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Daniel Goldstein

Daniel Goldstein

Posted: December 18, 2009 01:43 PM

What's It Going to Be, Gov. Paterson? Ratner's Big Toy or the Rent?

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...The governor said it's well past the time that the hard choices must be made, and he likened the state's fiscal situation to a family strapped for cash at the holidays.

"Sometimes it comes down to the choice of toys for Christmas or money for rent," the governor said. "Responsible parents pay the rent."

-- Governor Paterson's favorite stump speech and interview line, as reported on Nov. 24 by Karen DeWitt on Albany Public Radio.

It's time for Governor Paterson to make the hard choices not just when it comes to the little guy but when it comes to big money -- when it comes to the entrenched, powerful real estate interests that seem to control the agenda, policy and fiscal decisions. He cannot continue to balance the budget on our backs -- there is nothing more for the little guy to give up.

If we must all share in the budget cutting pain, let's all really share.

Toys or rent?

Governor Paterson is going around New York State making this apt analogy with our state budget and priorities. I heard him say it at Brooklyn town hall on Dec. 1 and I heard him say it on WNYC-radio this morning.

It is striking and concise.

So is this -- Governor Paterson is directing his administration to go full throttle forward with the state's biggest toy: the publicly funded, money-losing "Barclays Center Arena" Bruce Ratner wants to build for Mikhail Prokhorov (Russia's richest man) in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn as part of the bait-and-switch project known as Atlantic Yards.

Toys or rent?

The $1.1 billion arena is the most expensive in history. It is paid for, in part, by diverted property tax payments, triple tax-exempt bonds, at least $205 million from New York City taxpayers and at least $100 million in direct state taxpayer subsidies. All told, the NYC Independent Budget office found that Ratner would receive $726 million in special government benefits just for the arena.

And that doesn't include the $100 million that Ratner was supposed to pay the MTA by the end of this year, which, under Paterson and Bloomberg's urging, the MTA Board reduced to $20 million this past summer. That deal is for the rail yards over which a portion of the arena would be constructed.

Just this week that same board approved drastic service cuts because of an "unexpected" budget gap.

Toys or rent? Ask the school kids who are going to have to go without lunch to afford their subway or bus ride, because of cuts approved by Governor Paterson's MTA Board.

One hundred million dollars is just the most immediate taxpayer payment Paterson has promised to build Bruce Ratner's toy. As with all mega-projects there are bound to be cost overruns the state will have to help with, and should the arena bond default, the state will be morally obligated to step in with our money to protect the state's credit rating.

For Ratner the governor is Santa. For disabled transit riders, school kids who use the transit system, and Brooklynites relying on various bus routes and subways lines he's Scrooge.

And while playing Santa with Ratner, Paterson is preparing not to act like The Grinch but actually be The Grinch. It appears likely that the day before Christmas Eve or on Christmas Eve itself, the governor will direct the Empire State Development Corporation, which he fully controls, to serve papers to homeowners, tenants and businesses to start the process of taking their properties by eminent domain to build ... Ratner's toy.

So what's the deal Mr. Governor? Are your words empty? Do you see Ratner's arena as something other than a toy, as something crucial to the financial health of the state?

It is well past time for the hard choices to be made, Mr. Governor. The Atlantic Yards pushers, Bruce Ratner and your appointee, ESDC CEO Dennis Mullen, claim that they will have a "master closing" on the project as soon as Dec. 21 or 23, and they'll file the initial eminent domain eviction papers around the same time. (ESDC won't release the contents of those closing documents until a week or two after they are signed. What? Yup.)

These actions will further commit Governor Paterson to the developer's project.

But it is not a hard choice for the Governor to make.

The project announced in 2003, approved in 2006, and approved again this past September, is not the project that will be built. Those approvals promised 2,250 units of affordable housing would be built in ten years.

This will not happen. A best-case scenario is the arena, a couple of buildings, surrounded by acres and acres of blight-generating parking lots. It would be the same denouement of a pipe dream we now see in New London, Connecticut.

The project's governing documents actually allow legal outs for Ratner without guarantees regarding the purported housing construction and 10-year timetable. There is no meaningful pain the state would enforce on Ratner should he not meet what amounts to aspirations.

When the choice is toys or rent, when the choice is a publicly funded, money-losing arena and aspirations without teeth versus core services such as health care and education, the choice is much easier than the decision to cut critical MTA services.

Mr. Governor, we know that you and your administration know next to nothing about this project. That is why you publicly announced on Dec. 1 that, for the first time, you would convene an "objective review" of the Atlantic Yards project. We're still waiting for that.

Before committing to a decades long mess in the heart of Brooklyn, before committing scarce state resources to what most people view as a boondoggle, before telling us that this arena is as important as paying the rent, please do your due diligence. Halt this master closing, halt the taking of people's properties by eminent domain, and do your objective review. We know what you'll find, and we know that you won't find it to be defensible.

If you do not, you can be assured that what you've been selling New Yorkers about making the tough fiscal decisions will be viewed as nothing more than a big lump of coal -- buying big toys for big boys, instead of paying the rent.


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