Council Member Costa Constantinides
State of the District Address
Delivered at P.S. 17 on January 30th, 2018
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you all for coming tonight. First let me thank Principal Heyward and the wonderful staff here at PS 17 for hosting us tonight. I want to give a shout out to my colleagues in government, including Public Advocate Letitia James and Council Member and Queens Delegation Chair Karen Koslowitz. And last but not by any means the least, I want to give an especially warm welcome and shout out to my good friend and colleague, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson! Corey has been a stalwart partner in government over the last few years, and he’s spent almost as much time here here in the community as I have, and he loves Greek food too.
Let me say first that the resounding vote of confidence you gave me, my staff, and our work, last November meant more to us than you can ever know. Every day I am mindful of the charge you have tasked me with and the work that has yet to be done for our community and our city. With everything happening in Washington, it’s only made all the more critical that men and women of integrity and fidelity to the enduring American ideal that there must and will be liberty and justice for all. Indeed, we are at a turning point in our nation’s history, and we are now being presented with stark choices as to which path we take.
One path, that I’m sure you’ll hear more about later tonight during the President’s State of the Union Address, will see us regress as a society in ways that could not have been imagined a year ago. We would see the abdication of our role as a world leader in almost every context, from trade to global security, to the fight against climate change. We would see the virtual pillage of the federal treasury for the benefit of those least in need. And we would see the greatest abuses of power and federal law enforcement resources since the days of J. Edgar Hoover.
The other path takes us along the road that leaders from both sides of the aisle worked so hard to trek over the course of our history. Along this path America gained the confidence it needed to wield its great strength against the forces of tyranny. While walking this path America also learned the value of more fully living up to that timeless creed that ALL – men and women – are created equal, and that each and every one of us has an equal claim to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And we also learned along this path that only by coming together are we able to triumph against the problems that have confronted us as a people. It’s not coincidence that E Pluribus Unum came into use as this country’s first motto. We learned early in our nation’s history that “out of many, one” is not just a maxim – it is a vital strategy for survival for a nation created as ours was.
This is the path that we must recommit ourselves to, and this more than anything is what I commit myself to in my remaining time in office. I have to admit, it is a bittersweet reality to face that there is now more time behind me as a Council Member than there is ahead of me. In some ways it is now a race against the clock to do as much as I can for western Queens in the time I have left.
First off, however, I am immensely proud of what we have accomplished so far. It seems like such a long time ago now that I was out pounding the pavement every day in the summer of 2013. I knocked on 12,000 doors that year, and at each one I talked about a number of ideas I had for how we can make our neighborhood a better place. Tonight I can report that my office has already completed the bulk of my original plan for a cleaner, greener western Queens. I’m most proud, however, that my three big priorities during that campaign – the expansion of Mount Sinai, getting rid of trailers in our schools, and cleaning up the dirty power plants – have been substantially completed.
After four years of work, the expanded Mount Sinai on 30th Avenue is nearly complete. Already we have seen new state of the art emergency and outpatient imaging facilities, specialized equipment, and top class doctors and surgeons coming to the hospital. This year, Mount Sinai will be adding an upgraded and expanded acute stroke center thanks in part to a $1.8 million investment by the Council’s Queens delegation. Every second counts when it comes to treating acute strokes, so having this facility here in western Queens will literally save lives. In total, the Council invested over $7 million in Mount Sinai Queens in my first term. Even that number, however, pales in comparison to the incalculable value of every moment and memory gained with a loved one that may have otherwise been lost.
We in government must be mindful that these moments in time are ever fleeting and that deferring a project – to us, shifting around budget allocations, for instance – can impose a human cost. For several decades, children all over New York City have had opportunities to play in their schoolyards taken from them because the space was being occupied by a trailer. That’s time they’ll never get back. This was why I fought so hard to get the “transportable classroom units” out of our schoolyards.
