In November, both the Assembly and the Senate were called back into special session by the Governor to create a budget deficit reduction plan to close the largest budget deficit ever faced by our State. After several weeks of negotiation, the Assembly, Senate and Governor reached agreement on a budget deficit reduction plan. While further budget cuts will need to be made next spring, we were able to stave off mid-year cuts to education.
We need to grow our way out of this financial crisis and make better budget choices. We must stop the practice of contracting services to out-of-state private consultants. Consultants, on average, charge 54 percent more than state employees who do the same work (including the cost of benefits). Another better budget choice is implementing a new law which will allow the state to collect taxes on all cigarette products currently sold at Native American retail outlets. We cannot continue to cut programs and services without jeopardizing the state’s economic recovery.
During the special session, several new laws were passed as well. We passed groundbreaking legislation to reform public authorities, including increased financial oversight, Senate confirmation of certain authority appointments and compliance with existing minority and women owned business law. We corrected a loophole to extend COBRA benefits to more New Yorkers, strengthened drunk driving regulations, authorized a loan program to help municipalities incentivize energy efficiency home and business improvements and created a new pension tier for state employees.
Unfortunately, one important piece of legislation did not pass—marriage equality. My Assembly colleagues and I again voted to allow same-sex couples to marry, but when the issue came to a vote in the Senate it lost by a margin of fourteen votes. Going forward, I will continue to voice my strong support for marriage equality.
As we prepare to celebrate the holiday season with family and friends, let us remember the countless New Yorkers who are struggling to make ends meet this year. These thoughts certainly will be with me as we continue working to solve this budget crisis.
Joan L. Millman
Member of Assembly
While I readily acknowledge that the arena, the affordable housing and the union construction jobs that the Atlantic Yards Project initially promised to us were beneficial to Brooklyn, I oppose the government subsidies that have been secretively and irresponsibly given to the developer. It was, and still is, too high of a price for the public to pay. Four years later, the price has risen even higher and the public benefits have all but disappeared. The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), which is supposed to be accountable to the people of New York State, has instead repeatedly bent over backwards to accommodate the developer at our expense.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), another state agency, has also inexplicably bent over backwards to accommodate the developer. That’s why I joined State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Assemblymember Jim Brennan, NYC Councilmember Letitia James, NYPIRG/Straphangers Campaign and Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn in a lawsuit asking the court to annul the June 24th deal made by the MTA to sell the 8.5-acre Vanderbilt Rail Yard to developer Forest City Ratner.
The lawsuit seeks the cancellation of the MTA’s deal with Forest City Ratner because it violates requirements of the Public Authorities Accountability Act of 2005, which I co-sponsored. This law requires every public authority, including the MTA, to obtain an independent appraisal and seek out competitive offers for any property it is planning to sell. The MTA failed to fulfill either of these legal requirements when its Board approved the new deal to sell the Vanderbilt Yards to Forest City Ratner on June 24th of this year.
The Public Authorities Accountability Act, signed into law in 2006, is an attempt to rein in the secret deal-making and abuse of the public’s trust by New York State’s public authorities. The law brings necessary reform and transparency to the state’s often secretive public authorities and increases the effectiveness, accountability and openness of state government—which have been sadly absent from this entire process.
If the lawsuit is successful, it would disallow the transfer of the property until the MTA complies with the law. I decided to participate in the lawsuit because while we are struggling in Albany with a massive budget deficit and trying to prevent harmful cuts to education, health care and transit service, the MTA is giving away the Vanderbilt Yards to Forest City Ratner for less than half of the value that the MTA themselves appraised the land to be worth! Giving the developer a sweetheart deal and, in effect, throwing away $100 million in the process is certainly not acting in the best interests of the public.
Several federal tax credits created by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act are set to expire. These credits are available to those who qualify for specific programs such as college students, new vehicle owners, first time home owners and homeowners that are making energy improvements. For details on these tax credits and additional credits, visit http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=204335,00.html
College students and their families
The Hope and Lifetime Learning Credit provides a maximum annual credit of $2,500 per eligible student and is available to college students and their families who are filing for the 2009 and 2010 tax year. Individuals with a gross income of $80,000 or less, or married couples with a gross income of $160,000 or less may qualify for this tax credit. This credit can be used to help cover the cost of tuition, books and other school related fees. In addition, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, there is also a program available to help students cover the costs of laptop computers and computer programs.
New vehicle owners
Owners of a new car, truck, motor home or motorcycle may be eligible for a tax credit. Those who have purchased a new vehicle between February 17, 2009, and December 31, 2009, may deduct up to $49,500 in state and local sales and excise taxes of the purchase price of the vehicle. Individuals with gross income of up to $135,000, and joint filers with gross income up to $260,000 can qualify for a tax credit.
First time home buyers
First time home buyers purchasing a home through April 30, 2010, and closing no later than June 30, 2010, may qualify for up to $8,000 in tax credits. Income levels have been increased for this credit to include individuals with a gross income up to $145,000, and up to $245,000 for joint filers. A new federal law also created a tax credit for homeowners purchasing a replacement principal residence. To be eligible, they must have lived in the same principal residence for a five year period during the previous eight years.
