Thursday, February 4, 2010

This Week's Forum South and West

Firm Finally Chosen to Develop Aqueduct Racino

AEG Will Have to Meet Further Conditions

By Patricia Adams

After eight months of delays, Gov. David Paterson announced Friday that he and legislative leaders have chosen the Aqueduct Entertainment Group (AEG) consortium that includes multiple builders and a former Las Vegas casino executive to construct and operate Video Lottery Terminals (VLT’s) at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens.

“After an extensive review of the five remaining bids to operate the video lottery terminals at Aqueduct racetrack, I have chosen and the leaders (of the state Assembly and Senate) have agreed the organization that best fulfills our selection criteria,” Mr. Paterson said, in a press statement. “All of the groups have valid proposals, but AEG presented a comprehensive bid that enjoys community support and also offers strong marketing appeal.”

The selection of AEG is however, subject to conditions according to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who said he agreed with the governor’s choice. The award of the bid ends delayed construction at Aqueduct since it was first approved in 2001, and one big modification is the additional $100 million dollars AEG will have to add to its upfront payment to the state. Now the deal will include a boost to licensing fees--from $200 million to $300 million.

The increase comes as a result of matching the highest offer that had come from Penn National Gaming Inc. A series of other demands have also been imposed at the last minute to get final legislative approval, including a serious investigation of all individuals tied to AEG before a contract will be awarded.

The announcement of the winning bidder comes on the heels of recent pressures in Albany to make a choice. Paterson said AEG had financial viability and best fulfilled the selection criteria, though all five groups under consideration had valid proposals.

Lawmakers originally approved a plan to install as many as 4,500 VLT’s at the track more than eight years ago, with a percentage of revenues paid to the state. Paterson spokesman Morgan Hook said Friday that the administration hopes to have the memorandum of understanding signed within 30 days, with the upfront payment due then.

Jeffrey Levine, Founder and CEO of Levine Builders and partner in AEG spoke on behalf of the consortium. "Aqueduct Entertainment Group is honored to have been selected to operate the video lottery terminals at Aqueduct racetrack. As we have said since day one, Aqueduct Entertainment Group has the best team to design, develop and operate the facility. We know we will be a great partner with the state and the residents of Queens for years to come. We look forward to completing the memorandum of understanding and beginning construction."

Local lawmakers Senator Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) and Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Ozone Park) have both involved in the project since its inception.

“Months ago, AEG claimed that they can deliver the racino faster than their rivals, which would start an expected flow of $1 million a day to the state that much sooner,” said Sen. Addabbo. “AEG has strong New York partners, such as Turner Construction Company and Levine Builders. After many discussions with them, I am confident that my district office and I can work with AEG on creating an environment at Aqueduct that is beneficial to New York State, NYRA and the people of the surrounding communities.”

“The racino will bring welcomed economic growth to our community by providing jobs, both during the construction and also full-time permanent jobs for the operation of the facility,” said Pheffer. “This project will be a strong economic engine for the local economy by providing added revenue for New York State, increased educational funding and much needed employment.”

According to Pheffer, AEG has widespread support from local groups including Community Board #10, the Queens Chamber of Commerce and many community and civic organizations. “We have had many false starts in the past and I am thrilled that we will now begin to move forward with a successful project for Aqueduct,” stated Pheffer.

The partners in AEG, are the Navegante Group led by Larry Woolf, former chief executive of MGM Grand Hotels in Las Vegas; building contractor Greenstar Services Corp.; Turner Construction Co.; Levine Builders; the Darman Group Inc. and Empowerment Development Corp.; PS&S Design; Siemens; and merchant bank Clairvest Group Inc.

Fire Companies Again on Chopping Block

Mayor Seeks to Close $4.9 Billion Gap in Preliminary Budget

By Conor Greene

With a sense of déjà vu, local elected officials are ready to fight back against Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to eliminate at least 20 fire companies in an effort to close the $4.9 billion gap in the city’s $63.6 billion budget.

The fight is a familiar one for City Council members – last year’s budget also included the elimination of 16 fire companies, including Engine 271 on Himrod Street. Those closures were eventually avoided when Council members used discretionary funding to restore the FDNY budget. However, that was a one-time solution that is unlikely to be repeated year after year, especially with the number of closings increased by four.

