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The Reluctant Senator

After losing a second congressional primary to Charles Rangel in June, Adriano Espaillat is campaigning against Robert Jackson to keep his seat in the 31st State Senate district.

Espaillat’s 2014 campaign against Rangel, when he got 43.6 percent of the vote, was only slightly better than his 2012 campaign against Rangel, when he won 41.3 percent of the vote. Those close numbers, however, were not against a Congressman at his full strength. Rangel was found guilty in 2010 of 11 Ethics Committee charges, and was officially censured by the House. These charges included keeping four below-market-rate apartments for his personal use, failing to report rental income from his villa in the Dominican Republic, and accepting sponsored trips to the Caribbean.

Jackson, a long time New York City politician who served 12 years on City Council, was term limited out of office in 2013. Afterwards, he ran for Manhattan Borough President, losing to Gale Brewer. Jackson declared his candidacy for State Senator of the 31st district just four months ago. “This is a sprint,” he said in an interview.

Jackson argues that Espaillat isn’t interested in being State Senator – he’s run for Congress twice. “You need a fighter to go up there and fight for that, and is going to be present 100% of the time and not be absent 60% of the time,” said Jackson, taking a jab at Espaillat’s Senate attendance record. “If I worked for you, and I’m missing work 60% of the time because I’m looking for another job, would I still have my job with you?”

According to analysis of the legislative session by the New York Public Interest Research Group, Espaillat missed 656 votes, or 60 percent. This is largely because votes are held the week before elections when candidates are likely to be on the campaign trail.

Espaillat was cagey when asked if he would run for congress again. “I think it’s so unfair for me to answer that question right now,” he said, “particularly since I just got out of a very contentious congressional race, and right now what I’m focusing on his my re-election for the state senate, and next year the renewal of the rent laws. I haven’t even entertained that idea yet, and don’t plan to do that for a while.”

In this election, Espaillat has endorsements he lost to Rangel during his congressional race, like Governor Cuomo, and SEIU1199, the largest union New York City. Espaillat’s touted housing qualifications are something that Cuomo cited when endorsing him. If the Democrats win the majority, he will be Chair of the Housing Committee next year when rent control legislation is set to expire. He is currently the top ranking Democrat on that committee in a Republican controlled senate.

Jackson has picked up endorsements from West Side Democratic clubs including the Park River Independent Democrats, the Broadway Democratic Club, and the Three Parks Independent Democrats. “The majority of the votes are from Northern Manhattan, but the highest percentage votes are in the Upper West Side,” said Jackson. “So we’re focusing on the Upper West Side, which is majority white, and quite frankly, mostly all of the elected public officials and Democratic Clubs on the Upper West Side have endorsed my candidacy.”

Though neither Espaillat or Jackson admitted campaigning more to one ethnic group over another, their power bases are in different places – while Jackson is counting on the Upper West Side to deliver a high voter turnout, Espaillat is counting on his name recognition in the Dominican Community, still the largest ethnic group in Washington Heights.

On Labor Day, in the sweltering heat of the afternoon, Espaillat was on St. Nicholas Ave and 181st St. in Washington Heights, shaking hands with pedestrians, standing next to his ubiquitous campaign bus decorated with dozens of American flags. He seemed to know many of the people walking by, and talked easily in Spanish.

 

Francisco Calderon, 38, is a long time resident of Washington Heights, and an Espaillat supporter. “I’ve known him for a long time, he’s always represented the Spanish community, and very well mannered,” he said.

Nine days before the primary, Jackson organized a Peace Run that covered the length of the 31st District, to bring attention to international violence in the Middle East, and local violence in Upper Manhattan. He stopped along the way to say a prayer with different clergy members, including Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid and Rabbi Sheldon Fine. “If the people know that he’s running, and they know his record, his chances are very good,” said Imam Abdur-Rashid. Jackson was joined by a few people at each stop, but turnout was fairly low. On 151st street, Dominican members of the St. Jude’s Tenant Association came out to support him. “In my opinion, Robert Jackson helped more the community, said Celina Almanzar. “You can see Jackson everywhere no matter what. I’ve hardly seen Espaillat.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Council Passes Muni ID Bill Despite Unanswered Questions

Published in City & State

The New York City Council voted overwhelmingly to pass a Municipal Identification card bill Thursday, though many questions remain about the bill’s implementation and the utility of the ID cards.