Originally built as temporary units to house students due to overcrowding, classroom trailers have become a serious challenge to educators and students. They frequently lack adequate lighting, ventilation, heat, and bathrooms. These trailers were built to be in service temporarily but have become permanent fixtures. In fact, the story my former staffer and now Assemblymember Brian Barnwell tells is a perfect illustration of this. He was still a student at PS 151 when the trailers took over much of the schoolyard, and it wasn’t until after his election to the Assembly at the age of 30 that the trailers will finally be removed!
Borough President Melinda Katz and I repeatedly heard from constituents, parents, educators, and students about the need to remove the trailers from schools in our district. We made their removal a key priority and worked collaboratively with the School Construction Authority over the past few years to accomplish this goal. I’m proud that by the end of my term in office, trailers will be removed from PS 151, PS 70, and PS 2. It’s simply inexcusable that it took this long to get the units out of these schoolyards – and that we still have more units to retire. For the over 250 students that used those trailers, however, this marks a new beginning for their academic career.
Finally, we worked hard to get dirty fuel oils out of our local power plants. I’m thrilled that, several weeks ago, the mayor signed into law the bill to speed up the phaseout of dirty 4 and 6 fuel oil in all New York City power plants. Before, plants were allowed to burn this fuel through 2030. Now, 4 and 6 oil must be phased out by 2025 at the latest. That’s five fewer years of these dirty oils burning in our plants, and five fewer years of the emissions they create. That’s five fewer years of the pollutants that cause children in New York City to develop asthma at twice the national rate. With this bill, the city will see emissions reductions of up to 125,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 3,600 tons of sulfur dioxide, 1,000 tons of particulate matter, and 3,500 tons of nitrogen oxides. I want to thank my colleague Ritchie Torres of the Bronx for his hard work on this bill as well.
I’m so proud that we were able to get results on all of these issues for the district. It’s vital that we in elected office do everything in our power to keep our promises, because we’ve seen what happens when people lose faith with our political process. We’ve seen what happens when people hear the siren song of cheap slogans and slick sales pitches. Now, more than ever, it’s up to us in government at all levels to demonstrate what it means to be responsible and responsive servants of the people.
We also have to show that we can build a track record of getting real results for our constituents. That’s why this fiscal year’s budget was so crucial for our neighborhood – our office was able to secure funding for a number of different initiatives. First and foremost, we were able to continue investing in education, including new and innovative equipment for our schools. Last year, I told you about my Science 2050 Initiative, where I planned to allocate a million dollars a year to science and technology programs in our schools. This year, I’m proud to announce that Phase 2 of this initiative is already underway, and that 900,000 dollars will be invested across all our district schools for new computers, laptops, and SmartBoards, as well as $160,000 dollars each at PS 84 and IS 126 for new hydroponic science labs. Additionally, we’ve allocated $1.1 million dollars towards installing solar panels on PS 122, thanks in part to a generous allocation by Borough President Katz. Finally, I am already hard at work planning Phase 3 of the initiative, and fear not, Principal Heyward, I’ve got you covered – PS 17 is at the top of the list for the next round of schools getting a hydroponic science lab!
Our city must be at the forefront of the burgeoning global knowledge economy. That’s why it’s so important that we invest, not only in our schools, but our libraries as well. I was thrilled when former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito secured $3 million in funding for the Queens Library Astoria branch on 14th Street and Astoria Boulevard. This is the largest allocation that this branch has received in decades and will go towards making the entire building ADA accessible, improvements to the children’s room, and other upgrades.
Some of the funding for these projects was secured through last year’s participatory budgeting process. It was, without a doubt, our most successful year yet, with a record breaking 3,617 votes cast. The winning projects included the funding for the Astoria library, solar panels for the Steinway library on 31st Street, tech upgrades for both libraries, bus countdown clocks, and new trees. Our participatory budgeting volunteers are finalizing this year’s ballot so stay tuned!
We also continued our investment on Hallet’s Cove Peninsula, including $3 million dollars for improvements at Hallets Cove Playground to upgrade the empty asphalt blacktop into a multi-purpose ballfield, and $1 million dollars for upgrading the lighting at the Astoria Houses parking lot and installing new closed-circuit TV cameras inside the stairwells. Whitey Ford Field will also be upgraded with $2 million in funding thanks in part to Borough President Melinda Katz.
