Pheffer v. Mirksy
Q and A On Important
Issues Facing Rockaway Voters
Q: Please state your name, town of residence, occupation and qualifications related to the New York State Assembly seat.
My name is Audrey I. Pheffer and I am a resident of Far Rockaway. I have served as the Assemblywoman representing the 23rd A.D. since 1987.
My name is Stuart W. Mirsky and I live in Belle Harbor. I am Retired as Assistant Commissioner for Operations, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. I am currently a writer and freelance editor. My qualifications are: Thirty years of government service rising from the ranks to top management positions in city government. Over the years served as policy and program analyst and manager of multiple operations including a hundred million dollar facilities capital budget for renovation and construction, daily operation of some 28 city owned facilities and oversight of another 20 rental locations, a 300-plus vehicle fleet, materials management, security and other logistical services. Involved in numerous high level negotiations with other governmental agencies and elected officials. Developed and introduced numerous operational improvements over the years. Rescued the Health Department's Pest Control program during an 18 month transition period. Integrally involved in the city's response to 9/11 and its aftermath.
Q: Please list the most important issues facing Rockaway (minimum five) and state your approach to dealing with them.
A) The building boom promises to crowd the peninsula with new residents though our infrastructure does not look capable of keeping pace. We need a sustained effort to ensure that sewers, roads, transportation to and from the peninsula, and schools are adequately developed. A Rockaway wide consortium representing all communities and constituencies needs to be developed to systematically review all options, identify the looming deficiencies and provide the advocacy to ensure that resources are allocated by the city and state where the actual needs are and in a way that will address real weaknesses. For too long we have taken an ad hoc approach which relies on addressing "the issue of the moment." We need to start thinking ahead in a comprehensive way.
B) Education in Rockaway is already a massive weakness. Our schools are sliding into violence and the level of education delivered continues to underserve our kids. But the solution is not just to pump more money into the schools. It's to fundamentally alter the equation by introducing competition. A Constitutionally acceptable school voucher program would enable parents to choose the schools their kids attend, thereby directing resources to better performing institutions. This would encourage school administrations and teachers to work to win parent confidence, rewarding the better performers. It should be supplemented by allowing more charter schools to introduce more innovative approaches to education.
C) Crime is out of control in some areas of the peninsula. This is clearly a city problem but it needs the attention of city officials to get fixed. The state Assembly person must take the lead in highlighting the problem and keeping the light on it until the city takes the necessary actions (which may include focused task forces, improved monitoring of and response to local crime statistics and greater emphasis on community relations and outreach to troubled kids in the schools and on the streets). In the meantime, the communities most affected need to come together and introduce initiatives such as neighborhood watch programs linked to the local precinct to facilitate police awareness of, and responsiveness to, crimes as soon as they occur.
D) Mosquito infestations afflict many areas of the peninsula. This partly reflects the marsh-like terrain of so much of Rockaway. But it also reflects the accumulation of years of debris which clog natural creeks, hold standing water and shelter mosquito breeding grounds. Although the city's Health Department has jurisdiction over mosquito control, its main tools, spraying and larviciding, pose risks to humans and the environment. We need to be proactive and manage mosquito populations by reducing their breeding areas through debris removal and dredging of bay shallows which have been filled, over the years, with construction debris. This is a job that is bigger than any single city agency. It requires a comprehensive approach that coordinates agencies' activities (Parks, Environmental Protection, DCAS, Sanitation) and also brings these into line with other governmental efforts, e.g., the Army Corps of Engineers' multi-year capital project to dredge and restore the water flows on the east end of Jamaica Bay.
E) Development of Rockaway's natural attributes seems to have been forgotten in favor of more and more housing. Rockaway compares unfavorably in appearance and attraction to other beach communities around the country such as Cape Cod, Montauk, etc. We need to attract investors interested in developing our ocean and bay fronts to regain what we once had. One or more areas of the peninsula ought to be designated for recreational use and developers offered the opportunity to present proposals. Useful possibilities include a water sports center, a hotel complex, etc. This should be done as part of item #1 above.
