2015-06-10 / Front Page

Queens College Holds Business Forum Breakfast

By Thomas Cogan

City Controller Scott Stringer was the prime speaker at June’s Queens College Business Forum Breakfast and from the start was ready to speak in behalf of government, which he said “has to think big and bold.”  At the same time, he recognized the faults of government, right down to his own office.  His main theses were that the city should work to achieve a $15 dollar per hour minimum wage, which he does not believe will have a bad impact on small business, contrary to a significant strain of current opinion; and that the bad impact that small business does suffer comes quite often from government agencies that restrict, delay and punish them quite a bit more than they have a right to.

Scott Stringer, former Manhattan borough president and a graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, was elected controller of New York City in 2013.  Among the controller’s responsibilities is overseeing the $160 billion city pension fund, and in the course of his talk Stringer revealed a startling fact about it.  But he began with his assertion of government boldness and the need to adopt the $15 per hour minimum wage.  If it were instituted, he said, the general prosperity would be extended to those seeking a livable level in our society.  He does not believe such a minimum wage would hurt small business.  What is really bad for small business—and here he became critical of city government—is the way agencies impede attempts of entrepreneurs to get their businesses started or descend on them with violations checks, practically the minute after they have cut the ribbon and begun working.  When he took office, having some idea of how agencies can harass small businesses, he decided to examine all those agencies and give them letter grades for all-around performance.  The city as a whole got a dismaying D, with some agencies actually getting Fs.  His own office could do no better than C which made him determined to work immediately to attain a B, then an A, recalling the lessons in improvement he got from his Puerto Rican stepfather.

When he looked at Wall Street he mentioned M/WBE, the Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprise program and said that on the M/WBE scale, the city’s financial industry is quite low, being best described by an old bit of doggerel:  male, pale and stale.  There’s lack of diversity among top executives, whose chief talent seems to be their skill at capturing huge salaries and bonuses.  One attempt at reform would be direct election of board directors, he said, adding that it’s a current national movement.  Another attempt at reform he’s ready to undertake is concerned with fees that Wall Street management companies charge to tend to the city’s pension plan, which at $160 billion is the fourth largest in the United States and the 12th largest in the world.  He said that in the 10-year period 2005-2015, investments gained nearly $2.5 billion for the fund, out of which the city paid fees to Wall Street of more than $2 billion.  Thus did Wall Street devour 96 percent of the fund’s profit.  He said such gouging has to stop.

When he took questions, the first inquirer asked him about 421a, the tax abatement extended to builders and developers to get them to build so-called affordable housing in the midst of all the market-rate, high-priced units they are building citywide.  After saying he doesn’t like being asked to comment on 421a he said it should be restructured, meaning there must be negotiations for prevailing wages for construction workers.  He was asked if the $15 per hour minimum wage is “a total offset.”  He said no and added that underpayment to both small and big business workers must be remedied.  The biggest problem for small businessmen, he insisted, is not a $15 minimum wage but the way they are harried by city agencies.  He said that though he has a general dislike of commissions, he created a Red Tape Commission to make examinations agency-by-agency as a step toward reform.  Another person said the minimum wage impedes progress.  The controller replied that workers who receive adequate pay have room to improve their lot, rather than just running in place to earn no more than wages to pay basic expenses (if even that) but no more.

Going on about agency reform, he said his office has five pension boards that have a total of 55 meetings during the year.  The situation cries for reform, but he said it won’t be easy (though he said his 2013 primary opponent, former Governor Eliot Spitzer, believed it would be), since approval for reform must be gained from a long roster of business and union officials.  Asked about nail salons and other alleged oppressors of workers, he said he would continue to debar any employers caught cheating their employees.  Thus far he has debarred 15, he said.

Since it was graduation time, there were scholarship awards to outstanding students, each with a 4.0 grade point average and each foreign-born.  The first two awards were from Investors Bank and the first of them went to Kevin Bernal, a native of Mexico who expressed appreciation for his mentors.  Manpreet Kaur, India-born and a wife and mother, became emotional when expressing her surprise for receiving the honor.  The Queens College Business Forum scholarship went to Russian-born Farrukh Edgarov, who in addition to being academically adept was described as a talented tennis player.   





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