Finally, our commitment to cleaner streets will continue as well. Thanks in part to the Cleaner NYC initiative, we’ve been able to allocate 250,000 dollars to keeping Astoria clean. This will enable us to keep bringing the dedicated men and women from ACE to sweep up our main thoroughfares and remove graffiti where it pops up.
I’m honored to be able to have another four years to work to keep our city cleaner and greener, as I’ve been re-appointed as the chair of the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee. I want to thank Speaker Johnson again for giving me an opportunity to build on the work that the committee has done on sustainability, air quality, and ensuring that our water infrastructure is kept in world class condition without unfairly burdening the water ratepayers. 2017 was one of the most productive years in a long time for the committee – and with good reason! We knew that, with Washington taking a hatchet to the EPA, we had our work cut out for us. With no false modesty, I believe we responded to the challenge, as we passed 16 bills over the course of the year, including legislation on building energy grades, flood mitigation in Southeast Queens, and requiring city buses and ferries to use alternative fuels such as biofuel when practical.
Our proudest moment, however, came when we passed the Environmental Justice Act. Unfortunately, it is often no coincidence that buildings like power plants, factories, and waste facilities are located in poorer, and often non-white, neighborhoods. Asthma rates, developmental delays, and other health problems are much higher in these neighborhoods than elsewhere. Getting these bills passed after a decade of fighting was one of the high points of the term.
Although it is a new term, there is still so much left to do to make our city more green and sustainable. My environmental agenda moving forward has several major components. First, we must continue to cut emissions in our buildings. New York City’s buildings account for around 70 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions, and more than half of all built square footage in the city is in buildings 25,000 square feet and over. Commercial space alone represents 3% of the city’s total buildings, and 29% of the emissions. This is in stark contrast to the city’s stock of one to four family units, which represent 82% of the total floor space but only 19% of the emissions. That’s why we need to start the conversation with these larger buildings.
I will soon introduce a bill to reduce emissions in these buildings. First, it will set a cap for the amount of fossil fuels that can be burned on site. This will not only reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, but will also reduce neighborhood-level air pollution. Secondly, it will also set an overall energy target, including electricity usage, that large buildings must meet. Requiring that large buildings work to reduce their electricity consumption will ease the strain on our grid and lessen the burden on our local power plants.
To be sure, this is an incredibly complex bill, and it will require a great deal of input from different stakeholders from all walks of life. We owe it to you, however, to make sure we get this one right. If done correctly, this legislation could give us up to 10% reduction in our city’s greenhouse gas emissions, the largest in city history from any single policy. That’s millions of tons of carbon dioxide kept out of our atmosphere permanently!
Of course, if we really want to get our buildings on a more sustainable path, we also need to ensure that property owners have all the tools available to them to go green. This means making it as easy as possible to get approval for renewable energy projects such as wind and solar. This year I am reintroducing two bills that will help grow the wind energy sector in New York City. The first bill will set basic standards for small wind turbines that can be installed on buildings. Currently, the lack of standards for wind turbines means that property owners that want to install one must get special permits from the Department of Buildings. As anyone who’s dealt with DOB knows, even the most garden variety projects can often ensnare you in endless strands of red tape. When you add cutting edge technology on top of that, you’re only complicating it further. By setting basic turbine standards, we will give the city a metric by which all wind turbines can be evaluated, making it much easier for DOB and other city agencies to evaluate projects.
We also need to know where the best areas for wind power are in the city, so that property owners will know up front whether the investment is worth it for them. That’s why my second wind bill directs the city to survey the areas that have the best potential for wind power generation. Anyone who is interested in installing a turbine will be able to see this map and determine if wind power is the best renewable system for them, or whether they should go with something else. We already have a good solar map thanks to the hard work of CUNY and other groups, but now it’s time to supplement it with a wind map as well.