The identifcation card program has gained national attention over the past few months for its goal of bring an estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows.”

The bill, which passed 43 to 3, would provide a form of city ID to New Yorkers who can establish their identity and residency, and meet the minimum age requirement for eligibility. The ID would be separate from state or federal identification, and according to lawmakers, would be especially important to immigrants, the elderly, and transgender people. All city agencies will be required to accept the ID, though it will not be accepted at state and federal agencies.

However, many details have yet to be hammered out, including which personal documents would qualify someone for the ID. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito mentioned several times that the New York Police Department supported the ID card, attempting to assuage fears of potential fraud.

The Council said that it is still working with businesses to build incentives into the card to promote widespread use. As of now, it is unclear whether banks will accept the card, perhaps the most glaring question mark for immigrants who might struggle to open a bank account. City Councilwoman Debi Rose pointed to the potential danger that immigrants face from muggers as ‘walking ATMs,’ carrying large amounts of cash because of their lack of banking options.

“I’ve seen first hand how a lack of photo id can lead to tragic circumstances,” Rose said, citing the types of robberies that her district in Staten Island have witnessed in the past. “Many members of the Mexican immigrant community carried large amounts of cash on their persons. … Once people opened bank accounts, the attacks stopped.” The IRS, however, already issues Taxpayer Identification Numbers to people who may not be U.S. citizens, but pay taxes, a fact that seemed to escape the Council on Thursday.

Councilman Carlos Menchaca, a co-sponsor of the bill, cited its passage as the fruit of a productive and progressive city government. “This is the direct manifestation of a Mayor and the City Council working together day in and day out,” he said. The passage of the bill is also certainly a feather in the cap of the first-term councilman.

Councilman Daniel Dromm, the other co-sponsor, joked that the ID is “the must-have accessory for all New Yorkers.”

But the humor underlies an important aspect of the ID card’s rollout: to succeed the ID must attain widespread use, including by people who already have alternate forms of ID. Councilmembers hinted at partnerships with private businesses, but the lack of incentive for pre-existing ID carriers was not included in the bill, and will be worked out in the coming months by the Mayor’s Office of Operations. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said that the IDs would be rolled out by late 2014, or early 2015.

“The ID will only work if we find ways to encourage many New Yorkers to sign up,” said Councilman Dan Garodnick. “Today, it is not evident why many documented New Yorkers would want or need one.” New York City was among American localities with the lowest number of driver’s licenses among its residents, roughly 58 percent as of 2011.

Not everyone was happy about handing the bill over to the Mayor’s Office. Republican Minority Leader Vincent Ignizio, one of three Council members to vote against the bill, took issue with the vagueness of the legislation. The other “nay” votes came from Councilman Steven Matteo and Councilman Eric Ulrich—the only other two GOP members of the body. The lack of veteran status that could potentially be listed on the card was also a point of contention.

Councilmen Mark Treyger and Alan Maisel abstained, with Maisel voicing the concern that a program intended to bring people out of the shadows could instead be used as a weapon against them. “When we pass laws, we don’t pass the laws or write the laws to protect people from good government,” he said. “We are supposed to pass laws to protect people from bad government.”

Councilman Mark Weprin counseled his colleagues to “relax” and stop worrying about the lack of details in the legislation, and the potential for the card to be more of a stigma than a benefit.

“We live in the coolest city in the world,” Weprin said, “and now we’re going to have a membership card. … People [will] want to be part of that club.”

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Transforming Healthcare Delivery – City & State Panel

Published in City & State

Healthcare issues dominated the end of the legislative session in Albany, headlined by the legalization of medical marijuana and new efforts to combat heroin abuse—but potentially the most far-reaching development so far this year was the $8 billion Medicaid waiver granted by the federal government and announced in April by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

On Tuesday, City & State held a panel discussion in downtown Manhattan that focused the waiver’s potential to overhaul healthcare in the state, and hopefully save a hospital system that sometimes appears to be in free fall.

The panel featured state Medicaid Director Jason Helgerson, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, state Sen. Kemp Hannon, Healthcare Association of New York State President Dennis Whalen, Marlene Zurack, the chief financial officer of New York City’s Health and Hospitals Corporation, and Jill Furillo, executive director of the New York State Nurses Association.

