April 2011 Community Report

Dear Neighbor:

The following is a summary of some of my office's activities since my last community report:

FY 2011-2012 Budget Update

Shortly after midnight on March 31, the New York State Legislature enacted the Fiscal Year 2011-2012 State Budget. The $132.5 billion budget, which was the first one in five years to pass on time, reduces overall spending by two percent and has no new taxes or borrowing.

While there has been much praise for this year's budget and I was pleased to partner with my Democratic colleagues to win a number of critical restorations, including Title XX funding for our senior centers, funding for schools for the hearing- and visually-impaired, funding for SUNY and CUNY, and reforms to the juvenile justice system, I could not in good conscience support it. Among other shortcomings, it placed the sole burden of the sacrifices necessary to get us through these difficult economic times squarely on middle class and low-income New Yorkers, and thus, I voted against the entire package

There is no question that passing an on-time budget is fiscally responsible and I have spoken out against the string of late (and sometimes very late) budgets that have been enacted before and after my arrival in the State Senate in 1999. Governor Andrew Cuomo has shown tremendous leadership in making timely budgets a priority and great skill in bringing various stakeholders to the table for an honest, open and frank dialogue which helped craft this budget during a painful fiscal crisis.

Unfortunately, while Governor Cuomo facilitated open and transparent budget discussions, the Legislature reverted to its old tired tricks. Starting in March "Conference Committees" between the Senate and Assembly were formed and broken down into key issue areas. I was appointed by Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson to the Health and Human Services subcommittee. The purpose of Conference Committees is to negotiate, in an open and public process, the differences between the Senate and Assembly budget proposals. In reality, these committees are highly scripted and disingenuous to the public. The real decisions are made behind closed doors by the Senate Majority Leader and Assembly Speaker. I had high hopes for this year's Conference Committees, but as soon as I realized their futility I spoke out against the process on the record and refused to be a part of the deception.

Sadly, the Legislature allowed the "Millionaire's Tax" to expire. This tax surcharge, enacted in 2009, created an 8.97 percent top tax rate that applied to all taxpayers with incomes above $500,000. Under the FY 2011-12 budget agreement, the tax rate for these wealthy New Yorkers reverts back to 6.85 percent on January 1, 2012 – costing the state billions of dollars in revenue. Allowing this tax to expire shocks the conscience. This year's budget makes deep and painful cuts – including drastic reductions to education. The revenue generated from the Millionaire's Tax would have prevented these cuts from being necessary.

On the floor of the Senate, I spoke against the elimination of the Millionaire's Tax and I also spoke out against New York's regressive tax policy. New York needs to implement a fair and progressive tax structure based on one's ability to pay. This is the only way New York will generate much needed revenue. This year, because of the no new taxes mandate, the Legislature struggled to find revenue – including a heavy reliance on gambling profits. For me, this is simply unacceptable and is one of the reasons I voted against the budget.

I was also outraged that the extension and expansion of New York's rent regulations was not placed in the budget. The availability of affordable rental housing is dramatically and rapidly decreasing in New York City and in many other parts of our State – including municipalities in Westchester, Rockland and Nassau counties. Rent regulation protections are urgently needed to preserve our precious housing stock. Loopholes must be closed and regulations must be strengthened to prevent any further circumvention of rules which were designed to keep New York's housing stock affordable and habitable.

I pointed out on the Senate floor that rent regulations have worked. The housing stock in the City of New York is in far better condition than it is in other parts of the State without rent regulation. It is critically important to use any and all strategies to renew and strengthen rent regulation and the Legislature missed an incredible opportunity to do so in this year's budget.

As I noted above, there were some positive elements in the budget, for which I and my Democratic colleagues aggressively advocated:

  • Title XX funding for New York City's senior centers was restored.
  • A proposed $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice proceedings was eliminated.
  • While far from enough, the Legislature restored $272 million in proposed cuts to education, including funding for schools for the hearing- and visually-impaired, summer school education funds and $51 million to New York City Schools.
  • Significant reforms of New York's juvenile justice system were made by encouraging the use of ommunity based alternatives, downsizing the state juvenile facilities by more than 30 percent, and investing resources into enhanced services for juveniles that remain in custody.