Education - Every child deserves to receive a quality education in a safe and secure school. I continue to work to ensure that funding continues to increase for local schools, that there are seats for every child and that reducing class sizes remains a priority. I will continue to expand Universal Pre-K and enhance after school programs in our area. This year my Assembly colleagues and I fought for increased education funding in the New York State budget. We were able to increase education funding $1.36 billion over last year. This included $50 million to expand Universal Pre-K and $140 million for class size reduction. We also addressed the capital funding portion of the CFE mandate, an important measure that I feel is essential in improving our children's education. This included the EXCEL (Expanding our Children's Education and Learning) program that provided $2.6 billion for capital construction as well as $9.4 billion to help fund the cost of New York City's current capital plan. The additional mandates in the CFE lawsuit, operational expense, etc., are vital, and I will continue to fight for this necessary funding in the upcoming session. In addition I have had the opportunity to sponsor hundreds of class trips, nearly 15,000 students, to Albany so that students had the opportunity to learn first hand about State government.
Healthcare - Rockaway is fortunate to be the home of two outstanding hospitals and an exceptional federally qualified health center. All provide extraordinary health care to our community. Over my years in the Assembly, I have supported numerous grants through the Department of Health to ensure that these hospitals are able to expand their services and remain at the forefront of medical technology and advancements. I have been able to assist in advocating and obtaining funding for a Cardiac Catheterization Lab, an Inpatient Dialysis Unit, a Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, emergency generators and emergency room renovations. I will continue to work to ensure that our two hospitals remain open ensuring that there is accessible and quality healthcare available to all. Also, we must provide expanded EPIC, Child Health Plus, and Family Health Plus.
Economic Development - Rockaway has recently been experiencing a tremendous growth and revitalization in the community. Over 300 acres of vacant NYC owned property is in the process of being developed. This population boom will help raise the median income of the entire Peninsula. This increase in disposable dollars will help entice and encourage new businesses to our community. The rezoning of many of the commercial areas will also go a long way in encouraging economic growth for the Rockaway community. The Arverne East project scheduled for the eastern portion of the Peninsula is a combination of residential and commercial establishments. An overwhelming 30% of the project will be exclusively for commercial. A destination type project will encourage shoppers and visitors to our community and provide a much needed and welcomed economic boost while offering employment opportunities and jobs for many. The long neglected Far Rockaway Shopping Mall has finally seen some progress. Owner Rita Stark is still unwilling to rent stores and/or fix up the mall however, since talks of eminent domain and condemnation have been taking place, she has been negotiating with a reputable development team to enter into a long term lease for the property.
Transportation - Transportation is a crucial issue for all the residents of Rockaway. As a geographically isolated peninsula, travel to and from the area is often difficult. Weather, traffic and road conditions play a major role in how timely our commutes will be. Rockaway residents must rely on either the A train subway or the newly overtaken MTA bus service for their transportation needs. Negotiations with the MTA have resulted in numerous changes in the bus routes and schedules. The needs of the Rockaway rider ship have been heard and new express times were added and the other routes have all seen improvements. I will continue to monitor this progress and advocate for necessary changes. I have been a long time proponent to open the old Rockaway Beach line. The reactivation would allow for a quick and efficient rail service from Rockaway to Midtown Manhattan. This alternative plan for increased rail service provides a multitude of commuters with a viable alternative to the current services available. As a community surrounded by water on 3 sides, ferry service is a natural mode of transportation for this community. While private ventures have not proven successful in the past, subsidized water transportation must and will be an option for residents to use. I look forward to welcoming the start of water transportation from Rockaway for many of the area commuters.
