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Going Local: Cuomo’s Play for Consolidation

The governor's first budget offers incentives for many of the state's villages and towns to consolidate.
By Sarah Laskow
Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

When Andrew Cuomo advocates for smaller government, he does not mean, as conservatives often do, that the government should do less. He means that the government should be smaller — fewer agencies, fewer employees, fewer entities whose jurisdictions and purposes overlap. As governor, Cuomo has talked most about streamlining the state government, but he’s also interested in consolidating local government entities, of which, he’s pointed out in the past, New York has more than 10,000. More efficiency on either level gets New York to the same place. Smaller government, state or local, means a smaller tax burden.

In 2007, as attorney general, Cuomo shepherded through Albany a piece of legislation that made it easier for New York villages to vote themselves out of existence. New York, he said at the time, had the highest local tax burden in the country, “because we’re paying for all those local governments.” This year, Cuomo’s first budget as governor included $35 million for Citizen Empowerment Tax Credits and Citizen Reorganization Empowerment Grants, two tools to incentivize local governments to downsize government. The tax credits benefit only communities that consolidate governments, but both policies aim to save taxpayers money.

“The goal here is to decrease property taxes and to make sure that governmental entites are efficient and that people try to work together,” Dede Scozzafava, the deputy secretary of state for state and local government, told State Room.

In New York, every acre is a town or a city, but in some places, where one agglomeration of people contains both a town and city, the dividing line can seem arbitrary. A village doesn’t exist on its own but overlays a town. As a rule, villages came into existence in rural towns where a small knot of more concentrated houses decided to join together to provide municipal services, like water delivery. Today, they might also be suburban areas. Some villages are tiny, with fewer than 400 people; some have populations of more than 15,000.

Local governments do overlap in ways that don’t always make sense. In Ithaca, NY, for instance, where the town and city have studied consolidation, the town hall is located within the city’s limits. But streamlining government and, in particular, consolidating local government entities means navigating intergovernmental territorial disputes and strongly held notions of community identity.

“It’s an extremely emotional issue,” said Jason Molino, the city manager of the City of Batavia, which has been working since 2007 towards a vote on consolidating with the Town of Batavia. “When you do public hearings, people come out who are very much for it or very much against it.”

Dissolving even a tiny village can take years, and there is not a clear procedure for merging larger entities like towns and cities. Local governments find that citizens have little trouble accepting partnerships on some government functions, like wastewater treatment, but may object to combining forces on others, like community policing. And despite the emotions that these discussions raise, taxpayers generally don’t receive windfall savings.

“When you look at the overlapping levels of government, the reflex is to say, ‘Oh we’re wasting so much money!’” said Kent Gardner, the president and chief economist at the Center for Governmental Research, a New York consulting firm that’s worked with more than 40 municipalities on reorganization and consolidation. “Our experience suggests that the cost savings are often quite modest.”

While property taxes may be high, the cost of local government makes up only a piece of the tax burden. School district taxes take up a huge percentage, for instance. “Maybe you’re down to 25 percent of your tax bill going to the general purpose government below the county level,” Gardner said. “Suppose you can save 25 percent. If you can save 25 percent of 25 percent, you’re down in the 6 percent level of savings on your total property taxes.” In Johnson City, one village that voted against dissolution, village and town services amounted to about a third of the local property tax burden. Taxpayers would have saved 29.2 percent of that portion. For individual taxpayers, that would have meant yearly savings in the range of $231.19 on a house with a $50,000 market value to $927.60 for a house with a $200,000 market value — not an insignificant sum, but not enough to revolutionize a household’s yearly budget.

In recent years, the state has spent more than $2 million in funding grants for more than 30 studies of different villages, towns, and cities looking to reorganize. All but a handful of the grants have gone to study village dissolutions or town-village consolidations, essentially the same projects. So far, four of the villages studied have voted to dissolve. (In the past four years, another four which aren’t on the State Department list of reorganization grantees have voted to dissolve.)

“You can’t judge the not successful votes as failures,” said Scozzafava. She pointed out that going through the process of studying consolidation often leads to ideas for collaborations, cost-savings, and efficiencies, even if the relevant government entities remain in tact.

The Center for Governmental Research consultants have found that to be true, too. “In our experience, although they rarely pull the trigger on the big change, they almost always behave differently after the study than before,” Gardner said.

But those improvements aren’t necessarily measured in property tax savings, in part because local governments that operate on top of or right next to each other have often figured out how to work together and save money. In Ithaca, a consolidation study committee found that it was possible that town and city officials had already realized through informal agreements the majority of the savings consolidation could offer.

In Batavia, where the city and town have been working since 2007 towards a vote on consolidation, the two governments work together on programs like wastewater treatment and code enforcement.

“We actually maintain their one or two traffic lights,” said Molino, the Batavia city manager. Consolidation, Molino said, would take cooperation to the next level. CGR found that the town and the city would save just under a million if they combined, but the real advantage could be less fiscally tangible. “You’re starting to see economic development, but it’s right on the city-town line,” Molino said. Consolidation could give the area an advantage when making economic development decisions, he said.

