Thursday, April 15, 2010

This Week's Forum West and South

Boards Rally Against Mayor's Proposed Cuts

Funding Reduction Would Severely Impact Board’s Role

By Conor Greene

Members of community boards from across Queens gathered on the steps of Borough Hall on Tuesday to demand that the Bloomberg administration rethinks its plans to reduce the groups’ budgets again this year.

Under Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed $64 billion city budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, each of the borough’s 14 local community boards would face a funding reduction of more than $17,000. That comes after several budget cuts reduced each board’s funding from about $206,000 several years ago to $144,000, according to one district manager.

On Tuesday, more than 100 board members, residents and district managers joined Borough President Helen Marshall to get the word out about how detrimental these cuts would be. They were joined by several City Council members, including Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) and Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), who both vowed to fight against these cuts as the budget process unfolds.

“There is no question that reducing the board to a fulltime district manager and one part-time individual will limit the board’s ability to perform their city-charter mandated functions,” said Marshall. “These boards help us to perfect democracy by bringing City Hall to neighborhoods directly affected by proposals that affect land use, city services, parks and a multitude of other issues.”

While the funding reductions are being necessitated by the economic crisis, there was also a feeling among some board members and district managers the cuts are part of an ongoing effort to reduce the board’s roles before eventually eliminating them all together.

Betty Braton, chair of CB 10, said there are “two undercurrents” to the decision to cut funds, and Frank Gulluscio, district manager of CB 6, agreed that “Money aside, there is a mission there.” Patricia Dolan of the Queens Civic Congress later said, “This mayor, for reasons we will never understand, wants to undermine neighborhoods, not just in Queens, but around the city.”

The Council members on hand indicated they wouldn’t let the boards’ budget be cut without a fight. “It’s a horrible situation when we have to fight for something that makes sense,” said Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), adding that it is “embarrassing” that the Bloomberg administration keeps targeting the boards for cuts.

Ulrich vowed that there is “no way the mayor can balance the books… on the backs of community boards.” He called it “ridiculous that we have to fight for peanuts so that we can serve our communities.”

Vincent Arcuri, chairman of CB 5, likened board members to “tribal leaders” who have their finger on the pulse of the local community. “We are needed – we are one of the most basic forms of government in the United States,” he said.

Gulluscio called the current funding levels “bare bones” and said budget cuts are impacting the board’s ability to perform duties such as community outreach, since there often isn’t money for necessities such as printing and postage. He noted that the Bloomberg administration’s handling of the boards is not consistent with a letter sent out by the head of the mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, Nazli Parvizi.

“Community Boards provide New Yorkers with a voice and the ability to be increasingly helpful and productive in their neighborhoods,” wrote Parvizi. “Whether advising on unprecedented land use reforms or fighting for crucial social services, Community Board members work to strengthen and celebrate this great city.” She goes on to note that the Bloomberg administration“ has long recognized the value of community boards as local experts within the larger structure of city government.”

Formerly known as “Community Planning Boards” and “Little City Halls,” the boards were strengthened when the 1975 City Charter was adopted, giving boards roles in neighborhood land use, preparation of the capital and expense budget and delivery of local city services. The role of the boards was reaffirmed in the 1989 charter. Each board has up to 50 members who serve staggered terms of two years on a volunteer basis.

Parents and Students Demand City Finally Renovates PS 87

By Conor Greene

The head of the city school system heard an earful from parents, students and teachers who are demanding that the Department of Education live up to a decade-old promise to renovate their Glendale school.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein stopped by PS 87 on Monday for a town hall meeting, during which the community had the chance to ask questions about issues throughout District 24. While topics like the city budget were discussed, the city’s failure to renovate PS 87 when it became a K-8 facility years ago was on the minds of a standing-room-only crowd.

The school became one of the first in the district to expand to K-8, but remains the only not expanded or renovated since, as money set aside for repairs became unavailable after 9/11. To show how bad the problem is, students Lorena Chelaru and Stacey Aguilar presented a video showing the building’s crumbling ceiling, crowded hallways and cafeteria, lack of full-size gym and run-down bathrooms featuring broken sinks and lack of stall doors.

“We want that expansion that we’ve been fighting for a long time now,” said CEC 24 President Nick Comaianni. “This shows you what many of the students… have to work with – it’s not much. Hopefully this is something we can work together to see what we can do to help PS 87.”