Homeowners making energy efficient improvements
For those who already own a home and are looking to save money on energy costs and receive a tax credit, an energy efficient home improvement may be the solution. Improvements include adding insulation, installing energy efficient exterior windows and using new energy-efficient heating and air conditioning systems. Current tax credits offer homeowners up to 30 percent in tax credits for an improvement that costs up to $1,500, and must be in place in 2010.
Several programs that assist people in paying high energy bills are available and our office can help you apply to them:
The Neighborhood Heating Fund
Starting December 9th, 2009, my office will be a center for processing applications for the Neighborhood Heating Fund, a program sponsored by National Grid and administered by Heartshare Human Services. Under this program qualified applicants may receive a one time grant for up to $200 off toward their National Grid bill. (Households may only apply for one grant per season.) The program is first come, first served and will end when the funds run out. The application is a simple one page form, which my staff can help you fill out. Applicants will need to show identification and income verification for everyone in their household, AND a current National Grid bill. Heartshare will verify all of the information. Please call my office starting December 9th to set up an appointment to come in and apply.
The Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP)
This federally funded financial assistance program is designed to help eligible low-income households pay energy bills. HEAP is open NOW and there is money available. There are two kinds of HEAP grants: regular and emergency grants. Depending on your financial situation you may qualify for both grants.
I strongly encourage you to take advantage of this program. For more information about HEAP, including what kinds of information you need to apply, call 1-800-692-0557. Please also call our office if you would like more information or help applying for HEAP.
Station Customer Assistance agents not only ensure the safety of subway riders; they also answer questions, provide directions, assist riders through the turnstiles, and monitor the cleanliness and conditions at their station. In order to encourage more people to use the city’s public transportation system, and discourage car travel, we need to ensure riders have a safe and pleasant experience.
The 2nd Place entrance was closed on September 15th due to nearby construction; however, the entrance at 2nd Street remained open. The MTA will retain the current hours of SCA staffing (6:00 a.m. until 9:15 p.m., Monday through Saturday) at the President Street entrance until the 2nd Place entrance can be safely reopened.
I want to thank the MTA for recognizing the need to retain the SCA agent at this entrance because safety cannot be compromised.
Wasting no time in getting to work, I co-chaired a hearing the next week with the Committee on Governmental Operations and the Committee on Ethics and Guidance to examine New York’s current enforcement and oversight of state officers and employees regarding compliance with the current ethics law. The hearing also examined new ethics changes and a new Government Ethics Commission proposed by Governor Paterson. This new entity would be independent and have jurisdiction over all of state government, the lobbying industry, and campaign finance laws. It would replace the Commission on Public Integrity and supersede the Legislative Ethics Commission and would be able to impose penalties on violations by state officers of the open meetings laws.
In October, I convened another hearing in conjunction with the Education Committee, Libraries and Education Technology Committee and the Subcommittee on Election Day Operations and Voter Disenfranchisement on the impact of the 2009-2010 State Budget on New York State’s implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) by the State and local Boards of Election, as well as its impact on other public entities that conduct elections, such as school districts, public and association libraries and fire districts. The hearing examined these issues to determine the need for legislation or other resources to promote the efficient administration of elections while reducing the fiscal impact of the new voting systems on counties.
The statewide transition to new voting systems over the next year raises many questions. On an administrative level, the fiscal and human resources necessary to run an election with the new voting systems must be reevaluated. The configuration of poll sites and the utilization of poll workers that were appropriate when using lever voting machines may be less than ideal or even disruptive to the electoral process.
A pilot program using the new voting systems occurred during the September Primary and again on Election Day in November. Reports from the September Primary indicated that the pilot program proceeded smoothly. Results from the new voting machines were 100% accurate. I traveled to Orange County on Election Day to witness the new optical-scan voting machines in action. The poll workers and voters I spoke with were all very enthusiastic about the new machines and reported no problems or concerns with the machines. One voter likened completing the paper ballot to “filling out a lottery ticket.” The ballots were then placed by the voter into the scanner and stored in a locked box to ensure secrecy. It was very informative to witness all of this in person.
There are still many questions that need to be addressed before the new machines are going to be used in the city. In light of the serious financial crisis our state is in, it must be asked if we can afford to buy these new machines. In other parts of the state there are school, library and fire districts which hold elections and the question of whether these entities, which are not subject to the federal HAVA law, should be permitted to keep using lever voting machines. Another relevant, and equally important, question is whether local boards of election should administer all elections of any type or whether the status quo, which allows various practices around the state, should continue.
In October, my office, along with State Senator Velmanette Montgomery and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez’s office, met with Walter Mugdan, EPA Region 2’s Director of the Division of Environmental Planning and Protection, to discuss the progress of the EPA’s exploration of the Gowanus Canal for inclusion on the National Priorities List (NPL). The EPA received over 800 comments from the public, of which over 85% were in favor of designating the canal as a Superfund site. Mr. Mugdan informed us that the agency is moving ahead with its investigation even as it is reviewing and responding to all of those comments. We were also told that there will probably not be a decision made until the spring of 2010 at the earliest.