But any village, town, or city that’s interested in the benefits of cooperation, fiscal or not, has to be able to look beyond the territory and the loss of identity to what a better system might look like. Reorganization is a headache not worth chasing without the right attitude, Molino tells other government officials.

“If you can’t accept the fact that your name or your color can’t be on the truck that’s going to service you from now on, don’t waste your time on it,” he said.

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Deal Reached on Ethics Reform

By Sarah Laskow
Monday, June 6th, 2011

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver at press conference in March.

On Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and Speaker Sheldon Silver announced a deal on ethics reforms, yet another of Cuomo’s legislative priorities. The third stab at ethics reform during the tenure of as many governors, this one has more to like in it than its immediate predecessors.

The deal that Albany’s leaders outlined requires substantially more disclosure from both elected officials and the business interests that petition them. Although officials had to disclosure the level of income they receive from jobs outside their public office, that information was not made public. Now it will be, and the ranges that officials use to detail their income from each source will be smaller.

Officials will also disclose the names of their clients or customers. This type of disclosure  allows the public to hold officials accountable about decisions that affect the interests of the people who pay their bills. It’s an important, but less common disclosure requirement: The last time the Center for Public Integrity counted, 21 other states made similar provisions. (Nine go further, requiring the level of income garnered from each client be disclosed.)

The deal also extends lobbying disclosure to executive branch agencies and redefines lobbying to include work on the introduction of legislations, not just legislation already in play.

But on enforcement, the deal does less than it might. The new deal replaces with the existing Commission on Public Integrity with a Joint Commission on Public Ethics, but leaves in place the Legislative Ethics Commission, which means Albany will still have two ethics bodies that can find ways to quarrel with each other. Friday’s release said that the new commission will have “enforcement powers to investigate violations.” But investigation is not the same as enforcement. The new commission will hand over findings of investigations of legislators to the Legislative Ethics Commission, which has rarely inflicted even a hand-slap on the legislators it oversees. The deal does increase the penalties for misfiling financial disclosure forms and for violating conflict of interest provisions, but by how much is not yet clear.

But this deal does not guarantee that elected officials in Albany will change their behavior. No legislative agreement can accomplish that. If the goal, in the end, is to keep legislators and elected officials in line, it does help to insist on a stronger ethics infrastructure. If the new structure is to be effective, it will need to be well funded. Good investigations cost money. It also matters who’s chosen to head the commission — a watchdog who will resist political pressures or a go-along-get-along appointee? These are the sort of details that make less dramatic headlines. Cuomo will be able to say, when he needs to, that he brought ethics reform to Albany. But will that be enough for him? Or will he continue to work, when there’s less attention to be had, to shift the capital’s cultural away from scandal? If it’s the latter, Albany might have a chance to change.

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Grimm Reality: No Relief for School Overcrowding in Budget

By Sarah Laskow
Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

The New York City Department of Education once had “aspirations” to improve the city’s schools in all manner of ways, according to Kathleen Grimm, who testified yesterday at a City Council budget hearing. But as Grimm, a DOE deputy chancellor who oversees operations, reminded the council more than once, “the city’s fiscal condition has changed.”

The council has been facing up to that reality in a series of hearings on Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed budget. Earlier in the week, for instance, Council Finance Chair Dominic Recchia oversaw a rowdy hearing on the cuts to fire departments. Wednesday morning, the council’s hearing room was filled to capacity for Grimm’s testimony on the education department’s capital budget; in the afternoon, the room would turn over to a hearing on cuts on environmental issues.

Bloomberg’s proposed cuts to the education budget have drawn the most attention for the teacher layoffs they herald. But the education department’s capital budget, which goes towards building new schools and refurbishing older ones, is also being cut, which means the city has fewer resources to put towards reducing overcrowding in classrooms across the city.

Grimm, whose coral pink jacket was the brightest object in the hearing room, pointed out that other agencies faced capital cuts far larger than the six percent cut the DOE is looking at. The department also managed to salvage funding for improving technology in schools, which Grimm called “a basic element of public education.” (The administration’s “Road Map for the Digital City” also includes a program to improve access to broadband for 18,000 low-income middle schoolers and their families.)

The council members, however, were intent on talking about overcrowding.

“I understand the importance of technology in schools,”  said Robert Jackson, chair of the council’s education committee, in his opening statement. “But if students don’t have a desk to sit at, how will they benefit from wireless internet access?”

“I had to teach under conditions like this room today, in terms of overcrowding,” said council member Daniel Dromm, who worked for more than two decades as a public school teacher. Every seat in the hearing room was filled, and a couple of people had been turned away. “That’s the reality of what we’re talking about today.”