In response, Klein called the video “terrific” but noted there are an “enormous number of compelling demands” at schools across the city. Still, he agreed to conduct a feasibility study to assess the situation and then work with Community Education Council 24 “to make sure your priorities are aligned with what can be done.” That prompted at least one audience member to yell, “Don’t give us empty promises.”

Council Vice President Peter Vercessi said that renovating PS 87 is a “top priority,” but was unable to get a clear answer from Klein as to why the work never happened. Klein couldn’t explain why the renovations never took place, and took exception with the idea that “something happened to the money.” He said it was likely the money was reallocated, but couldn’t say for sure since he wasn’t chancellor at the time.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) also pushed the chancellor to provide a “real promise” regarding the expansion.

“You have my commitment that we will look at those issues and work with the community to find a real solution,” said Klein in response to the councilwoman.

While the situation surrounding PS 87 dominated much of the meeting, Klein took a few moments to give an update on progress made around the city and within the district since Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002.

Since then, the city’s school budget has rose from $13 billion to $21 billion, with city funding up 80 percent, state up 55 percent and federal up 27 percent. Per pupil spending has increased from $10,649 to $17,696.

“We’re making better investments and getting better results,” said Klein. As a result, graduation rates have jumped 33 percent in that time, after staying flat for the prior decade. Schools are also safer, according to Klein, with major and violent crime rates down across the city.

In District 24, which is considered the most overcrowded in the city, eight new schools have opened since 2003, said Klein. “This is a good school district – people want to go to school here, so we’re building.” There are eight more projects planned for the district in the upcoming five-year capital plan, including six schools with a total of 4,302 seats.

Vercessi asked what the likelihood is of having that capital plan cut, given how much is at stake for the district. “Right now, there is no reason to think the capital plan for this district will be cut,” responded Klein.

Thousands Attend Job Fair Sponsored by Addabbo

By Patricia Adams

One of the larger crowds seen at Aqueduct in the recent past lined up on three floors of the raceway last Friday afternoon - none of them in attendance because of their racing interests.

Instead, more than 2,800 people were there for a job fair hosted and organized by Sen. Joe Addabbo. Thousands of people stood together in the ailing venue in hopes of finding a solution to their own struggles. The crowd, mixed among men and women, young and old, the experienced and the very willing to learn, all came together with the common goal of finding a job.

Vendors from more than 140 companies were on hand to screen the applicants, accept their resumes and discuss job potential. “I am delighted with the response that we got,” said Addabbo, “however the size of the crowd is indicative of just how serious the unemployment crisis we face is, and that is certainly quite upsetting.” In addition to the standard job fair offerings, attendees also had the opportunity to attend seminars offered by vendors and job counselors.

“We took this approach and included other components in the fair because such a diverse group of people does not have cut and dry needs,” the senator said. “What we are trying to do is to offer everyone a viable chance at finding work.”

And to the delight of those standing on long lines, it was well worth the wait. Kathy Vitello was born and raised in Richmond Hill and now lives in Kew Gardens. After working as a project manager in production and design for more than 23 years, the ad agency she worked for closed down last year.

“I have been searching since I am out of work but nothing has happened,” said Vitello. “What Joe Addabbo has done here today is amazing. I am both grateful and impressed.” Vitello said that her job hunting has proven to be fruitless and often frustrating, but she said, “today for some reason I feel hopeful. I am now willing to look at freelance opportunities to get something going.”

And many like Vitello were quick to offer praise and thanks for the senator and his staff. “This is a great opportunity,” said Jack Sampson. “I have had the chance to see companies here that would not even let me in their doors. We all owe this guy [Addabbo] big time for helping all these people like this.”

Another integral component to the job fair was the provisions made for one of the most rapidly growing unemployment faction’s today - seniors. “There is a tremendous need today for senior positions,” Addabbo stated. Because of the downturned economy and the rising cost of living, seniors find themselves faced with the unexpected—seeing their retirement funds run out long before the end of their lives. One group on hand to address the special needs of seniors was AARP.

There were also groups of professionals who were there to offer advice and the potential of jobs later down the line. Helmets to Hardhats, Dressing for Success and Vets Helping Vets, were just a few of the organizations present to discuss possibilities and plans of action for future employment opportunities. Candidates planning career changes also had many opportunities to discuss details with a variety of companies.