As we know, there simply is no debate over the existence of man-made climate change. The science has shown this, the data has shown this, and increasingly, our lived experience has shown this. Over the last decade, nearly every region of this planet has endured an unnatural amount of warmth, chill, storms, flooding, wildfires, or other disastrous weather events. And this comes with a cost – in 2015, Citibank estimated that the cost of inaction could rise as high as $44 trillion by 2060. And while it’s the major storms – Sandy, Harvey, Maria – that understandably get the lion’s share of the public’s attention, millions more will experience climate change not as a single catastrophic event, but as a minor nuisance that grows and grows into a major one. Already, communities from Fort Lauderdale, to Tybee Island, Georgia, to Amityville and beyond, are seeing increased tidal flooding year after year. It’s more than likely that this nuisance flooding will continue to creep inland over the next several decades, which is why we need to plan for it now.
That’s why myself and my colleagues Donovan Richards, Daneek Miller, and Adrienne Adams of southeast Queens will soon be introducing legislation to direct the city to study current and anticipated flood patterns and come up with a comprehensive plan to mitigate it. Northwest and southeast Queens are the front lines in our borough for this flooding and are home to half a million New Yorkers as well as much of the city’s most sensitive infrastructure including airports and power plants.
I also intend to keep up the fight against asthma this term. Late last year, I introduced two pieces of legislation to make it easier to manage asthma in New York City. The first would require the city to report on asthma prevalence and hospitalization rates across different communities and break down the data by age, race, and educational status. While the city Department of Health has done a better job of presenting asthma statistics over the last few years, the fact remains that we need more comprehensive data presented at regular intervals in order to best tailor our policy responses. Knowledge is power, and with this knowledge, we will be able to allocate our resources more effectively.
We also need to ensure that children have access to the asthma medicine they need to function. While some children with asthma can get by with an emergency inhaler, others may need a nebulizer, which administers a larger dose of albuterol over a longer period of time. Unfortunately, most of our schools do not have nebulizers. What’s more, the state legislature passed a law 10 years ago mandating that every school in New York State with a nurse have a nebulizer – and then neglected to appropriate the funding to actually pay for them! If Albany can’t get its act together here, New York City will have to step in and take care of this ourselves. That’s why my second bill on asthma prevention will be to require nebulizers in every city school. I will also be working closely with my co-prime sponsor on this legislation, former Health Committee Chair, and now Speaker, Corey Johnson to ensure that our bill does not fall into the same funding black hole as the state bill did.
Finally, I’ll also be introducing a new bill to require schools to report on whether students with asthma are submitting asthma action plans, where school nurses are given instructions on how to treat a specific student’s asthma symptoms, and whether those students have needed to use their action plans. It’s critical to determine if the system we’ve put into place is actually working for our students – and if not, we need to figure out what we can do differently.
In my first term, I made the restoration of Astoria Park a priority. Two years ago, in my State of the District address, I announced my plan to secure 15 million dollars in funding for the park. Last year, thanks to the Anchor Parks initiative, we were able to secure 30 million dollars for the park that would cover the bulk of the work needed on rebuilding pathways and erosion control, as well as bringing a full size soccer field to Astoria and refurbishing Charybdis Playground.
In this term, however, I want to focus on the pool complex. Opened in July 1936, the sleek, Art Mo-derne facility was one of the finest projects to come out of the collaboration between Robert Moses and FDR’s Works Progress Administration. Like the iconic structures of the New York World’s Fair that opened several years later, the sleek architecture came to symbolize the future, and the promise of a better tomorrow. The pool became an immediate hit. Even now, more than 75 years after its opening, it continues to be one of the best places to spend a summer afternoon in Queens. As with any structure that old, however, the time is fast approaching where a number of renovations will be needed to keep the complex in good condition. That’s what I am committing to tonight as one of the main goals of my second term.
The first thing that needs to be addressed is the locker rooms. While they are certainly functional, it’s fair to say that they could also really use a facelift – and have needed it for some time. That’s why the first thing on the agenda will be a complete overhaul of the locker rooms to bring them up to modern standards. Secondly, we need to start thinking bigger picture. Right now, the pool can obviously only be used during the summer months. With a full overhaul of the pool’s basin and deck, however, the possibility of having the space available for year round programming opens up to us. Now, let’s be clear – this will be a larger capital expense by far than any I have undertaken, and it will not be completed before I leave office. All of us, however, have a responsibility to ensure that we leave things better than we found them, and while it will be daunting, I believe that we can do it.