James Vacca, a council member from the Bronx, told Grimm that in his district, “I’m still waiting for 318 seats.” Grimm said that the project in question had no identified site and that under current budget conditions, projects without sites had been shunted to the next capital plan. “We’re not losing track of the need,” she said.

“Well, I want to meet with you,” Vacca responded. “I want something done in my community.”

Grimm pointed out that “class size reduction is more complex than building a lot of seats.” Building new classroom helps, but classrooms need teachers. And teachers, under the current budget plan, will also be in shorter supply.

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An Ex-Extremist Speaks at the 9/11 Memorial

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

(View full post to see video)

On April 28, three days before Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEAL forces in Abbotabad, Pakistan, Maajid Nawaz stood in front of a small audience at the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center and talked about being an Islamic extremist.

“How does someone like me end up in a dungeon alongside the assassins of the Egyptian president?” he began.

If it’s a sensational question, it’s also one that Nawaz is uniquely qualified to answer. As a teenager of Pakistani descent growing up in Essex, England, Nawaz rapidly ascended the ranks of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamist organization. By the time he was 20, he was setting up satellite chapters around the world. And at 24, he was serving a five-year sentence in an Egyptian prison.

Despite early and deep involvement in radical Islam, Nawaz’s life has since followed a different trajectory. Now 33, five years removed from prison, he travels the world, speaking out against radical Islam, and countering what he calls “the extremist narrative” — the premise that Western countries like the United States are determined to destroy Islam.

But how does a well-educated, upper-middle class British teenager turn into a Islamic radical?

As Nawaz tells it, things began to change at age 13 or 14, when he says roving gangs of racist skinheads began tormenting him, targeting him in what they called “Paki-bashing.” The police weren’t much better. According to Nawaz, on one occasion, his brother was profiled and arrested when a neighbor spotted him playing with a toy gun.

When he was about 16, Nawaz met a young medical student who introduced him to Hizb ut-Tahrir (also called the Islamic Party of Liberation), a radical Islamist group that seeks the complete withdrawal of Western interests in the Middle East and the restoration of the Muslim caliphate, a pan-Islamic religious state.

“You’re not English, and Pakistan was carved out to satisfy colonialist desires,” the student told Nawaz. “Think back to a time before colonialism. Your only loyalty is to the Muslim people.”

“His arguments were very convincing to my young mind,” said Nawaz, a third generation British Muslim.

Those arguments did more than convince Nawaz. The young convert went on to become an international advocate for Hizb ut-Tahrir, beginning by radicalizing the local college where he was enrolled.

“We basically realigned existing gang conflicts along religious and political lines,” said Nawaz. He later set up Hizb ut-Tahrir chapters in Denmark and Pakistan.

Nawaz is careful to point out that he is no anomaly. Contrary to the caricature of the cave-dwelling terrorist, he says those attracted to radical Islamist ideologies often come from educated backgrounds like his.

“Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, an engineer — these were men who took the principles of empirical science and imposed them on religion,” said Nawaz.

In 2001, shortly before the World Trade Center attacks, Nawaz moved to Egypt to study Arabic Law.  He was then rounded up along with other members of his organization in a crackdown on Islamic extremists and sentenced to five years in jail, where he says he was regularly beaten and tortured.

While in prison, Nawaz met some of the leading members of Egypt’s most violent groups, including the surviving assassins of the late Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadaat. In conversations with them, he came to believe that “the narrative” proffered by Islamic extremism was not only false, it was the principal factor contributing to radicalization.

Nawaz said he met many other prisoners who had also re-evaluated and abandoned extremist Islamic ideology.  He went back to the Quran and other original Islamic texts — sources he found to promote compassion and peace rather than violence — and reconsidered his own interpretation of Islam.

When Hizb ut-Tahrir was banned in Egypt in 2002, Amnesty International took up Nawaz’s case as a freedom of speech issue. In 2006, Amnesty International arranged for the release of Nawaz as a “prisoner of conscience.” In 2007, Nawaz officially severed all ties with radical Islam. He has since co-founded the Quilliam Foundation, a non-profit organization with a mission to counter the Islamic extremist narrative and promote pluralism across the Muslim world.

Nawaz was a subject of a “60 Minutes” segment in early April.

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Festival of Ideas: Talking New York at the ‘World Cafe’

By Sarah Laskow
Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

A discussion group at the Festival of Ideas in the Lower East Side.

On Saturday morning, more than 40 New Yorkers managed to sit down for an hour and have conversations about some of the most contentious issues facing Downtown New York, including bar noise, bike lanes, gentrification.  The event, called a “World Café”  by organizers, was part of the Festival of Ideas for a New City, which took place in the Lower East Side this weekend. The point, as Rogan Kersh, an associate dean at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, explained, was to have an “engaging conversation” — ambitious at any time of day, much less at 10am on a weekend.

Which is probably why there were ground rules: There would be three sessions of twenty minutes each. We were to try for “and” statements that built on previous thoughts, instead of “buts” that blocked ideas.

