McCall Lauds LIC Gains But Warns Of Slowdown
"Of all the boroughs outside Manhattan, Queens has had the best performance in recent years," state Comptroller H. Carl McCall told the Long Island City Business Development Corporation last Friday. In a breakfast meeting at the Citicorp Building, McCall told an audience of local business owners and operators that unemployment is low, job growth is strong and wages are up.
The picture is not entirely rosy, however, he cautioned. "Even with all the good news, the poverty rate in Queens is 16 percent and 37 percent of those living in poverty here are children. And it appears that the New York City economy is beginning to decelerate."
McCall cited a report his office had issued in April 2001 that found that because of a national economic downturn and the fact that Wall Street momentum is no longer buoying the economy, the city is in for an economic slowdown. "The only question is how long it will last," McCall declared.
McCall, who plans a run for the governor's mansion in Albany, told the group that in order to sustain the positive gains made over the last decade and spread the economic recovery to all residents of Queens, work remains to be done on two fronts. "First," he asserted, "we've got to continue to build on what's happening here- using public and private investments like Queens West and Jamaica Center to build up Queens, both its business community and its infrastructure."
As the chief fiscal officer of New York state, McCall is solely in charge of the state pension fund, which exceeds $1 billion. Through his office's Linked Deposit Program, the pension fund has invested over $5 million in Long Island City and intends to do more, thus aiding small businesses and creating hundreds of jobs, he stated. "I will continue to invest in Long Island City because it is clearly a sound investment to make," he told the group. "I will continue to be a partner with all of you to make sure that your vision is matched by the public investment necessary to make it a reality."
The public-private partnership is just part of the equation, McCall continued. "If we're going to keep the engine of economic growth churning here in Queens, we've got to focus on two critical ingredients to economic growth that have been ignored by the administration (of Governor George E. Pataki) in Albany. We need to make sure that every child gets an excellent education, and we need to keep energy prices under control."
McCall termed education "the foundation for everything else we do". He added, "It doesn't matter how many BDCs we have, how modern our highways and bridges. Unless we give every child in this borough a sound education, unless they are prepared to be the high-skill work force we need, Queens is not going to reach its potential. And right now, too many of our children aren't getting the education they need."
Average class size in New York City schools is 36 percent higher than schools elsewhere in the state, while city schools spend 23 percent less per pupil, statistics that McCall termed "outrageous". He also pointed out that city teachers make far less than their suburban counterparts, leading to an exodus of thousands of good teachers year after year. Meanwhile, "scores of children struggle to learn in overcrowded classrooms, studying from dated textbooks in decrepit school buildings."
The reason for the discrepancy between New York City schools and those in the suburbs is the current school aid formula, which McCall termed "essentially a fraud". He explained: "Each year at the end of budget negotiations three men (whom he declined to name) in Albany go into a room with a list of what they need to deliver to whom, and after they divvy it up, we've got a 'formula'. The results have been disastrous. Disadvantaged schools don't get the funding they need, and this particularly hurts children across the five boroughs. Over the last four years we've increased school aid by $3.4 billion, but that hasn't made the slightest difference in getting resources to the schools that need them.
"Now we've got a chance to change it once and for all. In January, the state Supreme Court ruled that the current school finance system is unfair, inequitable and unconstitutional. The court ordered the governor and the legislature to scrap the current system and replace it with a fair one. But instead of using this historic opportunity to level the playing field for every school and every child, the governor appealed. He has already spent $11 million fighting this case over the years and now he wants to spend millions more to preserve our broken system. This abdication of responsibility can't continue."
Education is germane to all other urban issues, McCall added. "If we want New York to lead the way in job creation and economic growth, New York must lead the way in public education. Fixing the school system must be our top priority. That's the message we all have to send to the governor- enough is enough. It's time for leadership on this issue."
The issue of energy costs is also being ignored by the Pataki administration, McCall charged. "Four years ago we were promised that deregulation would lower prices around the state. But look where we are today," he asserted. "After four years of deregulation, electricity prices in New York are 70 percent above the national average. The reason we're in this situation is simple: the Administration in Albany dropped the ball."
McCall explained: "Their approach was driven by deals between the PSC (Public Service Commission) and the utilities, and they didn't consider the short- and long-term impact. They misjudged the electricity situation and pushed through deregulation before we had enough power generating capacity to allow the new markets to work smoothly. Now we're in crisis mode, building 10 emergency generators across the city, running roughshod over the concerns of the communities that are impacted."
McCall lauded Borough President Claire Shulman for fighting the construction of one such generator on Vernon Boulevard. "She knows what you know," he said of the woman he called the queen of Queens, "the expansion of Silvercup Studios should have taken precedence and NYPA (the New York Power Authority) should have found another place to put their generator. The fact is, right now our energy policy isn't a policy at all- it's a series of reactions, and that's not enough."
The Vernon Boulevard generator will severely hamper the plans of Silvercup Studios to expand, leading Stuart Suna, Silvercup president, to ask McCall what his plans were for the film and television industry in Long Island City if elected. "We can't have a cookie cutter approach," McCall responded. He added that he would reopen the state film and television office, which was closed under previous gubernatorial administrations. "Other states sell themselves," he pointed out. "We've got a lot to offer, but we've got a lot of competition."
The key to a sound economy is development diversification, McCall said in response to a question from an artist with a studio in Long Island City who wondered if property in the area was to be condemned for the new central business district to cover some 37 blocks surrounding Queens Plaza. "Government support of the arts community should continue," he replied to similar queries.
"We can't accept federal cutbacks, he said of cuts to the city transportation system. He added that a state transportation bond act had failed in the last election "because the governor did nothing to support it." Another such act must be put before the voters again and support for the transportation infrastructure from Washington D.C. must be assiduously pursued. McCall praised United States Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton for their support of city and state transportation needs.
McCall agreed with another LICBDC member that every effort should be made to keep manufacturing jobs in the area even as Long Island City ventures into commercial development. "I'm bothered when I see contractors lose projects to other states, even other countries," he said, noting that the MTA has ordered new subway cars from a Canadian firm. "We have to level the playing field," he said. He added that he felt that the city would best be served by playing host to a variety of industries and businesses. "New York City needs to expand, but it shouldn't be just New Tech City," he said.