2009-10-09 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Calling Borough Hall
by Stuart W. Mirsky

What do we need borough presidents for? The thought occurs to me as I sit across the table from 44-year-old Robert Hornak, a beefy Republican activist running to unseat Queens County Borough President Helen Marshall. We're in a local Howard Beach diner after having agreed to meet for an interview to discuss his uphill race against the two-term septuagenarian Democratic incumbent now seeking her third term. Hornak, one-time leader of the New York Young Republican Club, founder of the Urban Republican Coalition and proprietor of the sometimes controversial UrbanElephants.- com Blog site, is grinning at me over a hearty chef's salad, explaining why he thinks he can beat Ms. Marshall, a longtime member, in excellent standing, of the Queens-based Democratic machine in a heavily Democratic town. As I listen to him, I can't help wondering why it matters. What do borough presidents actually do, anyway?

When I ask Robert Hornak, his answer is swift. "They're basically boosters for their counties," he says. "While the office has very limited powers, it does have a very powerful bully pulpit and access to other political officials. The BP can be a spokesperson for what his or her constituents need or you can just sit on your hands at Borough Hall, going to various events to hobnob and get photographed. That's what the current incumbent tends to do. After two terms in power what have we got to show for her time at the helm?" I shrug. Can't think of anything, say. "Well," Hornak goes on, waxing enthusiastic, "Helen Marshall's a very nice lady. I have nothing against her personally but I just think we need someone with more energy, more ideas and more gumption to push hard for this borough. What she's basically done since getting elected is push to build a glass domed enclosure at Borough Hall so couples getting married there don't have to wait in the rain! Oh yeah, and she's done some expensive refurnishing of her office digs. Well, okay, but what does that do for the borough? What Queens needs is tax relief and a reduction in the heavy nuisance fees imposed by City Hall through fines and parking tickets which hurt our local businesses and homeowners. And we need real economic development. There are blighted areas, from Long Island City and College Point to Rockaway, where businesses won't go or where they're just leaving in droves. Sure the economy's weak right now but we've had two terms of nothing from Borough Hall while the economy was actually pretty strong and look where we are! Reelecting the incumbent for a third term isn't going to change that. But maybe sending some new blood to Borough Hall will."

So, I say, you see the office as a platform to get the Queens message out? He nods. "That and for planning the future. What we need in Borough Hall is someone to think about Queens as a whole, to plan comprehensively and advocate for the whole borough with the powers-that-be in City Hall. Across the East River, Manhattan's seen a loss of jobs in the garment industry over the years as businesses have shut down because of high costs. Well on the Queens side, in Long Island City and Astoria, there are plenty of buildings and land for manufacturing, all at much lower costs and without the kind of traffic jams you get in Manhattan. Those Queens communities can use the jobs, too. In the north Flushing area there's vacant land that should be developed for jobs and other community uses. That's the kind of planning that shouldn't be left to City Hall where they aren't all that interested or committed to our borough and its needs."

The BP position for which Hornak is vying is a vestige of an earlier age. When today's New York City was cobbled together in 1898 by combining Manhattan and the Bronx with the independent city of Brooklyn and the various towns and villages in Queens and Staten Island, each of the five newly formed boroughs or counties got a BP to see to its unique interests. Until an adverse court case did away with the old Board of Estimate in the 1970s, those BPs, each of whom had a seat on the Board of Estimate, had real clout because the Board made budgetary and fiscal decisions for the city. But no more, so today's BPs are little more than cheerleaders and patronage dispensers for the local political machine. In Queens, as in three of the other five boroughs, Democratic Party dominance makes borough patronage a Party preserve, a place to park old politicos or for the occasional up-and-comer to start a new career. Of course, the BP slot is more often than not a career ender, as in Helen Marshall's case. Hornak would like to change that. Why shouldn't we just abolish the office then, I ask him from across the table. After all, if it doesn't do much why not just save the money? How much, I ask him, could we actually hope to save? Hornak pauses. "Believe it or not," he says, "it's hard to get straight information on that. They don't release the figures but my best information is that the Queens BP has a roughly $10 million administrative budget to pay some 95 staffers and vendors in the operation of Borough Hall. Given how little the BP has to do, it's hard to see how you can justify that, so maybe that's why it's so hard to get the detailed information. More important, though, is that the five BPs have a say in how some $5 billion are dispensed by City Hall across all the boroughs, each borough getting a share based on its proportion of the population. That would mean the current Queens BP has say-so in how about $1.5 billion is being spent here in Queens. Given the size of those figures it's probably mostly capital money, but it's clear that having input into those kinds of expenditures can go a a long way towards improving local infrastructure and services."

I'm thinking of the college annex that Helen Marshall has long promised Rockaway but never managed to deliver. "What kind of input has she actually had re: those funds?" I ask. "It's hard to say if her priorities are being reflected or how," Hornak admits, "because it's all held very close to the vest. But that's a problem in itself, because that's our money they're spending and they don't want to reveal the details, how much goes where, how they're guarding against waste — or if they're guarding against waste effectively at all!"

Hornak leans back in his seat as the waitress hovers over us. I nod that everything's fine and he says, "Damned if any of us really know how all that money's being spent but you'd think we would, right? That it would be publicly available?

When you have these kinds of funds at issue, where's the accountability? Why aren't these monies going to ameliorate neighborhood blight or enable economic development the way they should? For that you need infrastructure spending as well as tax relief for the targeted businesses. But looking around Queens you can see the neglect everywhere. Nobody seems to be doing any comprehensive forward thinking.

That's why I'm running. Sure you could say let's do away with the BP's office, but what are the chances of pulling that off with all the vested interests that benefit from its existence?

On the other hand you've got this office just sitting there, underutilized for years and years, and a strong need for proactive and energetic boroughwide leadership. It's a shame to let the BP's office continue to idle while Queens stalls out."

What are your odds in this race, I ask him bluntly. He looks me in the eye. "Well I'm not a shoo-in," he laughs. Still, as we get up to leave the diner, he seems convinced he can pull it off. "I know it's an uphill battle," he admits, "that people tend to vote for incumbents because they've got name recognition and big donor support and, maybe, it's just the path of least resistance. But I'm banking on people seeing a real need for change this time and their being tired of being taken for granted by elected incumbents. From your own neck of the woods in Rockaway, to mine in Astoria, those of us in the outer boroughs always seem to get the short end.

They tax and fee us to death, making it hard for small businesses and homeowners to get by, driving people like us out of the city. You don't get change if you don't vote for it and I'm giving people a chance to do that. I'm offering comprehensive and energetic boroughwide planning and advocacy. If voters decide to take a flyer on me, they can be sure they won't be getting four more years of Borough Hall beautification and nothing else but lip service paid to our local community needs."

As we walk through the swinging glass doors, Robert Hornak's consistently upbeat message, in the face of the longshot run he's got ahead of him, even gets to me. rockirreg@aol.com

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