“When New Yorkers begin to express opinions, they often go on and don’t stop,” Kersh said.

Most of the time, these issues get hashed out at endless community board meetings, where anyone who wants to speak must wait for hours for their allotted one or two or three minutes. The forum that Wagner set up offered a different, potentially more productive structure to have the same conversations.

At tables clothed with a sheet of blank butcher block paper, participants gathered to discuss one of four topics: community life, transportation, environment, and housing. There were two tables for community life and two for transportation, each with a different focus. One community life tabled discussed economic development and funding, and the other paid more attention to social welfare — education, arts, and health care. Transportation was divided between issues of public access and issues of infrastructure.

For the first session, participants chose one table and sat down. Each table had a moderator and scribe. After twenty minutes, the conversation paused, and the participants moved on to another topic. At the start of the next session, each moderator summed up the previous conversation, and the new discussants picked up where the first group left off, continuing, rather than restarting the conversation.

Wagner bills the world café as a method of “group-sourcing,” which, like more zeitgeisty crowdsourcing techniques, mines the brains of many individuals to come up with new and interesting ideas.

The instructions for the morning’s activities also drew from techniques that IDEO, a design consultancy, advocates. In particular, Kersh introduced the idea of asking “how might we” questions. As much as possible, he said, we should try to frame our desired end goals into questions that began with that phrase.

As the first session began, the participants divided up with enthusiasm among the tables. Like the crowd that tends to show up at community board meetings, these people were willing to give up hours of their life to talk about the issues facing New York. But as a group, the world cafe participants were younger than the average community board attendee. Many of them were creative-class professionals. They didn’t all live in the area under discussion, Downtown NYC, an area roughly defined to include neighborhoods like the East and Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, and Chinatown.

I began the hour at the table discussing housing and ended it at the table discussing bike lanes. At the housing table, the moderator, IDEO’s Albert Lee, had each participant share where they lived. We had come that morning from places the East Village, MacDougal Street, the Bowery, Bushwick, and in Staten Island. Within the first fifteen minutes, we had put on the table two problems, bar noise and the changing character of the neighborhood. When Kersh announced that we had just five minutes left in the session, Lee shifted the discussion to a more action-oriented direction.

“If you could change one thing about this area, what would you change?” he asked.

The table was silent. He changed tactics, asking us to think in terms of “how might we?” questions.

That was more productive: “How might we educate bar patrons about the impact they’re having on the neighborhood?” “How might we welcome outsiders into our neighborhood?” “How might we make visible the noise and stress that’s affecting residents?”

And then the 20 minutes was up. That was the kernel of a conversation another eight people would pick up and build on. Some tables had an easier time sticking to this principle. By the time I joined one of the transportation tables in the third round, the conversation about bike lanes had wheeled itself out, and instead of asking us to continue building on the previous conversations, the moderator proposed switching angles, away from bike lanes, and towards problems with congestion.

At the end of the hour, the paper covering the tables swirled with ideas jotted in pink or orange or blue marker. In turn, the moderators reported on the results of each table’s conversation. At the housing table, those initial “how might we” questions had developed into a few of specific ideas. One that stood out: Just as a speedometer posted by a highway tells drivers how fast they’re going, a decibel meter on a noisy street at night could show bar patrons how loud they were being.

Not all of the ideas that came out of the one-hour conversation were as original. One table focused on possible uses for roofs, and although the way they ended up talking about the city’s rooftops, as a public space, almost like street-level sidewalks, felt new and exciting, the uses they suggested for roofs (green spaces, solar panels, farms, rainwater collection) sounded more familiar.

The conveners of the world café discussion have promised to follow up on the Saturday session. Kersh, the Wagner dean, said that he was hoping at least one white paper might grow out of it, and that at least one idea will become a challenge on OpenIDEO, a crowdsourcing platform that IDEO runs. A particular promising candidate that came out of the world café began with the premise that transit experiences aren’t separate from each other: From a user’s point of view, the subway system, a bike lane, and the sidewalk are all part of one network that leads from home to work, or from work to a bar to a friend’s house. An OpenIDEO challenge could be: “How might we improve the transit hubs where people switch from one mode of transport to another?”

As energized as the participants in Saturday’s session were by its end, it’s still an open question how policy students and planners can continue to build on experiments like this one. The downtown policy world café provided Kersh which what he called, his “own personal “how might we” question”: “How might we keep this conversation going?”

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Rent Guidelines and the Myth of Fairness

By Sarah Laskow
Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Steven Schleider

For the past month, the city’s Rent Guidelines Board has been meeting in a dingy room on the ninth floor of the Manhattan Municipal Building. The room is usually used by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as a conference room, and it features benches of blue seats, which look as if they have been lifted out of an aging movie house. The white paint on the steam radiators is cracked like dry ground.

