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Yassky Versus Gounardes in re-districted State Senate race

They debate online, on cable shows, and do Q&A with Neighborhood Association

August 11, 2022 Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, whose current district stretches from Bay Ridge to Marine Park, and former Councilmember (and former head of the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission) David Yassky are running in the Democratic primary for state Senate in the redrawn District 26, which stretches from DUMBO to Fort Hamilton.

The district is currently represented by Democrat Brian Kavanagh, who won a special election in 2017 to replace retiring Democrat Daniel Squadron. Kavanagh will now run in a Manhattan-only district.

Election Day is Aug. 23, but early voting starts Aug. 13. The Primary Election Debate for State Senate District 26 can be found here.

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The Cobble Hill Association reached out to the candidates with questions about specific issues that may be relevant to local Brooklyn residents. These included questions about changes to the property tax system; the creation of a central authority to coordinate the transformation of the BQE; pedestrian safety; mayoral control of the schools; budget priorities; the climate crisis; and their proudest accomplishments.

The candidates’ complete answers can be found on the Cobble Hill website. Below is a summary that touches on some of their major points.

Property Tax

The candidates were asked about their views on the reforms proposed by the NYC Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform and the coalition created by NYC Comptroller Brad Lander.

Both agreed that the current property tax system is unfair and outdated, but they had slightly different recommendations.

Gounardes wholeheartedly supports the idea of reform, but says “the devil is in the details,” and finds it difficult to make an assessment of the recommendations with so few details provided. That said, he feels it is important to protect individuals who may be “property-rich and cash-poor,” including longtime brownstone owners who have seen their property values skyrocket despite no change in their personal income.

Brooklyn’s Democratic State Sen. Andrew Gounardes
Photo: Steve Solomonson

Yassky stressed inequities in the current system, saying that disparate valuation rules for 1 to 3-family homes and multiple dwellings often yield “absurd results.” For example, a co-op owner may pay more in property taxes than the owner of a nearby single-family home that is worth four times as much. While he agrees with the commission that property taxes should be proportional to property values, he points out that remedying the inequities will likely raise some people’s taxes.

The BQE

The candidates were asked if they would try to push through stalled Assembly Bill A6304, which would establish a BQE authority to coordinate the reconstruction of the expressway between the various agencies and the city, state and federal government.

Gounardes says he supports the intent of A6304, but with new administrations in Albany and City Hall and the consolidation of a single senate district representing roughly 11 miles of the BQE corridor, there is now an opportunity to ensure a comprehensive approach without creating a new authority. He said that when the state Senate lines were adopted, he immediately began meeting with community stakeholders and experts. He’s learned five things: That this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity; that the repairs on the triple cantilever should not serve to maintain the status quo; that a consensus plan on the cantilever must be devised as soon as possible to apply for federal grant money; there must be corridor-wide discussions with each of the affected communities; and that the impact of trucking, last mile-warehousing and the movement of freight must be considered.

Yassky comes out more strongly for the establishment of a BQE central authority. The two levels of government need to coordinate, he said. Yassky presented a four-point plan of action on the BQE.
– Upon taking office, he will convene a working group including the NYS Department of Transportation, Community Boards 2 and 6, state and city legislators representing DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, and possibly members of the BQET.
– Capital funding for the BQE transformation will be among his top priorities in the 2023-24 budget.
– He will introduce a companion bill to A6304 in the Senate and work with Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon or her successor to get a hearing on the bill in each body. He believes that once the state budget includes capital funding for the BQE, NYS DOT and the executive chamber will want a central authority.
– If A6304 does pass, work will shift to the authority; if not, the task force will continue. The group will have a deadline of January 20-24 to agree on a transformation plan.

Pedestrian safety

The candidates were asked what infrastructure changes they would support to make it safer for pedestrians.

Gounardes calls himself the “primary champion of New York City’s school zone speed camera program,” and supports measures to make drivers more aware of pedestrians. This includes street redesign, signal phasing at intersections, additional speed humps and stop signs where necessary. He also believes that city agencies could do a better job expediting sidewalk repairs.

Yassky said street safety infrastructure is “so much more important than people realize.” One of the first things he did as a Council member was get DOT to install a traffic light at Hicks and Pierrepont streets – something he gets more positive feedback from than almost anything else, he said. The “explosive growth of cycling” has created new challenges for pedestrians — and the “coming explosion” of e-bike use will magnify these challenges. Yassky believes the top imperative is to reduce the damage caused by turning vehicles. He recommends more “centerline hardening” to force drivers to make left turns more slowly and carefully, and more curb extensions to shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians.

Mayoral control of schools

The two candidates were asked if they support mayoral control of the city’s public schools.

Gounardes and Yassky both said the old Board of Education system was dysfunctional, lacked accountability and left schools underperforming. Both support mayoral control.

However, Gounardes said he believes it is imperative that mayoral control not come at the expense of leaving parents and local stakeholders “feeling disenfranchised.” That is why he voted for Sen. Liu’s bill, S9459, which extends mayoral control for two years while also putting a parent coordinator in every school and increasing input from the Community Education Councils.

Yassky said that the failures of the old Board of Education flowed directly from its structure, with six different elected officials appointing its members. That system had “all the negatives of a political entity but with none of the accountability.” The state legislature’s threat earlier this year to allow mayoral control to expire and its last-minute imposition of new mandates were “deeply irresponsible,” he said.

Accomplishments

The candidates were asked what accomplishments they are most proud of.

Gounardes says he is proud of many of his bills, including leading the fight to secure an increase in CUNY funding; expanding the NYC speed camera program; and various bills to crack down on gender-based harassment. He is also proud of the excellent constituent services his office has delivered.

Yassky said he is most proud of establishing New York’s first “inclusionary zoning” policy which requires newly zoned areas to include subsidized housing. Another accomplishment was requiring taxi fleets to use gas electric hybrid vehicles. He is proud of forcing ExxonMobil to clean up 37 million gallons of leaked oil, creating the first-ever wage-theft enforcement unit at TLC; helping to create Brooklyn Bridge Park; removing candy and soda from public school vending machines and numerous other accomplishments.

Regrets

Both candidates were asked what they would have done differently in their earlier political work.

Gounardes said that, in hindsight, he would have more strenuously objected to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Medicaid cuts on the eve of the pandemic in 2020. “I wish now that we had resisted them more strongly given other available options such as an influx of Federal Aid and untapped potential to raise revenue.”

Yassky said that when he was at the Taxi and Limousine Commission, if he had known that Uber and Lyft were going to change the for-hire vehicle industry so rapidly, he would have gone about the Borough Taxi Initiative quite differently. In addition, during the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, he wishes that he had gotten “an ironclad commitment in writing to implement residential permit parking, not just a handshake deal which the administration did not honor.”

Budget Cuts

Since some items must often be cut from the NYS budget, the candidates were asked where cuts could be made.

Gounardes said that the state gives away billions of dollars every year in tax exemptions, deductions, credits, and preferential rates to industries and individuals who don’t need them. He also said that the legislature failed to close loopholes in the state’s outdated tax code.

Yassky had a long list: He said that we should reduce corporate welfare spending, such as the nearly $1 billion subsidy for the Buffalo Bills. He also said that many state agencies are “overstuffed with middle management.” He said the state can reduce Medicaid spending on pharmaceuticals by importing drugs from Canada. Several prisons can be closed immediately, and the state legislature could have consolidated the 2022 primaries into a single election date plus early voting.


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