Fresh off the victory of his medical marijuana bill in Albany, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried kicked-off the conversation by saying that the question wasn’t why marijuana legislation passed now, but why it didn’t pass several years ago.

“There were numerous points in time in the last several years when it easily could have come to closure and invariably something fell apart,” Gottfried said, “like the Spitzer administration caused things that were about to come to closure to not.”

He added, however, that the bill had several restrictions he hoped would eventually be undone, such as only licensing five companies to produce medical marijuana, and requiring that the dispensing be done by those same companies.

New York, he said, “is about the only place in the American economy that I can think of where we not only tolerate vertical integration … but are mandating it,” Gottfried said.

Most of the panel’s discussion centered on the $8 billion Medicaid waiver and the difference it could make for healthcare statewide.

“The Medicare waiver is not funding projects,” said Pamela Brier, president and CEO of Maimonides Medical Center, in her opening remarks. “It’s underwriting, I hope, a fundamental change in the healthcare system.”

Some $6.9 billion in the Medicaid waiver is devoted to the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment program, or DSRIP, which will try over the next five years to reduce avoidable hospital use by 25 percent.

Helgerson, the state’s Medicaid director, made no secret of what was at stake. “We must come out of the waiver period with a stable healthcare delivery system,” he said. “We cannot go from crisis to crisis to crisis. The Health Department is running out of vehicles to keep struggling hospitals and other providers open.”

Proof of progress and the state report card distinguish New York’s version of DSRIP from other programs that have come before it, Helgerson said. Money will be given based on how providers transform their care, how many Medicaid members they serve and the quality of the application they submit. Another key difference is that money allocated is attached to performance targets that show a decline in avoidable hospital use.

“There’s real serious accountability,” Helgerson said.

Prospective Payment Systems in the DSRIP program will also be tied to each other statewide, so that if one PPS performs badly, everyone will feel those consequences. In short, the systems will sink or swim together.

Zurack, the chief financial officer for HHC, emphasized her enthusiasm this one-for-all approach, which seemed especially relevant considering that the HHC has been plagued with cash flow problems.

“Even within HHC, our hospitals have a hard time influencing each other … and really functioning as a system,” she said, “even though we have a lot invested in being a system.”

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Here Comes the Sun: Governor Cuomo Aims to Ramp Up Solar Energy Production

Published in City & State

Currently, solar energy makes up less than 1 percent of the power produced in New York, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants that to change.

In April Cuomo announced that his administration would be putting $1 billion into the NY-Sun Initiative, an effort to expand solar power throughout the state and refine existing programs that deal with the renewable method of energy generation.

The plan creates a timeline of declining incentives—the Megawatt Block Program—which is designed to lower the upfront cost of photovoltaic systems (PV), so that the state can eliminate solar subsidies in the long-term. It also decentralizes the program, establishing distinct regions with the goal of allowing certain areas to better adapt to the local economy, landscape and existing solar industry.

In 2013 the Public Service Commission (PSC) invited the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to submit a petition recommending ways to strengthen the state’s renewable energy program, which supports solar projects. As an outgrowth of those recommendations, the NY-Sun program will distribute $1 billion through 2023, including $851 million in planned incentives, $13 million for increasing the participation of low-income households, $3.5 million in consumer education, and some funding for quality assurance programs.

Despite the large investment, some advocates for solar power say the program is still relatively modest, predicting that it will account for only 10 percent of the state’s energy production by 2023.

Currently there are roughly 400 companies involved in the solar industry in New York, and about 5,000 jobs associated with them. There have been over 300 megawatts of solar power installed the last few years. If everything goes according to plan with NY-Sun, 3,000 megawatts of PV will be installed over the next 10 years. NYSERDA would not provide its own projections for the percentage of the state’s energy it expects solar power to yield at the end of the 10-year time frame covered by the NY-Sun plan.

In addition to the billion dollar investment, the state is taking steps to educate local officials involved in solar planning, create more workforce development initiatives to train PV installers and designers, and instruct first responders how to deal with PV systems if there is a fire.

The incentives program, which will be administered by NYSERDA will be divided into three geographical regions: Long Island, where PSEG will help manage it locally; New York City and southern Westchester County; and the rest of the state. Officials say the regions behave very differently when it comes to solar energy and PV installation. For example, Long Island’s incentives are currently—and will continue to be—lower than those in Con Ed territory and the rest of the state, because Long Island has already demonstrated a higher demand for solar power.