When the board meets tonight to take a preliminary vote on rent hikes for the city’s rent-stabilized housing, it will occupy the Great Hall of Cooper Union, an august space more reflective of the power the board’s nine members wield. New York City has more than one million rent-stabilized apartments, which house about 30% of the city’s population, according to the city’s 2008 Housing and Vacancy Survey. The board decides each year how much more money rent-stabilized tenants will have to hand over to their landlords, and whatever the number the board comes up with, it generally provokes anger from tenants and landlords alike.

But in preparation for that vote, the board’s members must consider the state of the city’s real estate industry, the taxes levied on building owners, the supply of housing, vacancy rates, cost-of-living information, and, according to the board’s website, “such other data as may be made available to it.” It was for that purpose that the board met at the municipal building this past Thursday.

The board consists of two members representing owners, two representing tenants, and five representing the general public. In the morning session, during which tenant advocates presented testimony, the board’s two owner members, Steven Schleider and Magda Cruz, proved very interested in what “other data” was, in practice, being made available to them. Tom Waters, a senior housing analyst with the Community Service Society, an nonprofit that advocates for low-income New Yorkers, spoke first. “I don’t have as much to say as usual because there isn’t a lot of new data to work with,” he began, sounding a tad nervous. “Rent-stabilized housing is the largest single source of housing for low-income New Yorkers.” 435,000 low-income families live in rent-regulated housing, Waters said, nearly twice as many families as live in public housing.

Like Waters, the other tenant advocates that spoke that morning made a case that rising rents across the city were unsustainable and hurt the most vulnerable. They argued that the Rent Guidelines Board had in its power the ability to push back against those circumstances. But the owner members asked repeatedly about the data underlying that argument and made known their skepticism. (Mr. Schleider was particularly vocal.) In some cases, the tenant advocates allowed that there was not data that explicitly showed the situation they were describing. But, the advocates explained, they were making sound assumptions based on the limited data available.

If the tenant advocates could not make an airtight, data-driven case for the need for lower rates of rent increase, neither could the owners show they definitively deserved a higher rate (although they faced a less restive audience). The data just isn’t there. New York City goes to great pains to obtain information about its housing market—most cities leave the work the city does in the Housing and Vacancy Survey to the less reliable federal Census—but numerous questions about who lives in and owns the city’s rent-regulated housing remain. For instance, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find detailed information about the city’s landlords as a group: where they live, how old they are, how much money they make.

It was clear at the hearing, however, how the groups representing apartment owners wanted their constituencies to be perceived. Joseph Condon, of the Community Housing Improvement Program, argued against the popular image of landlords as wealthy, corporate speculators pulling in windfall profits. “70% of our owners have owned their buildings for 20 years or more,” he said. “42% have owned their buildings for 40 years or more. 48% are immigrants or the children of immigrants.” Jimmy Silber, of the Small Property Owners of New York, reported that his group’s members own no more than three small buildings and that they live in the buildings they own, “some of the best maintained buildings in the city.” And the two landlords who testified, both connected to the Rent Stabilization Association, were sympathetic owners who seemed to care about their tenants and said, at one point, that they would not necessarily raise rents on their tenants, if given the option.

Despite the emphasis on data, both in the board’s official responsibilities and at Thursday’s hearing, setting the rent rates can be an emotional process. Last year’s hike was a low 2.25% for one-year leases and 4.5% for two-year leases, yet tenant member Adriene Holder reportedly grew teary when she allowed that was the best the board would do for the city’s leaseholders. The board’s decisions for the two years prior to that  were challenged in court. In practice, the orders created a different set of rules for long-term tenants who paid less than $1,000 in rent: Their rents could be increased by a flat amount that would exceed the three or six percent increase that other leaseholders could be charged. It was only this past March that the state’s highest court upheld the board’s right to make that rule.

The background to this year’s vote is the process going on concurrently in Albany to renew the state’s rent-regulation laws. (One of the scheduled guests at the hearing had to send a replacement because he was meeting with state legislators.) By the time the Rent Guidelines Board takes its final vote at the end of June, the current system of rent laws will have expired. Albany seems set to renew the laws, but exactly how state lawmakers will tweak the rules remains to be seen.

No matter what the board decides this year, it seems, neither tenants nor owners ever feel they’ve been treated well. “We’re asking for fairness,” said Silber, of the small property owners group, at one point during Thursday’s hearing. Part of the problem, however, is that promoting fairness is not the board’s job. It is merely to keep rent rates in a certain portion of the city’s housing stock from rising too quickly, precipitating a housing crisis.

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The Fate of Rent Regulation

By Sarah Laskow
Monday, April 25th, 2011

Rep. Adriano Espillat's Upper East Side district has the most rent regulated apartments in the city.

They’re out there. You’ll hear about them occasionally. You might even know one. They might be subletting from a sublettor, but they pay $1,000 for a one-bedroom on the Lower East Side. Or they’ve been in the place forever, a five-bedroom spread on the Upper West Side, and the rent is under $2,000.