Last Thursday, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled his preliminary budget for 2011, which includes reductions to almost every city agency. However, as bad as it is, he warned that deeper cuts would be needed if Governor David Paterson’s proposed budget is adopted. That would result in an additional $1.3 billion gap, forcing the firing thousands of city employees, including 8,500 teachers and 3,150 police.

“New Yorkers continue to feel the harsh impact of the deepest national recession in more than 60 years, and as many businesses and families continue cutting back on their budgets, so too must city government,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Because of the early steps we took to diversify our economy and keep our fiscal house in order, we’ve avoided the very worst-case scenario, but we still face a very large deficit that will require very difficult decisions.”

However, as bad as the economic situation is, and as difficult as the decisions are, local Council members all say that cuts to emergency services shouldn’t even be considered.

Immediately after the preliminary budget was released, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who is chair of the fire and criminal justice committee, released a statement vowing to fight against the closings of any fire companies. “It is alarming that so many fire company closures are even being proposed in the mayor’s preliminary budget,” said Crowley. “We have a responsibility to our taxpaying New Yorkers that when it comes to safety, we deliver.”

Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) said haven’t been announced, “we do know that every year when we go through the budget dance there is always one on the chopping block that would affect our community.”

He agreed that funding for emergency services “should be baseline in the budget and not up for negotiations… That should be standard, and if we have to make cuts outside that to balance the budget, so be it, but you can’t balance the budget by putting lives at risk, and that’s what the city engages in every year around this time… There are going to be cuts that will be painful, but we have to minimize the negative impact it is going to have on people, and in my opinion, closing firehouses and laying off cops is just unconscionable.”

Crowley stressed that any closings will have a ripple effect across the city. “When you start closing one company here and one there, you’re spreading the whole service thinner,” she said. “I believe we have to maintain a level of protection that is critical for all New Yorkers, and when you start closing companies, it impacts the safety of the whole city.”

Last year, the Council was able to avoid the closures by reallocating $17 million in discretionary funding to the FDNY budget. This year’s preliminary mayoral budget cuts about $22 million needed to keep the companies open, which Crowley called a “drop in the bucket” considering the city’s budget is more than $60 billion. “It is tough budget times, but I firmly believe the budget for 2011 is not nearly as bad as it was anticipated to be,” she said. “The economy is showing signs of improvement and anticipated tax revenue is higher than anticipated.” As a result, she hopes that non-essential spending will be able to be cut from the FDNY budget over the next few months.

Newly-appointed FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said recently that closing even a few companies will require an overhaul of the city’s network of engine and ladder companies. “If we have to close 20 companies, which is a six percent reduction in the number of companies we have, it is going to tax us,” he told the New York Times. “It is certainly the most challenging thing we have faced in decades.”

Several other Council members joined the chorus demanding that the fire companies are removed from the potential chopping block. “This is a very serious problem. Public safety is something we can’t cut corners on,” said Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills). “Fire companies are something we should not close, or even think about closing. It is not an option as far as I’m concerned.”

In a statement, Councilwoman Diana Reyna (D-Ridgewood) said: “In these tough economic times we must use our discretion and act strategically, going line-by-line to protect the funding that allows the brave men and women of the FDNY to continue to serve our residents with the quality and excellence they have come to expect.”

Teacher Charged with Letting Students Wrestle in Classroom

A teacher and an aide assigned to PS 65 in Ozone Park have been arraigned on child endangerment charges for allowing two fourth graders to wrestle in the classroom in order to settle a dispute, authorities announced.

Teacher Joseph Gullotta, 29, and para-professional Abraham Fox, 43, both of Long Island, were arraigned over the weekend in Queens Criminal Court and released on their own recognizance. They are due back in court on February 25 and face up to a year in jail.

According to the charges, a 10-year-old student was having a dispute with a student inside the classroom on January 28 when Gullotta told him that he should instead take it out on a nine-year-old student. When the two boys began grabbing each other’s arms and shoulders and wrestling, Gullotta allegedly told another student to close the door.

During the wrestling match, the older student’s head struck the younger student’s mouth, resulting in injuries to both children. Even though he was inside the classroom at the time, Fox didn’t attempt to stop the boys or offer them assistance for their injuries. In addition, despite the students’ injuries and Fox’s observation that the younger might need stitches, neither adult offered the boys the chance to go to the nurse’s office until two periods later.