As I said several years ago, one of the central tasks before us is fighting to ensure that people can go to bed secure in the knowledge that their homes will not be taken from them by rising rents or by rising seas. Throughout my time in government, few problems seemed so daunting and intractable as the fight to keep Astoria affordable. This affordability crisis hits our seniors especially hard. Most of them want to stay in the neighborhood they’ve called home for so long, but thousands simply can’t manage it on a fixed income. What’s more, this problem is almost guaranteed to get worse, as the senior population has grown at twice the rate of the population as a whole over the last decade.
A neighborhood is more than just a particular set of buildings, streets, and storefronts. It is the place where the very foundations of our civic society are rooted. Just as no building could stand on its own without a solid foundation, a neighborhood is not truly a community without those most deeply rooted, and who have borne the burden of supporting everything to come. We are simply not the same community without our seniors, and that is why, tonight, I am announcing my plan to build at least 500 new units of senior affordable housing here in western Queens by the end of my term. I am already hard at work coordinating with potential community partners and non-profits who are looking for opportunities to build. Our office has gotten too many anguished pleas for help finding decent housing, and we have a duty to act now.
Of course, it is also the duty of those of us in government to ensure that the monetary contributions you make – your tax dollars – are spent fairly and prudently. Additionally, we must ensure that, when the tax collector comes around, the process is as painless and as transparent as possible. Unfortunately, when it comes to collecting your property taxes, this is something that we as a city haven’t done all that well. Far too many constituents have come to me with stories of their tax exemptions being mysteriously revoked. They have not been given any explanation as to why their exemption has been revoked, and what they may be able to do to contest it. Anyone that tries to contact the city Department of Finance directly is handed over to a general hotline – there is no system, online or otherwise, for you to verify that your documentation is correct or whether anything you’ve already submitted is being processed.
Here in Queens, where many of our single family homeowners are seniors on fixed incomes, even a single quarter with a miscalculated tax bill can be ruinous. We have hundreds of non-profits, including churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and others of all sizes who often must operate on slim budgets and need specialized help. That’s why I recently introduced a bill that will direct the Department of Finance to create a website where anyone can view their property tax exemption status. Under this new website, property owners would be able to pay their taxes, directly submit questions to the DOF, and view their records. They’d be able to access specific information regarding their properties including applications for exemptions like the Senior Citizen Homeowners’ Exemption, status of exemptions, date by which they’d need to apply to renew an exemption, or whether anything has expired in their record. If a property owner’s application is rejected, they must tell you why. Property owners will also be able to set up alerts for any changes.
These are simple, common sense things that already exist on other government platforms, and the fact that the Council may have to pass legislation to create this system is very disappointing. But if we’re going to ask you to pay substantial sums of your hard earned money to fund the government, the government needs to uphold its end of the bargain and give you all the tools it can to manage your payments.
We’re committed to the idea of better government, rather than to just blaming government and slashing it – and part of that means ensuring an equitable taxation formula. Our city’s property taxes are calculated in archaic ways that haven’t kept up with the reality of residents. Neighborhoods where property values have increased in the past few decades are still subject to caps while areas with high percentages of renters like Astoria are getting hurt because these rules haven’t kept up with the times. Our neighborhood gets more expensive and people struggle to keep their homes.
Tonight I’m announcing my support of Tax Equity New York’s lawsuit to require equity in property taxes across the city. There is simply no valid reason for renters in Astoria and East Elmhurst, or homeowners in Bayside or Rosedale, for that matter, to subsidize the hottest neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Doing what we can to help our fellow New Yorkers is part of what makes us who we are, and I believe that this is the right thing to do.
