Sunday, September 4, 2011

Liu says Walder bailed on MTA

City Comptroller John Liu, one of the harshest and most public critics of the MTA, slammed outgoing MTA Chairman Jay Walder for not following through on his six-year commitment to the post.

Walder announced last month — after only 21 months on the job — that he was resigning from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in October to take a job with the MTR Corp., which owns and runs Hong Kong’s mass transit system.

“I’m very disappointed that Walder’s leaving and I hold him responsible,” Liu said during an interview last Thursday at TimesLedger Newspapers’ Bayside offices. “He basically just threw his hands up and waved the white flag. I think it was a cop-out.”

Faced with a ballooning deficit, Walder had to raise fares, eliminate the V and W subway lines, cut many bus routes around the city and consolidate a number of agencies operating within the MTA.

Liu, who chaired the City Council Transportation Committee before being elected comptroller, said he believes the long-term solution to getting the MTA to be more financially sound involves the federal government.

The comptroller said there needs to be a change in the federal transportation formula, which is tilted toward highway construction, because there is not enough emphasis on mass transit.

The MTA, known for its fiscal woes, is $31.6 million in debt, according to its latest financial statement.

As the sole trustee of the city’s pension funds, Liu said the rising costs of pensions are “through the roof” but his office recently completed a study that found costs will decline in 2016 instead of continuing a steep increase that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has maintained.

Liu said the reason for the decrease is lower benefit amounts for new city employees.

“That increase is starting to level off now,” he said. Pension reform “should not be based on rhetoric or unfound characterizations of an ever-increasing pension cost. It should be based on informed discussion based on facts and research.”

The comptroller said the biggest factor in the rising costs of pensions is that the city’s investments have had their worst market performance in the last 10 years — going from consistent double-digit returns before then to single-digit returns during the last 10 years.

On pension reform, Liu said cutting back on pensions for city employees hired before the newcomers was out of the question.

Liu said the costs of the city hiring outside consultants is another budget problem, including contracts that are paid based on the time a contractor spends on a project, which he said gives them an incentive not to complete the project on time and falsify timesheets.

Rainstorm Causes Ceiling Collapse at Weight Watchers on Fifth Ave

By Paula Katinas
Bay Ridge Eagle

The torrential rainstorm that hit New York on Sunday caused the ceiling to collapse at the Weight Watchers Bay Ridge Center on Fifth Avenue, according to local officials and business leaders, who said the cave-in will likely put the facility out of commission temporarily.

No one was injured in the collapse at the Weight Watchers site at 7516 Fifth Ave. Sunday night, officials said.

“No one was there at the time. It happened at night,” said Jim Clark, president of the Bay Ridge Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District.

The Bay Ridge Center hosts Weight Watchers meetings and houses a shop where members can purchase food items.

Hundreds of Weight Watchers members visit the Fifth Avenue center each week.

Melanie Cohen, a Weight Watchers leader at the Bay Ridge Center, said the center would likely be closed for four to six weeks while extensive repairs are made.

The building owner at 7516 Fifth Ave. will repair and remodel the space, Cohen said.

“We will get a state-of-the-art remodeling. In a way, something good is coming out of this situation,” she said.

A sign in the window informed members that the center is closed, but announced that all Monday through Saturday meetings would take place at a temporary location beginning Wednesday evening, Aug. 17. The temporary location, Gateway City Church, is located nearby at 267 Bay Ridge Ave.

Members can also visit to locate other Brooklyn-area meetings.

The storm, which dumped seven inches of rain on the city on a single day, also led to a major problem in Sunset Park, officials said.

Renee Giordano, executive director of the Sunset Park Business Improvement District, said a sewer and water main break on Fifth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets caused a great deal of damage to the avenue’s businesses.

“There was flooding in most of the basements and food establishments had to close until they were cleaned,” Giordano said.

The Department of Environmental Protection “is pumping the hole in the street and will repair the pipes,” she said.

“Many businesses lost a lot of inventory,” said Giordano, who added that representatives from City Comptroller John Liu’s office and the Department of Small Business Services are assisting merchants with filing claims with their insurance companies.

Fred Xuereb, chairman of Community Board Seven in Sunset Park, experienced the storm’s wrath firsthand.

“I had a little flooding in my house,” he said.

Back in Bay Ridge, Councilman Vincent Gentile’s office received reports of damage to some homes and businesses, as well as reports of delays on the subways, according to an aide.

The subway station at 36th Street and Fourth Avenue, where the R, N and D lines all operate, was flooded on Sunday morning, according to officials.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority ran shuttle buses until the water was pumped out of the station. Many homes in the area were flooded.

“My own house got some water,” said Clark, who lives in Bay Ridge. “But it only got on my rug. A couple of people I know had two or three inches of water in their basements.”

Josephine Beckmann, district manager of Community Board 10, said the intersection of Ovington and Seventh Avenues had flooding, but that the situation cleared up quickly.