Finally, two hours after the wrestling match, Gullotta allowed just the younger boy to go to the nurse and allegedly instructed him to lie about how his injuries occurred. However, the student voiced concern about the other student, who had complained that his head hurt. The nurse told the student to go back to the classroom and get the other student. Gullotta is accused of escorting the older student to the nurse’s office and ordering him to tell the same made-up story the younger child had told the nurse.

The incident came to light when the parent of one of the students involved in the incident overheard them talking about it. The investigation at the school, located at 103-22 99th Street, was conducted by the 106th Precinct.

Fire Destorys Building; Tenants Escape Injury

By Patricia Adams

Xavier Batista was awakened by a smoke detector Monday morning at about 7:15 in his Ozone Park apartment. “I opened the door to check on my neighbor.” Batista said he was met by heavy smoke in the hallway and tried to kick in the front door but it wouldn’t budge.

“I was afraid that he was in there sleeping but the door wouldn’t move.” The DEP worker raced back to his own apartment, called 911 and ran from the burning building escaping injury.

“The fire department was here very quickly. It seemed like no more than a minute or two, and they did a great job.” His neighbor, he learned later, had left for work at 4:30 that morning. “Thank God he wasn’t in there and that no one else got hurt. We are all very lucky.”

“My apartment is completely destroyed,” Batista said. “The firemen had to chop up the roof to get the fire out and now there is about 4 feet of water in the basement.” Until he finds a new apartment or his is rebuilt he will be staying nearby with his daughter and son-inlaw.

Fire marshalls are still investigating the cause of the three-alarm blaze at Crossbay and Linden Boulevards that began in on the top floor above the E Studio Salon and Spa and spread to the adjacent Best Cleaners and to an apartment above Heavenly Florist at the corner. Three apartments above the stores were destroyed in the fire; the building that Batista has lived in for nine years now has an order to vacate pasted to its doors.

Marlo Hirshfield and her sister Rosemarie Rossomangno, the owners of Heavenly Florist, say they began receiving calls on their cell phones to say that the store was burning. “We were devastated when we heard the news,” said Marlo, but upon arrival at the store, their devastation turned to joy. “It’s absolutely unbelievable but our store is completely intact. Nothing was damaged. We don’t even have any water in the store.”

“All I can say is that this is a blessing from God,” said Hirshfield. “We have a bride this weekend, Valentines Day is coming up and with things the way they are with the economy we would have been out of business if the fire had reached us. We are blessed.” Another tenant, living above the florist was rescued with her two children, an infant and a toddler, and taken from the burning apartment by firefighters.

State Labels Several Queens Schools as Underperforming

Grover Cleveland, Newtown, John Adams and Richmond Hill Included

By Conor Greene

Several local high schools, including Grover Cleveland, Newtown, John Adams and Richmond Hill, have been included on the state’s list of 57 “persistently lowest achieving” institutions due to low graduation rates.

A total of ten schools in Queens were named to the list, which occurs as a result of graduation rates below 60 percent or annually low scores on state English and math tests. According to the state Department of Education, they are “eligible for new funding and major intervention to turn them around, as part of New York’s School reform agenda.”

“We are entering a new era of reform in which we will build upon New York’s current initiatives to intervene in low performing schools and improve student outcomes as a result,” said Merryl H. Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents. “New federal funding opportunities will allow us to work with districts to go beyond incremental improvements to create truly excellent models of education for our students, particularly in those high schools with the lowest graduation rates.”

Schools are eligible to receive up to $500,000 provided they come up with a viable turnaround plan. Options include redesigning or replacing the school, converting the facility to a charter school, transforming the school through a process that uses “a rigorous” evaluation system for teachers and principals or closing the school and transferring the students to higher achieving schools in the area.

“Districts are being given an opportunity to use federal funding to provide focused concentrated resources to help schools improve English language arts and mathematics performance and increase graduation rates,” said Education Commissioner David Steiner in a statement. “I expect districts to develop aggressive, innovative plans that… will make a profound difference in the outcomes for their students.”

Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the borough representative on the Panel on Educational Policy, noted that the state isn’t pushing to close any of the named schools, but is recommending the four courses of action to the city DOE. “There is much confusion on the report… Much of the report still has to be disseminated, but I strongly recommend that our school communities remain vigilant on the matter and continue to ask questions of the DOE,” he said in an e-mail.

Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) said the city must find ways to keep these schools open and improve them due to the overcrowding situation the borough faces, especially on the high school level. She noted that Forest Hills High School currently serves 4,000 students on split schedules, despite having just 2,700 seats.

“From early in the morning to late at night students are crammed in there and now they’re talking about closing another high school. It’s ridiculous,” said Koslowitz. “These schools were good for so many years and now all of a sudden they can’t be fixed? I really feel the schools should be fixed, not closed.”

In Ridgewood, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) said it is “disappointing that the state wants to close Grover Cleveland.” She pointed out that the school’s English test scores and graduation rates are impacted by the fact that so many first generation immigrations who don’t necessarily speak the language well go there. In contrast, the school’s math and science programs are very strong, according to Crowley.

“The thing with Grover Cleveland and a lot of the larger schools is they serve students who are neediest as well, including new Americans who haven’t been in the country for very long” she said. “They might have different needs, and I don’t think the DOE has always given that extra service.”

Crowley said she plans to visit the school and meet with its principal along with Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan in the coming weeks. “We are going to advocate strongly to help bring in those services needed to prevent the school from closing,” she said.

The city DOE didn’t respond to several messages seeking comment. The state’s list, released on January 21, came just days before the city, in a separate action, voted to close 19 facilities, including Jamaica and Beach Channel high schools.

The other Queens high schools named on the state’s list are: Queens Vocational Technical, Flushing, August Martin, Beach Channel, Jamaica, and Long Island City.

Koslowitz Begins Second Stint on City Council

By Conor Greene

A month into her second tenure serving Forest Hills, Rego Park and parts of Richmond Hill and Elmhurst on the City Council, Karen Koslowitz says she has hit the ground running and is looking forward to tacking key issues that affect her district.

Koslowitz succeeds Melinda Katz in serving the 29th Council District, after defeating a crowded field in the September primaries and cruising to victory in the November general election. This marks the second stint on the City Council for Koslowitz, who previously represented the area before term limits forced her from office. In between, she served as Deputy Borough President under Helen Marshall.

“Things are going very well – the office is up-and-coming, and we’re settling in,” Koslowitz told The Forum this week. She says she has put together an experienced staff comprised of “people who are familiar with the community.” Aside from her full-time office staff, Koslowitz arranged for a lawyer to come to the office on certain nights to answer questions constituents have about tenant-landlord issues, she noted.

Koslowitz was recently named chair of the consumer affairs committee and will also serve on the Council’s education, aging and finance committees, among others. She says these committees will allow her to work on “issues that absolutely affect my community.” For example, she plans on establishing a parent advisory council consisting of the PTA presidents from schools throughout the district. “That way I can hear their concerns and bring their concerns back to City Hall,” she said. “The legislators are kept out of the loop, so I wanted to create my own panel where you actually hear the concerns of the constituents.”

Issues impacting senior citizens are also a priority for Koslowitz, who served on the aging and education committees during her first Council stint. “We have an aging populationin my community from Elmhurst all the way to East Richmond Hill,” she said. “Changes in what is going on with the meals on wheels program, the access-a-ride, what they’re planning on doing is absurd as far as I’m concerned.”

Another ongoing concern is the state of the area’s main shopping districts including Austin Street, Queens Boulevard and Metropolitan Avenue. “I think they’re hurting from the economy just like everybody else,” said Koslowitz, adding that the constant ticket blitzing by traffic agents needs to be addressed. “There are often two or three meter maids on a block. We all have to work together, every department. If a customer gets a ticket, they’re not coming back and will go somewhere else to shop.”

While there are limited options in terms of constructing a municipal parking garage along Austin Street, Koslowitz plans to revisit an idea she came up with a decade ago – allowing shoppers to park in the lot behind Borough Hall on Queens Boulevard and offering shuttle bus service to Austin Street. “Especially on weekends, if someone is eating, watching a movie or shopping and spends a few hours [on Austin Street] that would be an ideal parking place,” she said. “However, at the time [she first proposed it] the city said it was going out of the municipal parking business.”

Another major concern for Koslowitz is the state of healthcare in Queens, where three hospitals containing more than 600 beds have closed in the past two years. “It’s a big problem… with a population of 2.3 million, to lose that many beds, when we could have used more to begin with,” she said. “I’m looking into seeing if we can get smaller [facilities].”