According to Sen. Addabbo, one of the most beneficial features of the fair is that the help available on Friday did not end with the close of the day. The senator’s office is in close contact with many of the vendors who maintain that they received a large quantity of quality resumes from the day. In addition, any candidates for employment that ran out of resumes or missed a particular vendor can still reach them through the senator’s office. “We will forward resumes for people that ran out of them or missed an employer that might have left for the day.

Sudden Appearance of Heavy Trucks has Glendale Residents Worried

MTA Moving Contractors into 88th Street Storage Facility

By Conor Greene

The sudden appearance of tractor trailers and MTA work trucks along a quiet Glendale street has some residents worried about long term impacts on the local quality of life.

The concern arose after resident Kevin Burns noticed “huge trucks with pipes and giant wheels of wire” headed to the last property along 72nd Drive in the past week or so. A worker on the site told him that he was an LIRR employee and that the activity had to do with the planned East Side Access Project, which will connect the LIRR to Grand Central Station.

Burns, who was awakened several times by trucks coming and going late at night or early in the morning, became worried that the activity is “out of character for the neighborhood,” with the large trucks barely able to clear the turn onto 72nd Drive. “Will they be part of our lives for the foreseeable future, arriving and departing at odd hours?” he wondered in an e-mail he forwarded to various community leaders.

In response, an MTA spokesman told The Forum that the activity residents are noticing is part of the process of allowing contractors to occupy the agency’s storage 70,000-square-foot storage facility at 88th Street and 72nd Drive. The building will store equipment and supplies needed for the East Side Access Project, and trucks are only supposed to be traveling through the neighborhood between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

The spokesman, Aaron Donovan, was unable to comment specifically on the photos circulated by Burns or say for sure if those trucks are part of this project. “I can confirm that we are in the ramp up phase of beginning to use the storage facility. The important thing is this will be about a one-week move in process, after which truck traffic should decrease significantly,” said Donovan.

The storage facility is expected to be used for the next four to five years for the East Side Access Project. “Over the long-term, I would say that the residents in the area can expect to see a very dramatic decrease in the amount of truck traffic compared with the ramp up phase,” said Donovan. “I can’t tell you how much will remain, but there will certainly be far less than there currently is.”

In the meantime, Burns said residents are left wondering who will be responsible for fixing damage caused by the trucks, including tire tracks on the sidewalk, a broken stop sign, a large hole in the pavement and a broken drainage grate.

“I understand this is stimulus money, and people need work. And they are valiantly trying to minimize the impact,” said Burns. “But it seems to me that most of this money went down to Texas, where all that piping was fabricated, and not to Glendale. And now we have to repair the damage.”

Waste Management Bows to Pressure, Amends Trash Hauling Plan

Eliminates 1.5 Mile Truck Trip to Maspeth Rail Yard

By Conor Greene

Residents can breathe a sign of relief now that Waste Management has agreed to amend its trash-hauling plan to avoid running trucks between the company’s Review Avenue transfer station and the Maspeth Rail Yard.

As part of the city’s Solid Waste Management Plan, the company is converting its Review Avenue transfer station so that it can utilize the nearby railroad in order to cut down on long-distance truck trips, which are currently needed to get the trash out of the city. While the plan would greatly reduce the overall amount distance driven by 2.2 million miles per year, it would have required multiple trips daily between the transfer station and the rail yard - thus increasing truck traffic in West Maspeth.

That aspect of the plan wasn’t well received by residents or elected officials, who instead urged Waste Management to build a rail spur on its property or utilize the nearby Newton Creek and barge the trash out of the area. Company officials determined there wasn’t enough room on the site to build a rail spur. However, this week, Waste Management announced the plan has been modified to instead utilize New York & Atlantic Railway’s Blissville Yard, which can be accessed exclusively on private roads.

“Following an extensive analysis, we have modified our plan to eliminate the need to move rail containers over city streets, virtually eliminating any traffic impacts,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement. “Our revised plan will eliminate the city’s export of residential waste in long-haul tractor trailer trucks from Western Queens, reducing traffic and vehicle emissions.”