These are the mythical folk who live in rent-regulated apartments. They pay what feels like next to nothing for roomy apartments blessed with perfect light and located in the most convenient of neighborhoods. In the next few months, we’re going to hear a lot about them.

Just before the legislature left Albany for a two-and-a-half week break, the Assembly passed a bill to renew and modify rent-regulation laws, which expire this coming June. The Senate now faces pressure to act on the legislation. It’s likely that rent regulation will get bundled with a property tax cap, which is related only insofar as the cap is also meant to make normal people’s lives more affordable. But renewing rent regulation ranks high on Rep. Sheldon Silver’s to-do list, and Sen. Dean Skelos has made passing a property tax cap a priority. Politically, the pairing makes sense.

But despite its political prominence, rent regulation is an issue that few legislators have a real stake in. It affects just a fraction of New York State residents and a much larger fraction (but still a minority!) of New York City apartment-dwellers. There are 51 municipalities across the state that have rent control, which keeps rent prices static, as long as the original owners or their heirs still reside in the property. But people move away or grow out of their apartments, and relatively few rent control apartments remain. New York City, for instance, has just 40,000.

Rent stabilized apartments, by contrast, exist only in New York City and in a few communities in counties just beyond the city limits. Apartments don’t lose their rent-stabilized status when someone moves out, and in New York City, 2.4 million people, about 30% of the population, lived in just under 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in 2008, according to the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey.

The rent-stabilized apartments are spread across the city: 30% are in Manhattan, 27% in Brooklyn, 22% in the Bronx and 20% in Queens. Staten Island has only a few thousand. Rent-controlled apartments are more concentrated in Manhattan, which has 51% of them.

But some State Senate districts boast more rent-regulated apartments than others. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s old Upper West Side district, now represented by Adriano Espillat, has the most (78,700) of any in the city. Pedro Espada’s old Bronx district, now represented by Gustavo Rivera, has the 2nd most. Thomas Duane’s district, which covers the Upper West Side, Chelsea, and Greenwich Village, Bill Perkins’, in Harlem and further north, and Liz Kreuger’s, in the Upper East Side, round out the top five. These politicians have a particular interest in updating the law to favor tenants over landlords, but they have plenty of colleagues whose constituents aren’t affected one way or the other. For those people, it makes sense to pair rent regulations with property tax caps, a policy that will affect local governments across the state — the whole population, not just a lucky fraction.

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Black Out, Walcott In: Deputy Mayor Is Named New Education Chancellor

By Sarah Laskow
Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Dennis Walcott

After Mayor Bloomberg introduced Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott as the city’s new education chancellor this morning, Walcott announced one of his short-term goals in his new job: making waffles with a bunch of sweet-voiced school kids.

Walcott follows Cathie Black as chancellor, and the image he presented at this morning’s press conference stood in contrast to the corporate superpower of Black, who resigned just months after she had joined the Bloomberg administration. It’s hard to imagine Black pouring batter into a hot, buttery waffle iron. She always seemed more comfortable with spreadsheets and conference tables than children.

And that was the root of her problem. Mayor Bloomberg brought her in at the end of 2010 in order to, he said, to help lead the school system through its thorny financial problems. Those problems haven’t disappeared. The budget that came out of Albany last week cut millions of dollars of school aid to New York City, and both teacher lay-offs and program cut-backs are looming. Perhaps Black’s financial acumen could have made those cuts less painful than they might be. Perhaps she could have pushed the school system’s operations into a more fiscally responsible mode. But she was never able to show that she would do that work with real empathy to parents or real concern about their kids.

Mayor Bloomberg said that he and Black had “mutually agreed” on her resignation. “[Black] has worked tirelessly to learn all the ins and outs of the system,” the mayor said. “She loves New York and wants to do what’s right for the families and students that she serves.”

“I take full responsibility for the fact that this has not worked out as either of us had expected,” he said.

Last week, an NY1-Marist poll put Black’s approval rate at a dismal 17%, and her unpopularity was starting to infect opinions about Mayor Bloomberg’s entire education push. In 2009, the poll reported, 53% of New Yorkers approved of Mayor Bloomberg’s work on public schools. In 2011, just 27% felt the same way.

While Black came from Mayor Bloomberg’s social circle, a cadre of elite New Yorkers, Walcott comes from New York’s political world. Before joining the Bloomberg administration in 2002, at its very beginning, Walcott headed the New York Urban League and served on the Board of Education from 1993-1994. His career has focused on social services and New York communities, and in 2001, The New York Times pointed to his “talent for staying calm” and noted “his equanimity has hastened his ascent in a city of short tempers.”

File this latest promotion under that rubric. After Black’s confirmation, her retort to a heckling parent at a community meeting grew into one of the biggest stories about her tenure. She and Bloomberg exemplify the prickly sort of striver who accomplish their goals despite others might think about them because they believe they’re right. But when it comes to education, New Yorkers might turn out to prefer a chancellor who’s a little sweeter, who they can imagine feeding waffles to their kids.

