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January 10th, 2006

Billboards: Don’t Axe Them, Tax Them

by Henry Stern

Scott Stringer held a Sunday press conference yesterday with Tom Duane to complain about the proliferation of billboard advertising on scaffolding erected over city sidewalks. The “slow-news-day event” was pioneered by Jay Goldin,?Ǭ when he was City Comptroller, and Chuck Schumer, when he was in Congress. The habit has also been picked up by Tony Weiner, Jeffrey Klein, Scott and other industrious public officials seeking a greater opportunity to serve. The story appeared in Newsday [August 8, 2005]. Wil Cruz, on pA13, “Illegal Ads Crackdown Urged.”

The problem to us is not the ugliness of the advertising. Often the ads are attractive, far better looking than the scaffolding they conceal. The billboards, however, are not on private property but over public sidewalks, and we, the people, are entitled to share the revenues collected by the landowner.

Concession rentals vary, with parking lots paying a much higher percentage of their receipts than restaurants. In this case, where the advertising display is 100% on city property, it appears reasonable to split the proceeds 50-50 with the building owner. This would create an additional revenue stream for the city as well as for the property owners.

The length of time that scaffolding is allowed to remain should depend on how long it takes to reconstruct or reface the building, not on the economic value or prominence of the signage. One year should be a maximum term, with permit renewal required at six months. The funds collected by this tax could be targeted for Greenstreets or local beautification, on the theory that if anyone has suffered distress as a result of the billboard, their sore eyes and jarred psyches could be assuaged by viewing pastoral scenes in the hood.

Medicaid: Enter General Kimberly

We promised to report on progress, if any, in the effort to combat Medicaid fraud. On Friday, Governor Pataki appointed a Medicaid Inspector General, Kimberly O’Connor, which was reported in a brief by Michael Luo in Saturday’s Times,?Ǭ pB5 [August 6, 2005]. You can link to the brief, or to the Governor’s press release, which is longer. The release says O’Connor will report directly to the Secretary to the Governor on the State’s continued progress and accomplishments. It is not clear to whom she will report on the State’s lack of progress. We tried to reach her today but nobody answered the phone at the State Department of Health. We will try again tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the provider community has made its first response on the issue. Arthur Y. Webb, president and CEO of Village Care of New York, which operates the Village Nursing Home on Hudson Street, is a former State Commissioner of Social Services. Mr. Webb’s statement appeared in a paid advertisement in The Villager, a community weekly.

Ethics: Mills’ Wheels

The Times does not admire the practice of some politicians of using their campaign warchests for personal expenses after they have retired or been defeated. Michael Cooper, writing from Albany, reports on pB7 in a story headed “Some Ex-Candidates Still Use Campaign Funds To Pay Bills”. His lede: “Many state officials here have long used their campaign contributions to pay for cars, flowers, fancy meals and other expenses that sometimes look suspiciously personal. Now the practice is spreading to former candidates, too.”

The poster boy for this dubious practice is Howard D. Mills, a former Assemblyman who took a dive by opposing Senator Charles E. (71%) Schumer in 2004 and was rewarded for his pains by the governor, who appointed him superintendent of the State Insurance Department. “Mr. Mills, a Republican, still uses his Assembly campaign fund to pay for his monthly car payments, cell phone bills and quite a few meals,” Mr. Cooper reports.

The story, originally reported by the Ottaway News Service, was properly attributed by the Times. It appeared in the Middletown Times-Record [Thursday, August 4, 2005] written by John Milgrim. He gives juicy details, and tells of Mr. Mills’ hopes for the future.

(For pithy political comments hopefully succeeding in keeping our elected officials in line, see Henry Stern’s website at www.nycivic.org. You can slso subscribe to his weekly e-mails.)

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