Now, with all that said, I’m now going to do something that perhaps no sane politician would ever do, and that is to defend taxes. Don’t laugh! I see some of you looking at me like I have three heads right now – and don’t get me wrong, I certainly can’t blame you for that. I too went through that ancient rite of passage where, upon completing your first day or week of your first job, you pick up your paycheck. How exciting that moment is! The possibilities seem endless. And then you look down… and see how you were shorted a decent chunk of change. What is this? Where did it go? What the heck is FICA? It’s completely natural to feel frustrated by that – especially during times when the cost of living is rising, wages have stagnated for decades, and dollars seem like they must be made to stretch further and further.
It’s critical, however, that in a time when the hard right controls the levers of power in Washington and elsewhere, we remember what we get for our taxes and fees. We have great local schools like the one hosting us tonight. We have some of the best drinking water in the country – 90% of which doesn’t even need filtration because it’s maintained so well. We have social services that are there to pick us up and dust us off when we need it.
Compare this to other places around the country. In Kansas and Oklahoma, some schools had to go to 4 day weeks, pre-K classes could not afford to enroll more children, and some highway police stations couldn’t even afford to fill the gas tanks of their squad cars. In Michigan, the City of Flint could not afford its traditional water supply, so it was forced to switch to the contaminated Flint River as a primary source – with disastrous results that will reverberate for generations. Each of these states fell under an ideology that gamed the system, putting more and more into the pockets of the wealthy and the corporate entities they control, regardless of the human cost. Now, regrettably, we may well see this cycle play out on a national level, as the tax bill passed by the Republican Congress and signed by President Trump creates the same incentives for the wealthiest and most powerful to game the system, leaving the rest of us with the bill.
What’s more, the bill differs from previous Republican tax cuts. With this bill, the GOP has chosen to not just reward their supporters, but punish the opposition. By capping the amount that we can deduct from our state and local taxes, they are attempting to sabotage our city and state programs. That New York only gets back 84 cents for every dollar it sends to Washington, or an estimated $40.9 billion in tax payments in 2016, doesn’t matter in the slightest. As far as I’m concerned, we’re being penalized for believing that it’s government’s duty to care for those who are unable to care for themselves.
Last year, I talked about the resurgence of backlash politics, and the harm likely to come to all of us when these regressive forces are unleashed. Unfortunately, we have now seen exactly what that means when put into practice. “Cutting red tape” has turned into allowing payday loan sharks to operate with impunity and giving pharmaceutical lobbyists carte blanche to rewrite federal regulations. “Draining the swamp” becomes rampant cronyism, nepotism, and a pay to play system unheard of in modern American politics. And, of course, “making America great again” becomes a policy of systematic cruelty towards all those who do not fit in Donald Trump’s vision of America.
You’ll probably hear some of those phrases later tonight. But here’s what you won’t hear. It’s unlikely that you’ll hear about Bablu Sharif, a hardworking father and husband from Woodside who was unceremoniously deported in October. It’s also unlikely that you’ll hear about the thousands of Salvadorans, Haitians, and DACA recipients from all over the world that are our friends and neighbors here in Queens who do not know if they’ll be able to celebrate another holiday season in the land they’ve come to know as their home. You may hear about the Department of Health and Human Services’ new “Conscience” division, but will you hear about the women in need of family planning services or members of the LGBT community who are likely to suffer when doctors can turn them away with impunity? I doubt it.
I began tonight by talking about two paths for this country. There could not be a more stark difference between these paths, and I firmly believe that, as New Yorkers and members of the most diverse community in the country, we know which path we want to take. We want to choose the path of community and friendship, not of distrust and fear. We will continue fighting for the Queens of people like Mario Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro, Jackie Robinson, Roy Wilkins – the Queens of Bablu Sharif – the Queens that truly embodies the idea of unity in diversity. Out of many, one.
As one, we will look out for our neighbors, and let them know that we will protect them, and that they do not need to be afraid. As one, we will safeguard our natural resources and our public institutions for generations yet to come. And as one, we will show our native son in the Oval Office that it is tolerance and love, not division and discord, that lie at the heart of the Queens we love and that light the path to our future. That is how you create a more perfect district, and a more perfect union. Thank you and goodnight.