Queens Council Dems Led Fight To Reduce R.E. Tax
Queens Council Dems Led Fight To Reduce R.E. Tax
By John Toscano
Queens city councilmembers led the attack against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed real estate tax increase and his planned service cuts last week, zeroing in on reductions in emergency services and aid to the elderly.
After weeks of meetings, 10 of the borough’s 13 Democrats in the council held fast and voted for the 18.5 percent property tax increase and $50.2 million in restoration of funding for the aged, EMS ambulance tours, libraries and Fire Department overtime. They succeeded in keeping eight firehouses, two in Queens, open and operating.
The only Democrats who voted no on the budget modifications and tax increase were Councilmembers Tony Avella (D–Bayside) and Allan Jennings (D–Jamaica). A third Democrat, James Gennaro (D–Jamaica Estates) was absent, reportedly due to a death in his family.
Also voting no was Councilmember Dennis Gallagher (R–C, Middle Village), the only Republican from Queens in the council. At a meeting of the mayor and Republican councilmembers, the mayor scolded Gallagher and the others for not sticking with him.
Among the items restored to the budget was $2.4 million for seniors, saving meals delivered to their homes on weekends; $1.5 million to continue library services; 37 EMS ambulance tours, and youth, childcare and CUNY programs.
The vote was to close a $1.4 billion deficit in the current budget, which expires on June 30. There’s also a $6 billion deficit anticipated for the 2003–04 budget year, so the councilmembers will have to bite the bullet again next spring.
In response to the mayor’s proposed 25 percent real estate tax hike, the 14-member Queens delegation said they would agree to only a 12 percent increase. Meanwhile, delegations from other boroughs said they would go along with an increase in the 17-to-18 percent range. It’s expected that the 17-to-18 percent hike will be the council’s position when it responds to the mayor in a day or two.
Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., who opposes any tax hike, said any increase must be temporary at most.
Councilmember David Weprin (D-Hollis), chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, signaled the opposition to emergency service cuts, saying there was a growing consensus in the Queens delegation and the rest of the council to rescue eight fire companies earmarked for closing by the mayor.
In addition, Vallone, council Public Safety Committee chairman, strongly criticized the mayor’s call to cut police services by about 13 percent, or $84 million.
On the firehouse front, Councilmember Joseph Addabbo (D–Ozone Park) led a rally over the weekend to save Engine 293 at 89-40 87th St. in Woodhaven. Addabbo declared, "We cannot look into the eyes of city residents, tell them we’re not going to make cuts that directly impact upon their safety, and then close eight firehouses."
Weprin said that firehouses "symbolize the city of New York’s protection of its citizens." And, he warned, "All we need is one incident to occur and a fire truck to get there two or three minutes later than it otherwise would and you could have a fatality."
Local community leaders in both Woodhaven and Dutch Kills, where the mayor wants to shut down Engine 261/Ladder 116 at 29th Street and 37th Avenue, also spoke up.
Maria Thomson, executive director of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association, said the area’s frame houses made it necessary to retain the fire company in the area. In Dutch Kills, Carol Wilkins deplored the proposed closing of the local firehouse.
As for police cuts, Vallone (D–Astoria) said the proposed reduction in cop strength by 1,900 officers will join with several in recent years to decrease the force to 27,000, the lowest level since 1993. Pointing to the successes of the Safe Streets/Safe Cities program in the 1990s, he warned that continued cuts represent a backward move.
While the Queens councilmembers decried the cuts in emergency services, they were equally vehement in railing against Bloomberg’s proposed 25 percent real estate tax increase proposal. Their principal complaints were that it would hurt most in Queens, a borough with a large number of homeowners, and it would punish one- and two-family homeowners much more than owners of larger buildings.
In addition, they argued, renters would get stuck with the increase in taxes for landlords because the latter would pass it along to tenants and escape any loss in profits.
Several councilmembers, among them Avella, Gallagher, Addabbo and Eric Gioia (D–Woodside) took the position that rather than raise real estate taxes, the mayor should be reviewing city programs carefully to see which can be eliminated to save more money.
Gallagher the lone Republican in Queens, declared, "We shouldn’t even be talking about tax increases without first scrutinizing the budget for unnecessary spending. Let’s take taxes off the table and concentrate on service cuts, and see how much we can get from Albany." He also said he was not committed to voting for any tax increase.
Avella argued, "Property owners already pay higher taxes each year because of increased property assessments. To increase the tax rate would be a double whammy."
He urged that all other alternatives be examined first, including finding new sources of revenue and eliminating wasteful or unnecessary programs, before any property tax increase is approved. To expose the waste, he would create a mayoral–council panel to do a line-by-line examination of the budget, he said.
Gioia said, "Before we think of raising real estate taxes, let’s exhaust every option to make savings." He said the mayor’s income tax proposal, which would include non-New Yorkers, was a good idea.
"Everyone should have to pay their share," he said, but faulted the mayor’s plan for asking too much of out-of-towners.
Addabbo said the mayor’s proposed 25 percent increase was quite high and must be reduced. He also called for a small income tax surcharge, "maybe $100 for each taxpayer" and allocating the monies collected to a special use, such as education or the police.
Councilmembers John Liu (D–Flushing) and Hiram Monserrate (D–Corona) criticized the mayor’s tax proposal as being unfair to low- and moderate-income homeowners.
Liu said, "It’s going to impact low and moderate income people mostly, and we (in Queens) already pay the highest property taxes in the city."
Monserrate said the mayor’s tax proposal was too much to ask from homeowners. Councilmember Melinda Katz said, "We can’t dump such a burden on homeowners. It must be less than 25 percent, if anything."
Councilmember Helen Sears (D–Jackson Heights) thought the mayor’s proposal was ludicrous. She also urged a closer look at the city’s Medicaid burden which, according to some sources, is $400 billion.
There was also much concern about the mayor’s nearly seven percent cut in senior services, about $209 million. About 32 senior centers are targeted for closing, and the weekend take-home meal program would be eliminated.
Liu, arguing against the cuts to seniors, said, "Closing centers saves only about $2 million and that’s not much of an impact on a $6 billion deficit."
Last week, when protest demonstrations were held at City Hall, among those carrying placards were members of the HANAC senior center in Ravenswood.
NEW STATE SENATE MINORITY LEADER: The Democrats in the state senate elected a new Minority leader, David A. Patterson, to replace Martin Connor of Brooklyn, who had held the post for about 20 years.
Patterson, from Harlem, becomes the first black to lead a party caucus in the legislature.
Connor paved the way for his own ouster. In the recent gubernatorial campaign, rather than work for Democratic candidate Carl McCall, he served as an election lawyer for Thomas Golisano, the Independence Party candidate.
Patterson, 48, had support from the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Mayor David Dinkins, among others, but was opposed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Brooklyn Democratic Leader Assemblymember Clarence Norman Jr., who is also black.
The fight over the leadership position has little real significance since the Republican majority wields tight control over all legislation. In fact, Republicans have controlled the senate for 63 of the last 64 years. In the coming session, the GOP will have a comfortable 37-to-25 majority, including Queens Republicans Frank Padavan (Bellerose) and Serphin Maltese (Middle Village).