About thirty local residents, your correspondent included, braved biting winds and a fierce flurry to get to 55 Pierrepont Street for last night’s community meeting, hosted by State Senator Daniel Squadron. On our arrival, the Senator’s Chief of Staff, John Raskin, treated us to Oreos and milk as tokens of regret for Sen. Squadron’s unavoidable delay. The Senator arrived promptly at the revised starting time of 7:00 p.m., and began by stating why he was having this meeting with constituents, as well as others in different neighborhoods in his district. He summed it up with, “I really believe in representative democracy.” He said he wanted to discuss both issues of specific concern to this community and concerns about state government as a whole, and began by inviting questions about community problems.
The first question was from Vicky Campbell, an architect and Columbia Heights resident, who complained of continuing helicopter noise. Apparently referring to the deal struck this past April, she said, “Nothing done last year was worthwhile.” Sen. Squadron agreed that the problem had not been solved, but said the April agreement had achieved some progress. In particular, he said, the establishment of a protocol for reporting helicopter noise complaints to 311 meant that there is now a means to prove that there is a continuing problem. He said the April agreement provided that “short loop” tourist flights, which came close to the Promenade and overflew Pier 1 of Brooklyn Bridge Park, were to be discontinued as of June 30; however, they actually continued until September 30. As of now, he said, all chopper flights over Brooklyn are either law enforcement or news. Ms. Campbell disputed this, saying that some of the choppers still overflying the Heights were on tourist runs. She said she had called the manager of the Downtown Heliport to complain that these choppers were violating the April agreement, and had been told “not to believe the politicians”, that the choppers flew in accordance with the prevailing winds, not by the dictates of the “agreement”. Sen. Squadron asked if she had the name of the person who said this. She said she didn’t, but would try to get it for him. She was also urged to call 311 with all chopper noise complaints, so they would register in the data base.
The next topic raised was that of funding for Brooklyn Bridge Park. In response to a comment that the Bloomberg administration appears to want to have all public amenities, and even such essential services as emergency response, be financially self-sustaining, Sen. Squadron said, “We shouldn’t have a pay-for-service public sector.” With regard to financing BBP maintenance, he said the committee established to study alternatives to housing as revenue sources is seriously considering such options, including tax revenues from the Jehovah’s Witness buildings when they are sold and go onto the tax rolls, increased tax revenues from other buildings within the Park’s catchment area, and revenues from concessions. Bronson Binger, an architect and Hicks Street resident, questioned the Park’s budget. Sen. Squadron said much of it was amortization of work on “marine infrastructure”. Columbia Heights resident Tony Manheim asked if the committee studying alternatives to housing was considering the hotel and condominium complex projected to be built upland of Pier 1. Sen. Squadron said that is within the committee’s mandate.
The next topic considered was transportation. One elderly attendee complained bitterly of the cancellation of the 51 bus, which provided a surface link between Brooklyn and Manhattan. She said many of the elderly or disabled were unable to have access to the subway, especially with escalators not working. Sen. Squadron agreed that the cancellation was “terrible”, and said he wanted all MTA services that had been cut restored. He noted the action taken to get the escalator at High Street fixed, as well as successful efforts to improve service on the “F” subway line. However, he said, many problems remain. The MTA needs more funds, and its management is not sufficiently transparent. Brooklyn Heights Association Executive Director Judy Stanton suggested tolls on East River bridges as a source of additional funds for the MTA. Sen. Squadron agreed. There were also complaints about the cost and reliability of Access-a-Ride service. Sen. Squadron said it needs a better dispatch system. Noting that Access-a-Ride is in the jurisdiction of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, he said he frequently speaks with David Yassky about it.
Turning to statewide issues, Sen. Squadron said that during his first term in the Senate several important things had been accomplished; among them were repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws, enactment of a “green jobs” bill, increased progressivity of the state’s tax system, and elimination of the Senate majority leader’s power to block consideration of bills. He regretted the failure to enact marriage equality. He also lamented the Governor’s veto of an ethics bill, but promised to keep working for reform in the areas of ethics, redistricting (he noted that many legislators have signed the “Koch pledge” to cede power over drawing the boundaries of their own districts), rules, and campaign finance. The last, he said, was the key to improvement in other areas. Responding to questions, he said that the 2010 state budget was one of the worst ever, but that stimulus money saved it from being even worse, and that the problem of unfunded pension liabilities could be alleviated by giving state and city executives the power to negotiate reasonable contracts. If the Republicans succeed in regaining control of the State Senate, he said, the task of reforming state government could become more difficult.
Asked about increases in tuition at CUNY colleges, Sen. Squadron said that the Tuition Assistance Program needed to be funded to keep pace with such increases so that those needing financial assistance would not be excluded. He lamented the Governor’s veto of the bill banning hydrofracking for natural gas, and said that rules must be established that provide effective and permanent protection for the New York City watershed.