“It’s much better today,” said Beckmann, who was contacted by the Bay Ridge Eagle on Monday. Overall, Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights fared pretty well in the rainstorm, Beckmann said.

“I’d say we were very fortunate,” she added.

Bensonhurst was also spared from major problems, said Marnee Elias-Pavia, district manager of Community Board 11.

“Considering the amount of rainfall we had, I’d say we really did well. We only received one call from a resident regarding street flooding,” she said.

Bloomberg Questions Comptroller’s Competence

NEW YORK—Mayor Michael Bloomberg doesn't put much stock in City Comptroller John Liu's reports. The mayor was pretty explicit about his doubts in an interview with the New York Daily News on Wednesday.

“You know, I have to work with John and I'll try to help,” said Bloomberg, “and hopefully he'll eventually get staff and himself together where they can provide a real function and do a real analysis.”

Liu released a report in June forecasting that the city's pension cost would peak in 2016 and then grow at a slower rate than the city's economy, thereby using up a smaller portion of the budget. This would be good news for unions, which don’t want their pensions to be cut while the city tightens its belt.

The mayor wondered where Liu got his numbers from. Mark LaVorgna of the mayor's office noted that pension costs will likely continue to rise.

It's no secret that Liu is friendly with the unions. They contributed to his campaign for office. Of the 66 press releases on his website from this year, 17 are about pensions or unions. He's been to many of the major union rallies, and this wouldn't be the first time his accuracy in reporting on union issues has been called into question.

Liu to Bloomberg: Do Your Own Research on Pension Costs

Comptroller John Liu said Wednesday he is standing by his recent report on pension costs, a day after Mayor Bloomberg said Liu "doesn't know what he is talking about."

“The mayor is entitled to his opinion, but the facts still are the facts,” Liu told NBC New York.

Bloomberg told the Daily News editorial board Tuesday he would try to help Liu “get his staff and himself together so they can provide a real function and a real analysis.” The mayor was balking at Liu’s June report, which painted a rosy picture of future city pension costs.

The report estimated the percentage of city dollars spent on pensions would decline in five years because of cheaper benefits for new uniformed employees. Bloomberg has campaigned against what he calls unsustainable long-term pension expenses.

Liu said his research is thorough and supported by independent pension experts. He challenged Bloomberg to do his own research.

“The mayor is welcome to conduct his own thorough research and publish it as my office has," he said. "The Mayor has a tough job, but the people of New York City elected me. I do their bidding."

Liu suggested Bloomberg is responsible for the rising pension costs and said “rhetoric is not going to get us anywhere.”

Low-Profile Candidate Hires High-Powered Fund-Raiser

Among the likely candidates for mayor in 2013, Tom Allon is a decided long shot, given that in a field likely to be crowded with familiar names, most New York voters probably have no idea who Mr. Allon is.

But he is hoping to gain some traction by hiring one of the city’s biggest Democratic fund-raisers.

Mr. Allon, a publisher of community newspapers, has hired Cynthia R. Darrison, who helped to power the fund-raising machines of Andrew M. Cuomo in 2010 and Eliot Spitzer in 2006.

Ms. Darrison, the chief executive of Darrison Barrett & Associates, which has offices in Manhattan and, soon, Nashville, Tenn., has raised more than $100 million for Democratic candidates and committees since 1989. In 2009, she helped Cyrus R. Vance Jr. become the Manhattan district attorney and helped Bill de Blasio become the public advocate. That year she was also part of William C. Thompson Jr.’s failed bid to unseat Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Ms. Darrison said in an interview that she had not planned to participate in the 2013 mayoral election. But one of her recent corporate clients has been Mr. Allon’s Manhattan Media company, which owns community newspapers including The New York Press and City Hall. And when Mr. Allon began talking about running for mayor as a pragmatic non-ideologue, emphasizing education reform, job creation and economic development, she found his pitch so appealing that she dropped him as a corporate client and took him on as a political one.

“I found in our discussions that I like his ideas for New York City,” she said. “Education is crucial in terms of the future of this city and Tom understands, from both his education and business experience, how it all fits in.”

Ms. Darrison said that the Allon campaign had already set up about 50 house parties and fund-rais-ers for the fall, in hopes of raising the $500,000 to $1 million by January that the campaign believes would demonstrate to the political establishment that Mr. Allon is a viable candidate, and not an also-ran. People in the business, real estate and education community have been especially interested, she said.

Of course, Mr. Allon has a difficult challenge trying to join a group of possible mayoral rivals who have been on the public stage for years: Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker; Mr. de Blasio; Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president; and John C. Liu, the city comptroller. Mr. Allon must also overcome a deep-rooted sense of Bloomberg fatigue, or even anger, among rabid Democratic primary voters. After all, he has long been an avid supporter of the mayor, and the Bloomberg campaign placed $2 million worth of ads in Mr. Allon’s newspapers in 2009.