Environment - Rockaway is a unique and wonderful place to live and work. One of our most precious natural resources is our brilliant waterways. We are fortunate to be surrounded by the most beautiful beaches and the magnificent Jamaica Bay. However, during my tenure in the legislature, I have encountered numerous proposals that threatened our surrounding waterways. I have been successful in stopping the ever reoccurring proposal to dump in our area by filling in the borrow pits. This ill conceived project would allow for dredged materials from the channel to be dumped in our borrow pits. This material is no longer allowed to be dumped in open waterways. I can foresee no reason we should allow it to be dumped immediately off our beaches in the borrow pits. Also of primary concern is the clean up and maintenance of Jamaica Bay. Almost 10 years ago a local watch dog organization, the Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers spear-headed by Dan Mundy, realized the deteriorating conditions of the salt marshes in our bay. Unfortunately, his concerns fell on deaf ears within the federal organizations charged with care of the Bay. I organized a meeting with the local elected officials and other stakeholders to learn first hand the dire need for immediate attention to this crucial problem. Subsequently, a blue ribbon panel was formed and a comprehensive study was conducted and corrective measures and actions are now being taken. We are all stewards of the land we have and must work to ensure that our land, water and air continue to be protected and preserved for our future generations. The NYS Assembly has been successful in passing the Environmental Protection Fund Budget which included a record $225 million for the EPF, legislation to strengthen wetland protections, Bottle Bill expansion, notification of hazardous spills and internet availability of environmental information. Additionally, I am currently in the process of formulating the "Jamaica Bay Estuary", which will be charged with the responsibility of coordinating all Jamaica Bay and surrounding area stakeholders.
Q: Please list any civic accomplishments/initiatives related to the Rockaway/Broad Channel community that you have been a part of in the last 10 years.
Over my 20 year tenure as the Assemblywoman serving the 23rd Assembly District I have had the opportunity and gratification of being involved in numerous projects and accomplishments that have benefited our community. One of the most exciting things that will be happening in our community will be completed in the next year. It is the new state-of-the-art YMCA coming to Beach 73rd Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard. I am happy to have served as a member of the ad hoc committee that has worked diligently to ensure that this community receives the best facility possible. I have secured over $250,000 in funding to help kick start the design and construction phase of this project. I will continue to work with the community and the YMCA bringing in the many programs that will benefit the Rockaway community.
The Rockaway Theater Company and the Rockaway Artists Alliance are local community groups located in Fort Tilden. They provide a vehicle for many youngsters, young adults, seasoned actors and actresses and artists to showcase their many talents. I was successful in helping these wonderful groups call Fort Tilden their permanent home. The Rockaway Artists Alliance and the Rockaway Theater Company both received major capital funding when they began their tenure at Fort Tilden. I obtained much needed monies and grants for the organizations to install air conditioning and heat so that their seasons could be expanded. This past year, they each received additional grants to help renovate and expand their current facilities.
Rockaway is a great beachfront community that has earned a long and well deserved reputation as a great place to surf. However, changes to NYC regulations and enforcement caused the surfing beach at Beach 92nd St. to be closed to surfers under the threat of summons for swimming without a lifeguard. This was something that I could not just sit by and watch happen. So I ardently advocated on behalf of all the surfers to ensure that new regulations were formulated and new codes were enforced that allowed the many surfers and visitors to our beach to enjoy the waves that had always welcomed them before. I am happy to say that now Rockaway is home to the ONLY surfing beach in New York City, and we welcome all surfers to enjoy our beach year round.
When our community was once again going to have an electrical power plant built in our back yard in Bayswater, I stood up to Keyspan, LIPA and Florida Power and Light and fought to ensure that community reinvestment monies were spent in our community. $300,000 has been committed to the Bayswater community for beautification and stabilization of the bay shore line.
The Rockaway community suffered tremendous loss on Sept 11, 2001. The lives that were lost can never be replaced and Rockaway will always remember its many heroes. Tribute Park at Beach 116th Street and Beach Channel Drive has been a project that I have been proud to help create and fund. Being a part of this outstanding tribute to my community has helped me to mourn the many friends and neighbors I lost on 9-11 and to always remember their contributions to our community.
When the JCC was in need of a permanent home to continue to serve the community with their many programs and services, I was happy to secure funding for them that allowed them to realize their goal of having a permanent home in our community. They were able to purchase a rundown eyesore and refurbish and renovate it into the outstanding facility they now call home. A once blighted building is now the thriving corner on Central Avenue providing much needed programs and services to all Rockaway residents.