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Legislature Passes Budget Using Age-old Secret Strategy: Ignore Difficult Decisions

By Sarah Laskow
Friday, April 1st, 2011

The New York legislature passed the budget yesterday! And it was on time! Which means New York politics is solved forever! Right?

If only it were so. Despite the vague euphoria sweeping over the capitol and its press on Thursday (a side effect, perhaps, of staying up too late the night before to meet the April 1st budget deadline), the relief afforded by passing the budget will be brief. Meeting the deadline required the legislature and the governor to jettison more than few heavy problems that were weighing down the process. And so politics will continue. Here’s what to expect next.

Most notable among the knotty policy problems that the budget did not try to untangle was cuts to health care. First the governor shifted the burden of figuring out what sort of cuts to make to his Medicaid Redesign Team, a group of health care stakeholders that met three times in total and green-lighted a group of proposals without really discussing them, according to some accounts.

The various cuts in the proposals added up to $2.3 billion in savings, but one of the most powerful tools that it gave the executive branch was the cap on the Department of Health’s Medicaid state expenditures. This is, according to a budget factsheet from the governor’s office,  “an overall spending cap, enabling the Commissioner of Health to make additional savings actions during the year, if necessary.” This is as close as you get to a carte blanche in politics: if and when those saving actions become necessary, the focus of the press and the people will be elsewhere.

Schools did badly in the budget this year, even with the extra $230 million thrown in at the end. The state budget shaved off 3.5% of its funding to schools, but with those cuts coming after supplemental funding from Washington dried up, schools are facing lay offs and cuts to programs. In its budget fact-sheet, the governor’s office reminded New Yorkers that their schools “will continue to have among the highest spending per pupil in the nation,” but that’s no comfort to schools with less money or teachers who could lose their jobs.

Accordingly, groups like NYSUT, the state teachers’ union, are still looking for opportunities to dampen the hurt a little. “We have seen supplemental budgets where the legislature comes back and appropriates new money for programs,” said Carl Korn, a spokesman for NYSUT. “It’s a little early in the game right now, but one of the strategies will be to pursue a supplemental budget to provide further restorations for schools.”

The other big question for teachers going forward is, if schools have to let teachers go, how much leeway will administrators have in making those decisions? Mayor Bloomberg still wants to get past the “last in, first out” policies that keep veteran (and therefore more expensive) teachers over their younger (cheaper) colleagues.

After the budget, mandate relief looms as the next great fiscal hill the legislature will have to overcome. The problem, essentially, is that over the years, the state government has told local governments that they have the responsibility to provide all sorts of services to their citizens and that they have to pay for those services themselves. Usually, local governments do this by increasing property taxes, one of their only money-raising gimmicks.

Rolling back the number of expensive services local governments have to provide is “critically necessary for all lower levels of governance,” Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said last night. His minority counterpart, John Sampson, also cited that as an upcoming priority.

The Senate has already passed a property tax cap, which is the flip side of mandate relief. (If local officials can’t find the money to pay for services, mandates don’t matter much, anyway.) But Democrats, who control the Assembly, want to pair the property tax cap with a solution to the expiring rent regulation law. For a brief minute, Gov. Cuomo was saying this duo could be folded into the budget, but then the issue was dropped.

Gov. Cuomo made ethics reform one of his primary campaign talking points but also has made a point of saying he’s not particularly concerned about when it happens. It certainly wasn’t higher on his priority list than passing an on-time budget: He even earned a wrist-slap from New York Post columnist Fred Dicker, usually a pretty reliable Cuomo fan, when he passed up on converting an opportune ethics scandal into a set of strong talking points on ethics.

Now that the budget is finished, though, ethics reform might find some air to breathe. But good government groups are more focused for the moment on trying to force the legislature into doing the thing politicians are least wont to do: acting against their own electoral interests.

The 2012 election may be a full 19 months away, but that’s a heartbeat in political time, especially when the possibility that redistricting could snatch your district out from under your feet.

This week, Skelos, who once promised he’d support some version of an independent redistricting process, said on NY1 he would not take up independent redistricting. The budget also includes funds for a redistricting process run exclusively by the legislature.

New York Uprising, the organization founded by former Mayor Ed Koch, who has been arguing for an independent redistricting process, is trumpeting on its Web site that “time is running out” on redistricting reform.

“It’s basically a challenge of momentum,” New York Uprising’s Adam Riff emailed. “There are already rules in place governing apportionment, and once they’re set in motion, it gets harder and harder to shift course to an independent commission, which is why it is the goal of some “Enemies of Reform” to simply run out the clock.  We’re not there yet, but that’s why it’s more urgent than ethics and budget reforms.”

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Should Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant Be Shut Down?

By Sarah Laskow
Monday, March 28th, 2011

The Indian Point Nuclear Energy Center

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has long opposed the nuclear power plant at Indian Point and has been speaking since the Japanese nuclear crisis about the possibility of closing it for good. For New Yorkers who agree that the nuclear power plant at Indian Point should cease operations, there is a simple way to further that goal: stop buying the plant’s electricity.

