 911 system and never were. There is going to be no difference when the average person calls 911 for an emergency. The same pool of ambulances that would have been available to respond before this change can still respond. The change for the public is non-existent.”

In “very rare instances” such as during last year’s swine flu outbreak, the FDNY and vollies establish a mutual aid partnership, during which some ambulances not generally included in the 911 system are assigned to help respond to certain calls. “Before those ambulances are even put on that status, we will send them to one of our EMS stations to make sure they have the proper equipment and training,” said Ritea. He said that the total amount of hours during which mutual aid is utilized is only about 30 to 40 a year.

Still, local elected officials said this situation needs to be closely examined to make sure it doesn’t impact response time. “This is an issue that a lot of people don’t know a lot about, but it is actually happening,” said Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria). “Something of this magnitude should not be done without the input of the public and City Council.”

Vallone said the Council’s fire and criminal justice will look into the matter in the coming weeks. “To my knowledge, they were definitely able to log into the system… and now they’re not being given or sharing information with the FDNY in a way they did previously,” he noted. “The ramifications need to be seriously looked at.”

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who was recently named chair of the fire and criminal justice committee, was working Wednesday to find out more about this change, according to a spokeswoman, and agreed more information was needed about this issue.

“Given that 10,000 to 15,000 people are served by the volunteer ambulance services annually, the FDNY needs to provide us with clear answers as to why they came to this decision, and what the implications are,” said Crowley in a statement. “Over the coming days I will continue to reach out to the FDNY to get answers and to ensure that we are doing everything possible to keep New Yorkers safe.”

According to Ryan Gunning, chairman of the New York State Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Association, District 4, local vollies have been “dealing with varied response in their contacts with the FDNY” since October. He explained that FDNY EMS issued a command order in 2001 formalizing procedures for communication with vollies in “an effort to maximize system utilization of available resources.”

That order was revoked over the past year, without any notice to local groups, according to Gunning, who is also a president of the Glendale Volunteer Ambulance Corp. “So now that the FDNY EMS has rescinded this order, is it an effort to minimize system utilization of available resources?” he questioned. “Is this the right time? With the current economic crisis at hand, should we really be cutting off contact with the volunteers EMS sector?”

Gunning added that many local groups such as his don’t want to be added to the city’s 911 system, which could mean being dispatched to emergencies outside their area. “The volunteers only wish to have better communications between FDNY and the [vollies],” said Gunning. “We wish to be utilized better in local response within our communities and wish only to supplement, not supplant, existing resources.

Council Members Receive Committee Assignments

Ulrich, Koslowtiz and Van Bramer Support Reform Efforts

By Conor Greene

The City Council’s 51 members received their committee assignments – as determined by Speaker Christine Quinn – last week, with several local officials named to important positions. The assignments come at a time when a government watchdog group Citizens Union is pushing for the end of awarding stipends to committee chairs.

Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) was assigned to six committees: civic service and labor, education, housing and buildings, public safety, transportation and waterfronts. He is beginning his first full four-year term on the City Council after defeating Democrat Frank Gulluscio in November. He served most of 2009 after winning a special election earlier that year to replace Joseph Addabbo, who joined the State Senate.

Ulrich was promoted by his party to the position of Minority Whip, which comes with a $5,000 stipend. Ulrich has pledged to donate that money to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

“I am truly grateful for the trust and confidence that my colleagues have placed in me,” said Ulrich. “These committee assignments will allow me to better serve my constituents, and the communities within my district. At each hearing, I will be a voice for the needs and concerns of the people that I represent. And even though times are tough for many families, it’s important for them to know that someone is standing up for them at City Hall.”

Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) received a key assignment when she was named chair of the fire and criminal justice committee. Since taking office, she has been an active member of that committee, addressing issues including the city’s new “failed Unified Call Taking system,” which is used to dispatch crews to emergencies. She also fought against the planned closings of 16 fire companies, which was avoided when $17 million was restored to last year’s FDNY budget.

“I believe that the committee… is one of the most important with regards to the safety and protection of all New Yorkers, and it is an honor to serve as chair” said Crowley. “As chair, I will prioritize the protection and safety needs of all New Yorkers to ensure that, come budget time, these vital services are not compromised.” Crowley will receive a $10,000 stipend for heading that committee.

Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), who is again representing the area after serving two terms on the Council before being forced out by term limits, was named chair of the consumer affairs committee, which also comes with a $10,000 stipend.

Newly-elected Council member Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), whose district includes parts of Maspeth, was named chair of the cultural affairs and libraries committee. The former director of Queens Library’s external affairs said in a statement that he has always been passionate about cultural institutions.

“They embody the vitality of this city, increase tourism and are an integral part of the economic engine that keeps New York the most dynamic city in the world,” he said. “I am keenly aware of how essential libraries are to the every day lives of New Yorkers, and I will fight to protect the invaluable services and programs that they provide.”

The assignments come as Citizens Union is calling upon the Council to cut in half the number of committees and ending the practice of awarding stipends to committee chairs. The CU is urging the 21 Council members who expressed support for ending the awarding of stipends on top of the $112,000 base salary to support this effort.

“The practice of awarding stipends needs to end,” said CU Director Dick Dadey. “They go to almost every member to increase their pay and help bring loyalty to the Speaker. Stipends drive up the number of unnecessary committees and strengthen the influence of the Speaker beyond what is necessary because she decides who gets them and how much they get. The use of stipends is a throwback to an older boss-drive system of government.”

According to CU, the 21 members who voiced support for reforming the system of doling out stipends include Ulrich, Koslowitz and Van Bramer. Crowley did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on her position on this issue.

The other Council members from Queens supporting the reform are: Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), Julissa Ferreras (D-Corona), Dan Halloran (R-Bayside), Peter Koo (R-Flushing) and Diana Reyna (D-Ridgewood).

There are 46 Council committees, subcommittees and task forces, with stipends totaling nearly half a million dollars annually, according to the CU.