Furthermore, the Governor's Medicaid Redesign Team produced recommendations which were used to decrease Medicaid spending by $337 million dollars and place a strong emphasis on quality primary care.

Generally, the Health and Human Services portion of the budget was both positive and negative in funding and policy actions. While I am not breaking down this portion of the budget in great detail, please contact my office with any questions on this segment of the budget.

In fact, the budget process in Albany is complex and the documents are thousands of pages long. If you have any questions or concerns about what is included in this year's budget, again, please do not hesitate to contact my office.

The budget process may be over in Albany, but the work is far from over. The Legislative Session ends on June 20th and I will continue to fight for the things that matter most to us – rent reform, marriage equality, gender expression non-discrimination, ethics and redistricting reform and much more.

Seeking to Preserve and Strengthen Rent Regulation and Tenant Protections

As I noted above, I am tremendously disappointed that New York State's Fiscal Year 2011-12 Enacted Budget did not include renewal and strengthening of our rent regulation system. I am continuing to work with my progressive colleagues in the State Senate and leaders in the tenants rights movement to ensure both the renewal of the Emergency Tenant Protection Act before it expires on June 15 of this year and the expansion of tenant protections.

I am a co-sponsor of an omnibus tenant protection bill (S.2783-A/ Espaillat), which, among other provisions, would:

  • Renew the rent control and rent stabilization laws
  • Repeal vacancy destabilization and re-regulate most of the apartments that have been lost through this loophole in the last two decades
  • Allow New York City and suburban municipalities to bring former Mitchell-Lama and Section 8 buildings under rent stabilization
  • Reduce the statutory vacancy bonus from 20% to 10%
  • Reform the preferential rent loophole that enables landlords to increase stabilized rents by hundreds of dollars when tenants renew their leases
  • Reform the provision that allows landlords to empty entire buildings by claiming they need more than one unit for themselves or their family members
  • Reform the Major Capital Improvement (MCI) program by making rent surcharges end when the landlord has recovered the cost of the improvement
  • Reform the Individual Apartment Improvement (IAI) program by reducing the monthly rent increase from 1/40th to 1/60th of the cost of the improvement
  • Repeal the Urstadt Law which will restore home rule powers over rent and eviction legislation to the City of New York

Rent regulation protections are urgently needed to preserve our precious housing stock. I will continue to fight in the Senate to make sure our rent regulations are renewed and strengthened before the end of this year's Legislative Session.

Demanding Fair Calculation of Reregulated Rents at ST/PCV and Other Illegally Deregulated Apartments

In late March, I joined New York State Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh and New York City Councilmember Dan Garodnick in spearheading a letter signed by 77 Federal, State and City elected officials to the Office of Housing Preservation at New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR), which had been asked to review the application of the rent laws in light of the State Court of Appeals ruling in Roberts v. Tishman Speyer Properties, L.P. As you may recall, the Court found that the landlords in that case had illegally deregulated thousands of apartments even though they were receiving generous tax benefits through the J-51 tax abatement program. While HCR was addressing the fate of tenants in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, the method settled upon in this case will likely be used in the many other instances in which landlords have illegally deregulated units, and could affect as many as 40,000 apartments throughout New York City.

Regrettably, on April 18, HCR advised the Court that it would be too complicated for it to devise a general formula to respond to the Judge's request, and it suggested that the Court may wish to appoint a Special Referee to undertake the task. However, HCR it did reaffirm the fact that the former market rate units in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, and by extension other units deregulated despite the building's participation in the J-51 program, are now re-stabilized. I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure that landlords refund all the money they received from tenants as a result of their circumvention of the law, and that as legal regulated rents in these units are reestablished, landlords are not allowed to charge more than they would have if their units had remained continuously subject to rent regulation.