Most residents of New York City are Con Edison customers, and Con Edison depends on Indian Point for power. Con Edison, though, is primarily a transmission company. It buys the electricity and brings it to consumers. Those who depend on Con Edison to keep their lights on can choose to accept the energy mix (and the price) that the company offers. But they also have the option of buying their power elsewhere and having Con Edison deliver it.

Which means that it’s possible for an individual to cut ties with Indian Point now. NYPIRG has put together a list of alternative energy options: in the New York City area, consumers can choose to buy energy generated from wind and hydropower. These options are a bit more pricey: They cost an additional one or two cents per kilowatt-hour, and plans that contain 100% wind power are more expensive than those that draw from a mix of renewable sources. Over the course of a year, these additional costs total about $50 to $100 extra dollars for the average customer.

As a state, New York has been cementing its commitment to these alternative energy resources: The state’s current goal is to have 30% of electricity comes from renewable sources by 2015. According to the latest figures available from the New York ISO, which helps run and monitor the state’s electricity system, 22% of all electricity generated in the state comes from renewable resources. The vast majority of that (19% of all generation) comes from hydropower.

Right now, the majority of Indian Point’s spent fuel is stored in the same sort of cooling tanks that proved a problem at Fukushima. If the plant was decommissioned, the fuel would likely be stored differently, in dry casks.

But while the state — and the city — depend heavily on nuclear power for electricity, Con Edison is decreasing the amount of power it is contracted to buy from Indian Point over the next few years, from 1000 megawatts in 2009, to 850 MW in 2010, to 350 MW this year and next. The company still says, however, that approximately 30% of the power it delivers to New York and Westchester County comes from the plant. And in New York State as a whole, 32% of electricity generated relies on nuclear power, according to NYISO. (There are four other reactors in the state, the majority of them clustered outside of Oswego, NY, near Lake Ontario.)

Shutting down Indian Point would mean finding a different source for that portion of the electricity New Yorkers use. The NYISO, in a report published near the close of 2010, wrote that if Indian Point were to close, it would create reliability problems for the New York area electricity grid — in other words, the likelihood of blackouts and brownouts occurring would exceed acceptable limits.

Cuomo’s office reiterated last week that the governor believes the state will be able to find enough new sources to make up the gap.

But where will it come from? Although the thought of a nuclear meltdown 20 miles from New York City can be unnerving, nuclear does have certain advantages over other fuel sources for electricity generation. New York City’s fuel mix produces emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide significantly lower than the national average. Carbon dioxide emissions, for instance, are 54% of the national average emissions rate. The better carbon emissions rates are one of the reasons that national leaders, including President Obama, have been staunch nuclear supporters.

In New York, the alternatives to nuclear come with their own baggage. Wind power only accounts for a tiny slice of the state’s electricity, and new wind projects cannot account for the amount of electricity Indian Point generates. And wind power doesn’t necessarily account for most new growth in this sector, either. “Currently most of the larger generators coming online are high efficiency combined cycle natural gas generators,” Ken Klapp, a spokesman for NYISO, told State Room. Closing Indian Point could mean relying more heavily on natural gas, extracted by controversial hydrofracking techniques.

Even if the state does succeed in finding replacement sources for Indian Point, closing Indian Point won’t mean that New York City is immediately safe from the hazards of nearby nuclear materials. The process of decommissioning a nuclear plant takes years. Indian Point hosts three nuclear reactors; one is already inactive, but Entergy, which owns all three, has delayed decommissioning it until a second reactor ceases operations.

Decommissioning doesn’t necessarily require Entergy to move the nuclear materials left over from the generation process from the decommissioned site. There’s still no national facility for storing used nuclear material, and it’s common for nuclear materials to remain on the site of a decommissioned plant.

The federal government requires companies that own nuclear reactors to set aside funds to decommission their plants and draft a plan to decommission them, so in theory, Entergy should be prepared to shut down the plant, should its bid to renew the reactors’ licenses fail. In 2009, however, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission discovered that Entergy’s fund for decommissioning one Indian Point reactor fell short. In 2010, the company and the NRC agreed that Entergy could store nuclear materials onsite until 2063, under conditions that safely allow the radioactivity to decay.

Right now, the majority of Indian Point’s spent fuel is stored in the same sort of cooling tanks that proved a problem at Fukushima. If the plant was decommissioned, the fuel would likely be stored differently, in dry casks. In this storage method, the spent fuel is placed in steel casks, which are in turn stored in ventilated concrete capsules. Since 2008, Entergy has stored some of its spent fuel in dry casks, which the NRC says would keep the materials safe during an earthquake.

“They’re designed to not move during earthquake activity,” Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the NRC, said. “Unlike the spent fuel pools, they don’t use water, pumps or valves. They don’t use electricity. They’re very self-sufficient.”

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