Volume 16 • Issue 15 | September 9 - 15, 2003


Disputes over Downtown billions

By Josh Rogers

Downtown leaders differed last week over whether the rebuilding aid from Washington was being spent quickly enough.

Photos by Brett C Vermilyea

Sheldon Silver

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller released a letter to President George W. Bush criticizing him for not delivering on all of $21.4 billion in aid he promised Lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 terror attack. In addition, the Democratic legislators, who were joined at a press conference by U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Councilmember Alan Gerson, said the aid that had already reached the state level was not being spent quickly enough.

“Getting money early is better than waiting to get it late,” said Maloney, adding that delays would reduce the benefits of the aid.

But Madelyn Wils and Carl Weisbrod, two people who generally have been allied with the politicians at last week’s conference, said in separate interviews that a lot of the money under state control should not be spent on things like important transportation projects until it is clear exactly how much all of the projects would cost and what can be accomplished with the money.

“I think it is important to spend this money wisely,” Weisbrod said. He is the president of the Downtown Alliance, which manages Lower Manhattan’s business improvement district and along with Wils, the chairperson of Community Board 1, is a member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.

There is currently not enough money for all of the transportation projects under debate – which include a Downtown link to J.F.K. Airport and the Long Island Rail Road (initially estimated to be about $2 billion - $4 billion depending upon which plan is done), a tunnel under West St. ($860 million), and the renovation of the South Ferry subway station ($400 million). There is general agreement to build transportation hubs at the W.T.C. site and the Broadway-Nassau-Fulton station and an underground pedestrian tunnel linking the two.

The two L.M.D.C. directors do agree with the Downtown pols that there needs to be clearer itemization of the $21.4 billion, which was approved by Congress after the president’s promise. They also agree that they want to make sure all of the money reaches Lower Manhattan.

City Comptroller William Thompson, released a report last week saying as much of $3.7 billion of the aid was in danger of being lost. The largest, and perhaps the most likely piece in danger is about $2 billion of the $5.5 billion in tax incentives passed by Congress.

Some of the tax money is to support tax-free Liberty Bonds, which are used for residential and office development and which expire at the end of next year. Some Downtowners are pushing to extend the expiration date and Weisbrod said consideration should also be given to shifting some of the tax package to other priorities such as the airport link.

Thompson also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had not fully accounted for the $8.8 billion it controlled in Bush’s package. After Thompson’s report was released, FEMA issued a press release identifying how it had spent the money.

In it, Michael D. Brown, undersecretary for Homeland Security, which now includes FEMA, said: “President Bush made a commitment to the people of New York that the federal government would support the city and state’s extraordinary response and recovery efforts. Over the past two years, we have worked closely with the city and state of New York to ensure that the president’s commitment is upheld, and will continue to support them in their long term recovery efforts.”

A FEMA source said Thompson was working with numbers that were six months old.

Jeff Simmons, Thompson’s spokesperson, said over the last two years, the comptroller’s office had “repeatedly” requested information from FEMA and staffers were forced to piece together info from press releases because they never received any documents from FEMA.

Rep. Maloney, whose staff prepared their own report on the $21.4 billion, said the problem of not getting information on the aid, extended to all of the relevant agencies in the Bush administration

A spokesperson for the White House’s Office of Management and Budget did not return a call.

Subsequent to Bush’s promise, O.M.B. director Mitch Daniels once accused New Yorkers of acting like “money grubbers.”

John Whitehead, L.M.D.C. chairperson, told Downtown Express that he had no doubt in the president’s commitment to deliver the money. “It’s all there and we’re very grateful,” said Whitehead, who has met with Bush about Lower Manhattan.

Reacting to news accounts about Maloney’s charges, Whitehead said: “I thought she was off base…. We want to make sure the money is well spent. Our intent is not to make sure the money is spent fast.”

Assembly Speaker Silver said the L.M.D.C. is sitting on $1.1 billion in federal aid. “That money is tied up by the governor – no one else,” Silver said. Although the mayor now appoints half the L.M.D.C. board members, the agency was created by Pataki, who appointed Whitehead, Wils – at the insistence of Silver — and has selected the agency’s first two presidents

Silver also said Gov. George Pataki has helped the president and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay raise money even though both have worked against the interests of the state.

“That political influence, political help has to be translated in terms of helping New York,” said Silver.

Spokespersons for Pataki did not return two calls for comment.

Council Speaker Miller said he thought next year’s Republican convention in New York City could be used as leverage to get more help from the Bush administration.

“The convention is an opportunity for the administration to show what it has done and for others to show what it hasn’t done,” said Miller. “It’s going to be a problem for [Bush] and it’s something we can take advantage of.”

He said that $21 billion is at most, one quarter of the economic devastation New York suffered from because of the attack. “Every estimate suggests the economic impact was at least 85, if not 95 or possibly $100 billion.”

Nadler added that Congressional support for the city seems like a thing of the past. “After 9/11, there was a lot of sympathy for New York,” he said. “That has worn off.”

Josh@DowntownExpress.com


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