Under the revised plan, Waste Management will receive and containerize residential waste collected from neighborhoods within community boards one through six at the Review Avenue site. The waste would then be driven 2,000 feet west on private roads adjacent to the Long Island Railroad tracks, to the Blissville Yard. There, containers will be loaded onto railcars, which will be moved to the Fresh Pond Yard daily. From there, they will be connected to a CSX long-haul train for transport to landfills outside the city.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who was involved in the fight to convince Waste Management to amend its plan, called the announcement a “victory” for the neighborhood, as garbage trucks will no longer use Review Avenue. “The change is a step in the right directions. It shows Waste Management is listening and we need to keep the focus on the needs of Maspeth residents.”

Overall, the plan will end the city’s export of 1,200 tons per day of residential trash by truck from Western Queens, eliminating the impact on local roads, the company boasted in a press release announcing the amended plan. The city’s solid waste plan, which was issued in 2006, seeks to ensure each borough is responsible for handling its own waste and to shift trash export from a truck-based system to a rail and barge based system.

The expanded Review Avenue facility will be able to handle up to 2,100 tons per day and will typically receive about 1,150 tons of trash per day. Currently it has a capacity of 958 tons per day, and the original expansion plan would have required about 65 round trip truck trips each day between Review Avenue and the Maspeth Rail Yard.

Three-Alarm Brush Fire Visible for Miles

By Patricia Adams

A beautiful Saturday afternoon in Howard Beach came to a halt when a three-alarm blaze tore through the brush along 165th Avenue at 83rd Street and continued along the brush line to 161st Avenue near 81st Street. High winds and very dry brush were cited as contributing to the high risk category for the area.

According to a fire department spokesman, Frank Dwyer, reports of the blaze initially reached emergency operators at 3:46 p.m through multiple calls to 911 from area residents. Locals watched as the rapidly spreading flames sent huge clouds of thick, black smoke billowing into the overhead sky.

FDNY was first to the scene, responding in 3.5 minutes with 33 units and 150 firefighters to battle the flaming brush. Two tower ladders and eight hoses on the ground were used to extinguish most of the pockets of fire in slightly less than one hour. Crowds of residents and passersby stood along the course of the brush as firefighters battled the flames that grew as a result of the windy conditions of the day. The entire fire was knocked down and under control in 1 hour and 16 minutes.

Smoke that filled the sky over Howard Beach was seen as far as Manhattan’s South Street Seaport and spread charred brush and debris across the area. The intense heat and flames came within dangerous proximity to vehicles parked alongside the brush and houses across the street.

The flames were heading away from Jamaica Bay in the direction of the wind, with crowds of onlookers being sprayed by wind-blown water. Firefighters broke up into several units working their way from 161st Avenue over to 165th Avenue.

Despite flames that came so close to property lines, no houses were damaged and there were no injuries reported.

City to Open PS 290 in Maspeth Until Ridgewood Building is Completed

While the city Department of Education continues negotiations with the owner of the former Rite Aid site on Metropolitan Avenue – eyed as the future site of PS 290 – officials announced that the new school will open this fall on the IS 73 campus in Maspeth. Students of the planned school will attend classes at the temporary location until construction is completed at the Ridgewood property.

The city recently unveiled plans to build a 600-seat school on the Rite Aid site at 55-20 Metropolitan Avenue. However, the city doesn’t yet own the site and doesn’t expect to open the new PS 290 there until 2014. Since District 24 is the most overcrowded in the city, there is a sense of urgency to begin opening the new K-5 school as soon as possible to help alleviate the strain.

“While we work hard to acquire a permanent home for the school, the temporary location of PS290 is an important step that will let us relieve overcrowding faster in a district that really needs it. The proposal will leave both IS73 and PS 290 with enough space to serve their students,” the DOE said in a statement.

In the fall, PS 290 will open to 50 to 75 students who were denied enrollment at PS 153 or PS 71 because of capacity issues there. One additional grade level will be introduced at the campus each year, until the school is moved to its permanent location in four years, at which time pre-kindergarten classes will be offered. In addition, PS 290 will be a zoned elementary school, meaning DOE will rezone the area prior to the building’s opening.

The PS 290 incubation plan is contingent on approval by the Panel for Educational Policy, which is due to meet on April 20. The City Council must approve the purchase of the Rite Aid property before the DOE can finalize that agreement and begin construction.

A public hearing on this proposal was held on Wednesday evening in Maspeth. If the DOE is unable to open the Metropolitan Avenue site in 2014, the PS 290 students will remain in their temporary home on the IS 73 campus.