While that investigative work is proceeding, the EPA has sent letters to over twenty companies and government entities, including the U.S. Navy and the City of New York, informing them that they have been identified as Potential Responsible Parties (PRPs). If the Gowanus Canal is designated as a Superfund Site, PRPs may be held liable to pay for a portion of the clean-up costs. In December, the EPA will be sending out a team to collect additional data to supplement the study conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Beginning January 1, 2010, public school teachers, staff and parents can receive notification and instructions via phone call, text message and e-mail in the event of a school emergency. The Public Schools Emergency Act, which I co-sponsored, requires New York City public schools to provide parents with up-to-date information. In addition, this new system will help emergency response personnel to better perform their duties. For more information, parents can contact my district office at 718-246-4889.
For 147 years Mercy Home, a non-sectarian, non-profit agency sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, Mid-Atlantic Community, has responded to the needs of children and adults with developmental disabilities and their families. In my district, the Harold Warren Residence provides a home and services for adults with disabilities.
Mercy Home has developed programs that make a difference in the lives of individuals with developmental challenges such as autism and intellectual disability. Mercy Home has 12 group homes in Brooklyn and Queens where over a hundred people with these disabilities live a full life. The staff at Mercy Home feels strongly that while children and adults with developmental challenges need coaching and support to do many of the things that come easily to most people, having a disability does not change a person’s desire to succeed, learn, grow and enjoy life. Participants in Mercy Homes’ programs can access education and therapy services and also enjoy activities that allow each person to fulfill their social and creative potential. At one residence you’ll see their adult performance band, Melodic Soul, practicing their tunes for a gig at a local senior center. Or maybe you’ll see a group of budding artists in Prospect Park learning how to sketch a nature scene. Participants can also choose to shop, bowl, participate in Special Olympics, go to movies or take part in religious services.
In addition to these programs, Mercy Home provides free respite services on Saturdays throughout the year for adults and children with developmental delays who live with their families. For children on the autism spectrum, Mercy Home has two Creative Arts Centers where the children participate in free music, art and dance therapy sessions and begin to unlock the possibilities for learning and socialization through the arts. And Mercy Home has a Medicaid Service Coordination Program for those families who need help finding just the right programs and services for their child. The staff at Mercy Home prides themselves on providing services with sensitivity and competence and I applaud their efforts. For more information on Mercy Home visit www.mercyhomeny.org or call them at 718-832-1075.
Have you recently lost your job? You may qualify for the following benefits. Here are some tips to help you get your feet back on the ground.
Claim unemployment benefits
If you have had sufficient employment, lost your job through no fault of your own and are ready, willing and able to work, you probably qualify for unemployment payments through New York State’s Department of Labor. To claim unemployment benefits online, visit https://ui.labor.state.ny.us/UBC/home.do or to claim benefits by phone, call 1-888-209-8124.
Get extended health coverage under COBRA
COBRA benefits are group health insurance available to individuals that have lost their job or voluntarily left a job through which they received health insurance. While your premium will increase under a COBRA plan, it is a good idea to keep your health care coverage. Spouses and dependent children are also eligible for coverage under a COBRA plan. Legislation I co-sponsored and which has been signed into law now extends COBRA benefits from 18 months to 36 months.
Visit a Workforce 1 Center
At a New York City Workforce 1 Center, you can receive assistance in finding a job through career counseling, job search resource rooms, job interview advice, help drafting resumes and cover letters as well as job placement services. Additionally, Workforce 1 Centers can help you prepare for a job by providing career workshops, GED and ESL classes, and vouchers for job training. All newcomers are encouraged to attend an orientation session.
Brooklyn’s Workforce 1 Career Center is located at:
10 MetroTech Center
625 Fulton Street, Suite 4-100
Brooklyn, NY 11201
In addition, through the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, job placement resources are available on the web, at http://www.otda.state.ny.us/main/workingfamilies/jobplacement.asp. Also, training grants are available through the New York State Department of Labor. For more information, you can visit http://www.labor.state.ny.us/etp/default.asp.
Caregivers and older adults and their families will be pleased to know that the Heights and Hill Community Council now serves an increased area, due to a consolidation of services by the New York City Department for the Aging. The area now served by Heights and Hill includes the neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Clinton Hill, Cobble Hill, Crown Heights, Flatbush, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, Red Hook, Sunset Park, and Windsor Terrace. Case managers can visit clients in their homes, and offer an array of social services, such as home assessment, home and care arrangements, arranging meals on wheels, long-term monitoring, screening for nursing home placement, counseling, consultation, placement, information referral, crisis intervention, access to entitlements and services, financial management, psychotherapy, family therapy, and arrangements for services. Heights and Hill is located at 57 Willoughby Street and can be reached at 718-596-8789 or on the web at www.heightsandhill.org.