Conor Bambrick, air and energy director for Environmental Advocates of New York, approves of the division. “[T]hat will accurately reflect a number of other factors that come into the price of solar …. Downstate you have to deal with high real estate costs, high labor costs … and high electricity costs, as well … versus upstate New York, where the electricity costs are lower.”

The actual incentives that will be made available to each region have not been finalized, but the categories have. Tax breaks will be given to residential PV projects up to 25 kilowatts (kW), small-scale nonresidential PV projects up to 200kW and large-scale nonresidential projects larger than 200kW.

The state is betting that the Megawatt Block Program will build the market for solar, and eventually eliminate financial incentives for solar projects. Each “block” will have different wattage goals, which will be slowly filled up as more and more PV systems are installed. (A typical home usually uses a 3–7kW system.)

Once the goal of the first block is completed, the state will move on to filling up the second block, which will have a lower incentive level for solar customers. In other words, the first PV customers will get the largest incentives, and the latecomers will get the smallest. NYSERDA is still in the process of laying out those blocks and incentive levels, with the goal of eventually eliminating the need for incentives altogether.

For residential projects, incentives will be fixed, meaning that all units in a residential block would receive the same incentive amount until that block is completely used up. For nonresidential PV projects up to 200kW, however, incentives may decrease within the same block for systems larger than 50kW. The incentive design for nonresidential systems larger than 200kW has not yet been determined. Residential and small-scale megawatt blocks will be available starting later this summer, and the megawatt blocks for above–200kW systems will be available in 2015.

NYSERDA expects financial incentives will phase out statewide by 2023, with different regions becoming incentive-free at different times, depending on how quickly their megawatt blocks are completed. The progress of the program will be tracked on a website so that the industry and the public can see when a block is close to being filled.

“It’s a 10-year plan that’s going to give the solar industry the assurance that New York is committed to investing in solar,” said Bambrick, “and that allows them to make long-term business decisions.”

But will it work?

New York has consciously looked toward the California Solar Initiative as a template for the Megawatt Block Program, which has already experienced some level of success. As California’s solar market grew, and installation costs decreased, incentive levels dropped from $2.50 per watt to $0.20 as of June 2013.

NYSERDA is also working on a project with the City University of New York to get communities across the state to adopt a standardized permitting process for solar. Such a process would make the industry easier to navigate for installers, and enable them to spend less time on paperwork. There are currently about 60 different communities using the standardized permitting process and application.

Solar advocates are generally happy with the program, and everyone interviewed for this article said that NYSERDA had labored in good faith for years to build consensus around the program.

“Our industry has been working on something like this for 10-plus years,” said Shaun Chapman, president of the New York Solar Energy Industries Association. “And in one stroke of the pen, the governor has taken leadership …. It’s very clear he wants to lead on this, and were really excited about it.

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SWEETHEART DEAL: WILL MSG KEEP ITS MULTIMILLION DOLLAR TAX BREAK?

Published in City & State

Madison Square Garden hasn’t paid property taxes in 32 years.

The one-of-a-kind deal was struck in 1982, in a very different New York City—one with a fiscal crisis and a high murder rate—when the prospect of the beloved Knicks and Rangers moving elsewhere was real and frightening. And yet while the city has changed, the tax break remains— and in theory will last forever, because it has no sunset clause. As a result, the Garden and its owners, the Dolan family, who also preside over the Cablevision empire, avoid having to pay $17.3 million every year—a figure that swells to roughly $54 million when the stadium’s new billion dollar renovations are taken into account.

The New York City Council recently revisited the tax break at the prodding of Queens Assemblyman David Weprin, and passed a resolution opposing the exemption. Mayor Bill de Blasio has also come out in support of taxing the sports complex. But de Blasio, Weprin and City Council members know that such a move would never get through Albany. As Councilman Vincent Ignizio put it, “This bill is dead on arrival. It’s not happening … The governor’s opposed, the Speaker’s opposed; it’s not going anywhere.”

Still, the implied leverage that the Dolan family has to keep the exemption in place—threatening to move the Knicks and the Rangers out of the city—is no longer a plausible concern. There is little to no chance that the Dolans would ever abandon the enormously lucrative New York sports market. Nonetheless, they are still winning the property tax battle.

