2006-04-21 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach


The word 'extort" is defined in The American Heritage Dictionary as "to obtain from another by coercion or intimidation. It is the "illegal use of one's official position or powers to obtain property, funds or patronage."

It is an ugly word, most often associated with the Mafia and other such groups. It has some equally ugly synonyms: gouge, screw, shake down, squeeze.

To those who extort not for their own personal gain, but for their own agenda, add the members of the New York City Council.

Seeking support for its new stadium plan, the New York Mets have offered to spend more than $200,000 on sports programs for local kids.

You would think that the City Council would welcome the money from one of the city's premier "businesses."

Not at all. In fact, our intrepid politicians have demanded "gifts" from the Mets that total more than $1 million.

Granted, the programs the council want from the Mets are worthwhile.

I am not saying that the councilmembers are trying to line their own pockets or those of any of their constituents.

They want the distribution of 20,000 tickets a year to youth groups, senior centers and the like, the construction of a community center in Flushing and commitments in minority hiring and the use of local contractors.

All noble goals, but goals to be negotiated, not to be demanded as "payment" for voting in favor of the plan.

A Daily News editorial put the issue succinctly.

"All would be nice for the Mets or anyone else to provide for Queens residents should the donors want to do so voluntarily or as required by law. Neither is the case here. The team negotiated a deal with the Bloomberg administration that makes economic sense for both the Mets and the taxpayers, playing by the rules throughout."

On the other hand, we have a number of Councilmembers who think that "the Mets have not done enough for the community."

"The Mets have not been good neighbors," said Councilman Tony Avella, who puts out about a dozen press each day during the year.

"Shame on them if they think [the $200,000 offer] is OK. Shame on them. Our kids are worth more," said Councilman Hiram Monserrate.

The only Councilman who showed some sense in this issue was Peter Vallone, Jr. He carried just the right tone that expressed the lunacy of what the City Council was trying to pull on an organization that is very important to our city.

"Why not have them pencil me in at shortstop while you're at it," he asked his colleagues in an email.

Vallone is right. Some of the demands made by the Council are as silly as demanding that members be allowd to pitch a couple of innings in slow games.

Mayor Bloomberg suggested that the council's action was little more than a shakedown.

"Every development project in this city cannot be an excuse to extort money out of the developers, and I think that's happened too often recently," Bloomberg said. "We can't turn every project into an opportunity for elected officials to say, 'I want to give some things to my friends' companies.'"

I think, in this case, that the mayor and his supporters are right. When a company is taking public land for a private project, then some payment to the community for its pet projects is in order.

In this case, however, the Mets will be building their new stadium on what is now a parking lot. Nobody lives nearby the stadium; nobody's neighborhood traffic or quality of life will be impacted. There is no downside for the community because of the deal between the Mets and the city.

The team was nice to offer the $200 thousand for sports programs. By law, they did not even have to do that.

The councilmen, however, obviously do not agree with the mayor.

"[The mayor] has made a statement that I believe is reckless and just plain dumb," said Monserrate. "We deserve benefits for the fact that the stadium is in our borough, that it has a negative impact on our local environment, traffic and congestion...there's nothing unethical about [demanding money from the Mets for the approval to build the stadium]."

I have to disagree. There is little impact on the community, on traffic, on the local environment. It is trading one stadium in a large park to another stadium in the same large park.

Unless a resident happens to live alongside the Grand Central Parkway or under the elevated train, there is no impact whatsoever.

Monserrate, whose district encompasses the new stadium, has called out the big guns.

He wrote a letter to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe asking that a new environmental impact statement be drawn to insure that "the stadium does not have a negative effect on residents' health and safety"

Then he pulled out his nuclear weapon, a letter to the Internal Revenue System (IRS), asking that agency to investigate the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Empire State Development Corporation to make sure that the payments in lieu of taxes (what are called PILOTS) are kosher.

Those PILOTS are the major funding source for the project. A major investigation of that funding could take until all of the current Met players are on Social Security.

What the City Council is doing is extortion plain and simple.

What is the City Council saying to the developers and to the residents of this city.

They are not saying, "We will get every penny we can for you. Instead, they are saying, "We have the power to decide whether you will get a new stadium or not, and you will give us everything that we think we deserve or else you will not get your new stadium, no matter how much it will serve the community.

Perhaps we were all better off when the council stuck to naming streets and the major decisions the members of the council made each day was what to have for lunch.

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