She plans on discussing the future of the former Parkway Hospital property with its owner to see if part of that building could be used for medical purposes. “The facility needs to be used for something. There are two things the area needs that we don’t have: hospital beds and senior housing,” said Koslowitz. “Throughout the district, that needs to be revisited and I intend to do that.”

Koslowitz’s office is located at 118-35 Queens Boulevard, 17th Floor and can be reached at (718) 544-8800.

Pedestrian Injuries on the Rise

Hospital Holds Summit to Address Local Impact

By Patricia Adams

On Friday, January 22, physicians, hospital administrators, transportation and traffic safety experts and community activists gathered at Elmhurst Hospital Center (EHC) for the Second Annual New York City Summit on Pedestrian Injury. The one-day symposium, part of a public education and outreach campaign developed by Elmhurst Hospital Center’s Trauma and Neurosurgery Departments, examined pedestrian injuries and their impact on public health.

“Neighborhoods in western and central Queens have seen an increasing rise in the number of traffic accidents involving pedestrians,” said Dr. Jaime Ullman, Elmhurst Hospital Center’s Director of Neurosurgery and one of the chief organizers of the summit. “According to a recent study we conducted, traffic accidents involving pedestrians, especially those taking place on Queens Boulevard, Northern Boulevard, and Roosevelt Avenue, resulted in more than 30% of the injuries seen in Elmhurst Hospital Center’s Emergency Room.”

Ullman noted that that statistic is frighteningly high. “Pedestrian injuries typically make up 9% to 25% of injuries seen at hospitals in other parts of the city.”

Pedestrian safety remains a paramount concern in Queens County, strongly supported by the studies done at Elmhurst. Almost 1,000 patients were admitted to Elmhurst due to pedestrian injury with 21% of victims under the age of 18 and 23% of patients over the age of 65. The additional patients, roughly numbering 600, were between the ages of 24 and 65. Approximately 7% of the patients studied died as a result of their injuries and those who survived spent an average of eleven days in the hospital.

In New York City, children and seniors have both been the focus of initiatives to promote pedestrian safety. Safe Streets for Seniors was launched in 2007 by the Bloomberg administration and the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) as a program to evaluate pedestrian conditions from a senior’s perspective and make engineering changes such as extending pedestrian crossing times at crosswalks and shortening crossing distances, altering curbs and sidewalks, restricting vehicle turns and narrowing roadways.

The Safe Kids New York State program was developed to prevent injuries and death to children, and is run by a coalition of public and private organizations working primarily to promote child passenger and pedestrian safety measures. More children die annually from unintentional injury than from all childhood diseases combined.

But despite measures taken by the city 256 people were treated at the hospital for a pedestrian injury last year which is the highest number in almost 10 years. There were 240 in 2008 and 215 in 2007.

The DOT responded in a statement saying that "fatalities in NYC are at their lowest levels in the century that we've kept records, and we continue to work even harder to make streets even safer with safety engineering improvements to target our most vulnerable New Yorkers.”

The Elmhurst Hospital summit revealed a number of noteworthy trends; more injuries occurred during the fall months and on weekends. Children were the most likely affected during these periods while the elderly population was impacted more during the weekday period. The majority of pedestrian injuries occurred between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

While experts acknowledged that there have been many efforts to alleviate this problem, including the passing of pedestrian safety legislation, pedestrian injuries still have a significant impact on the community. The unique aspects of pedestrian injury involve difficulty with law-enforcement and the ability to conduct a large-scale educational campaign to include both pedestrians and motor vehicles.

According to hospital officials, the purpose of the Summit was to convene those involved in pedestrian safety, highlight individual prevention programs and their impact, and promote broader awareness of the problem, while coming to a consensus on the optimal pathways for change.

“We really need to make an aggressive, multilingual outreach effort to educate the public about these injuries,” said Dr. Ullman when asked what additional steps she thought should be taken to help reduce the number of pedestrian injury victims. “In a way, I’d like to be put out of business, because we are seeing way too many patients with serious blunt trauma injuries that were entirely preventable.”

For more about Elmhurst Hospital Center’s Pedestrian Injury Prevention Campaign, please contact Atiya Butler, Assistant Director of External Affairs, at 718.334.1259 or by e-mail at