Many of the residents of Rockaway are experiencing their golden years. These senior citizens need and deserve a place to go and socialize and spend time with their friends. When one of the congregate meal programs was in jeopardy of losing their funding and needed a new location, I was happy to provide assistance to relocate the program to the Roy Reuther Houses. Last week, the senior center celebrated their 10-year anniversary. All the senior centers in my district successfully service thousands of seniors by providing nutritious meals, exciting trips, interesting social activities, numerous entitlement services and overall friendship, advice and advocacy for all their members. Additionally, I have secured program funding for all senior centers in my district which includes not only Roy Reuther, but also Brookdale Senior Center, Rockaway Park Senior Center, Young Israel Senior Center, Seaside Senior Center along with Trinity Senior Services.
During my 20 year tenure, I have been successful in annually providing funding for our much appreciated volunteer ambulances and fire departments in the area. These include the Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department, Rockaway Point Volunteer Fire Department, Roxbury Volunteer Emergency Services, and Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department.
I have also been able to secure funding every year for many other important local programs including; Rockaway Little League, Rockaway Adult Day Care Program, P.S. 114, P.S. 47, P.S. 225, P.S. 104, Scholars Academy, Beach Channel High School Rowing Team, Community Center of Rockaway Peninsula, Broad Channel Athletic Club, Bayswater Security Patrol, Rockaway Music & Arts Council and Rockaway Artist Alliance along with countless others.
As a writer, I've been pretty much focused on my work. However, in 2000, I coordinated VikingSail 2000 citywide which brought a fleet of replica Viking ships into Jamaica Bay for a day of celebratory events at Beach 116th Street (even though certain elements at The Wave doubted my ability to do this at the time). One of the ancillary outcomes was the discovery of the property subsequently developed as Tribute Park. (We were the first group to make use of that land, which no one was aware of before.) I've also been instrumental in building a political alternative, the Rockaway Republicans, for our community and have led the way in that group's outreach to the Chamber of Commerce and other Rockaway groups. Right now, I'm working with the RMAC to develop and host a Rockaway Writers' Conference & Literary Arts Festival, tentatively set for April 2007.
Q: Please describe the role of Assembly member as you see it, and state why the position is important to residents of the district.
An Assembly member represents us in the halls of state government, voting our interests in matters of law and the state budget. But our state legislature has been cited as one of the most dysfunctional in the country by the liberal NYU Law School's Brennan Center. Why? Because our legislators don't really have the power to legislate freely due to a variety of idiosyncratic and restrictive rules which, among other things, hamstring legislative committees by denying them control over their own staffs, the ability to freely hold public hearings and solicit expert testimony, or to bring proposed legislation to the floor for votes. Unlike most legislatures, all these things are in the hands of the "leaders," turning our two legislative houses into an ineffective rubber stamp with about the same clout and impact as the old Soviet Politburo. With state spending out of control, our debt at record levels and the highest state and local taxes in the nation, we need legislators with the power and willingness to do what we send them up there to do: pay attention to the business of making laws and passing budgets.
First and foremost a New York State Assembly Member must be the representative for the community from which they are elected. Constituent services are a mandate for any good representative, and I view my job as the Assemblywoman representing this community as twofold; constituent services and legislation.
My district offices are available for anyone who needs assistance. They can call, write, or drop by and receive help, advice and information regarding a myriad of problems that might arise in their daily lives. My staff and I are available to answer questions and most often to help residents to navigate through the bureaucracy of government. Making government responsible to the local community and helping to ensure that government works for the people is my top priority.
As the elected representative in Albany, I am responsible to work to ensure that the laws enacted by the Legislature benefit the residents of my community. From working to raise the minimum wage benefits to fighting to restore needed programs cut by the current Governor's budget plans, I am a fighter for my community in Albany. As Chair of the Consumer Affairs and Protection Committee, I deal with issues, laws and legislation that affect each and every one of us in our daily lives. Amongst the legislative priorities of my committee is Identity Theft. I have worked diligently to ensure that the ever growing crime of stealing one's personal information has tough penalties and consequences for the criminals engaging in these activities.