Urging Designation of the Entire South Village Historic District

On April 12, I was joined by other local elected officials in writing to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) urging it to move forward with designation of the entire South Village Historic District. While we appreciate the significant step LPC took last year in designating the western segment of the proposed district as the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II, and we understand the limits of LPC's resources, we are concerned about imminent threats to buildings within the eastern portion of the proposed district and thus called upon the Commission to act expeditiously to ensure that the remainder of the historic South Village is equally protected under New York City's Landmarks Law. Please see our letter here.

Calling for an Expanded Riverside-West End Historic District

On March 22, I submitted testimony to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in strong support of the proposed Riverside-West End Historic District Extension I. This remarkable concentration of historic buildings is a crucial part of a larger stretch of West End Avenue, from West 70th Street to West 109th Street, for which I and other local elected officials, Manhattan Community Board B7, the West End Preservation Society, Landmark West! and other community-based organizations have long sought historic district designation. Please see my testimony here.

Continuing to Seek Improvements in the M15 Select Bus Service

My office continues to follow up with MTA New York City Transit (NYCT) to address ongoing concerns about implementation of the M15 Select Bus Service (SBS), including ticket machines that frequently jam or run out of paper, leaving passengers unable to purchase tickets. As I noted in my February report, NYCT assured me that it was developing a software update that would enable it to track when machines have run low on paper so that agency crews may refill them as soon as they are empty. NYCT has now informed me that pilot test software will be installed on select SBS ticket machines by the end of April and will roll out to all machines by the end of May. I will continue to monitor NYCT's progress in this and other efforts to improve customers' SBS experience. In the meantime, please continue to report your concerns about SBS to NYCT at (718) 330-1234 and pass along your complaint numbers to my office at (212) 633-8052 so that we may ensure that they are addressed.

Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On March 22, the New York State Senate adopted a resolution I introduced commemorating the 100th anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire – the worst industrial disaster in the history of New York City, which became the rallying cry for workplace safety standards and spawned the international labor movement.

In the early 1900s, the 500 employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the vast majority of them women, worked six days a week. They were forced to buy their own needles and thread and were forbidden to talk. Bathroom breaks were strictly monitored and doors were locked from the outside with no accessible escape route for the women trapped inside. The situation became so dire that in 1909 a walkout was held by shirtwaist workers citywide to address the serious safety concerns. Triangle management refused to make any concessions.

Two years later, on March 25, 1911 a fire broke out in a scrap bin within the factory. Since there was no alarm system in place, the workers were unaware of the fire until it was too late. Hundreds of workers were left with no choice but to leap from the 9th and 10th floor windows.

This horrific tragedy shocked the nation and in its wake the start of the progressive labor movement began, which created child labor laws, strict employee safety regulations, 40 hour work weeks, collective bargaining rights and much more.

You may view the comments I made on the floor of the Senate regarding this tragic event and its historic implications here.

Launching the Sweatshop Free UWS Campaign

On March 26, I joined the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association, community and faith-based organizations, New York State Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal and other elected officials at a press conference announcing the launch of the Sweatshop Free Upper West Side campaign, an effort to encourage area businesses to maintain fair labor practices. One hundred years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, we must honor the legacy of those who perished by ensuring that the rights of workers are respected by every business and for every employee. Upper West Side businesses will be asked to place a sticker on their windows indicating their support for the campaign and their adherence to its principles. Already, a number of businesses have signed up, including Appletree Market, Flor de Mayo restaurant and Hartley Pharmacy.

Fighting to Protect Our Water Supply from Fracking

On March 28, I submitted testimony to the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) expressing many concerns about this interstate regulatory authority's woefully inadequate proposed natural gas development regulations. I urged DRBC to impose a ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the Delaware River Basin until and unless the technology improves to a point at which it no longer poses a threat to our precious natural resources. Please see my testimony here.

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