Madison Square Garden is by no means the only stadium to benefit from major tax breaks and public subsidy. Yankee Stadium, the New York Mets’ Citi Field and the Brooklyn Nets’ Barclays Center, all of which opened in 2009 or later, have each cut deals whose upside to the city has often been called into question. The Garden, however, has the most favorable arrangement of the lot. At a recent City Council hearing, George Sweeting, the deputy director of the Independent Budget Office of the City of New York, testified that the current estimated subsidy values for Citi Field is $138 million, $350 million for Barclays and $362 million for Yankee Stadium. All three are dwarfed by Madison Square Garden’s estimated public subsidy of $541 million.

“They have a lot of lobbyists,” Weprin said, when asked about the Garden’s clout in Albany. “They would rather spend $17 million on lobbyists than what they would be paying in property taxes, to be honest. They don’t want it to be taken away from them.”

The new Yankee Stadium and Citi Field were both built on public land. Neither technically owes property taxes, but they do make PILOTs (Payments in Lieu of Taxes). Both stadiums were also built using tax-exempt bonds. Typically the city prohibits the use of tax-exempt bonds for sports arenas, except when those bonds are serviced by general municipal revenues, a major loophole that has since been closed by the IRS. The city persuaded the IRS to treat PILOTs as equivalent to tax revenue, even though the money doesn’t go directly to the city but instead to the bondholders. Yankee Stadium, Citi Field and the Barclays Center also receive additional incentives and subsidies from the city.

Madison Square Garden does not have to pay property taxes or PILOTs. Moreover, although the Yankees, Mets and Nets stadium deals were put together to subsidize the construction of new facilities, the Garden’s arena had already been built when it got its tax break.

“People mention that other stadiums get subsidies, and that’s true,” says Elizabeth Bird, project coordinator at the policy resource center Good Jobs New York. “But at least in those cases, those costs tend to be shared in federal, state and local subsidies. In Madison Square Garden, the property taxes directly affect the city’s budget,” because if the Garden were ever required to pay taxes, the revenue would go exclusively to the city.

Opponents of Madison Square Garden’s one-of-a-kind deal have not been completely unsuccessful. When the arena’s “permit to operate” expired in January 2013, it was renewed for only 10 years, meaning that the city could technically force the Dolans to move out in 2023. Most recently the Council passed another resolution against the never-ending tax break—it previously passed one in 2008—and in May the Real Property Taxation Committee of the State Assembly approved a bill to revoke the break by a vote of 7–2. That bill, which has 54 sponsors, is now in the Ways and Means Committee of the state Assembly, which will be meeting every day before the current legislative session ends.

But there is no chance the measure will pass.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is on record as saying he is opposed to repealing the break, as is Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Political contributions may play a part in their calculation. Since 2000 Charles F. Dolan and his son James, the founder of Cablevision and executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company, respectively, have each contributed $3,100 to Friends of Silver, as has Charles’ wife, Helen. In addition, since 2000 James Dolan has personally contributed $7,000 to Cuomo and his son, Charles P. Dolan has given $30,000 to Cuomo.

And those are just their individual contributions. Since 2000 Cablevision has donated $7,100 to Friends of Silver, and $370,000 to Andrew Cuomo.

Unions are also a factor in the future of the Garden’s tax break. James Dolan and Cablevision have come under fire for preventing some of their employees in Brooklyn and the Bronx from unionizing with the Communications Workers of America, leading to a complaint being filed against Cablevision with the National Labor Relations Board. However, at the Council hearing on the tax break, representatives from several unions testified in support of the Garden’s exemption including the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. Their support may be related to the Garden’s recent renovations, which entailed a significant amount of construction by organized labor. The president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, Gary LaBarbera, also sat on the advisory board for the Committee to Save New York, the pro-Cuomo business-backed group that raised $17 million for the governor in the early years of his term before disbanding in 2013.

CWA, on the other hand, is taking a particular interest in the tax break fight. It is currently rolling out advertisements critical of the tax break in several Albany publications.

“It’s no secret that CWA members are facing aggressive union busting tactics from Cablevision’s leadership,” said Pete Sikora, a research economist with CWA District 1. “But the issue here is clear. This tax break is an outrageous giveaway to a profitable company that costs the city $54 million a year, and it’s indefensible on public policy grounds, separate and apart from any labor issues.”

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