Q: The State Law that gives the New York City Mayor control over the public schools comes up for renewal in 2009. Do you favor maintaining mayoral control of the public schools? Why? Why not?
I was very privileged to serve as a member of the groundbreaking NYC School Governance Committee that formulated the law that gave control of our schools to the NYC Mayor. I wholeheartedly support maintaining mayoral control of New York City public schools. This legislation not only initiated mayoral control, but also created a Community District Education Council in each community district, compromised of parents. As well, the bill created a city-wide council on special education to ensure the students in these programs were receiving the quality education and programs they deserve. I feel strongly that prior to this change, the system was working with less parental and student involvement in education, and that mayoral control has allowed for greater accountability and increased attention on the needs of our children.
Yes, because the old system was a disaster. This way, we have the ability to hold someone who must run for elective office accountable.
Q:Would you vote to institute an educational voucher system whereby the parents of parochial and private school parents would get outright grants or tax credits to pay their children's tuition? Why? Why not?
Yes, because it will give parents the ability to vote with their children's feet. Competition is good in nearly all cases. The current system has failed us and lack of competition is holding back needed change.
I am a strong supporter of legislation in the Assembly that provides refundable tax credits to qualified taxpayers whose children are being educated in New York at public or private elementary and secondary schools, or who are home schooled.
Q:Do you favor increasing the number of charter schools available to parents? Why? Why not?
I have always supported expanding the options for parents and students to ensure that our children are receiving the quality education they deserve. The charter school program is one in its infancy and I believe that we must maintain the imposed cap, for the time being, so that we can study the implementation of these programs and ensure that we are not creating a system that mirrors the problems and challenges facing our current public education system.
Yes and for the same reason. Competition will introduce the entrepreneurial energy to make things better. Innovation is the source of improvement. It works in our economy. Why should we fear it in our schools?
Q:State law controls how New York City can use its beaches. Are you satisfied with the present lifeguard hiring system, beach and boardwalk access and beach rules? Why? Why not?
Obviously we have had problems recruiting, training and deploying lifeguards, year in and year out, and this affects our ability to fully utilize our beaches in the summer months. I would favor providing more autonomy to local organizations to perform these functions while still retaining high enough standards to make sure our lifeguards are top notch. This shouldn't be rocket science! Lifeguarding is a very old, long established function. Heck, Ronald Reagan started out as a lifeguard.
I have concerns about the curfews instituted on our beaches. People who choose to live out here do so because they love the ocean and it strikes me as an infringement on our freedoms to have the police or anyone else attempt to restrict beach use in the evenings. The concern for rowdiness and vandalism, as it affects beachfront homeowners, is certainly something to be taken into account. But at the end of the day (or night in this case) our freedom of movement and beach access must take precedence. I grew up out here and always found the solitude of a night walk along the shore bracing, something I treasured. No one has the right to simply take that away from us.
Rockaway is a beach community. Many residents moved here because of the close proximity to the beach and the easy access that living here provides. The past years have realized a large number of beach closings in our area. We have been told that this is due to a shortage of New York City Lifeguards. In true Rockaway fashion, the community came together to address the problem. I, along with other elected officials, funded an outreach program in Region 5 to encourage students to partake in a training course to prepare them to be qualified lifeguards on our beaches. However, this program has been met with tremendous resistance and resentment by the New York City Parks Department employees who run the lifeguard training programs. Through research and investigations, I have ascertained that New York City has a hiring practice and standard that differs from ALL other beaches and pools in the area. Riis Park, Long Beach, and Jones Beach are not facing the current problems that New York City claims to have in staffing their pools and beaches. I have been working with the ad hoc committee and Community Board #14 to demand that a City Council hearing is held to uncover the practices and procedures of the New York City Parks Department's hiring and recruitment programs. I will not allow the past actions to continue and the Rockaway beaches MUST be staffed and open for the residents to enjoy.