By Phil Reisman, The Journal News, 11/9/13
Noam Bramson returns his focus this week to his job as mayor of New Rochelle, and things don’t look pretty.
He faces a tax-weary, fractious city — part of which continues to vehemently oppose his longstanding effort to promote Forest City Ratner’s Echo Bay development project.
On the fiscal front, his city manager is asking for a waiver of the 1.66 percent tax-levy cap set for 2014. The tax issue hurt Bramson in his failed campaign for county executive, and now it’s back on the City Council agenda, along with Echo Bay.
A scheduled meeting Tuesday is likely to be packed with unhappy spectators. Bramson will have to muster all of his political skills to neutralize the onslaught.
It hardly helps his cause that in a city that is almost 3-to-1 Democratic over Republican, a significant number of New Rochelle’s voters rejected his bid for county executive. According to what I’ve been told, on his home turf Bramson garnered only 53 percent of the machine-counted vote against Republican incumbent Rob Astorino. Even if the final figure is higher, it will not come close to the 79 percent majority he claimed when he last ran for mayor.
During the county executive race, it seemed Bramson was engaged in a rearguard action with many of his New Rochelle constituents who insist the Echo Bay blueprint is a disastrous plan proffered by a self-serving, if not outright villainous developer adept in the use of bait-and-switch tactics.
They say Forest City’s idea of 285 luxury apartments, 25,000 feet of retail space and a five-acre park is a crony capitalist’s dream because it is predicated on a $20 million tax abatement over 20 years. Add that to other expenses assumed by the city and the net loss through the year 2036 is $40.2 million, according to United Citizens for a Better New Rochelle.
The group contends that rather than contributing to the Queen City’s renaissance, the Forest City plan is taking it down a path of higher taxes, overcrowded classrooms and diminished services. They also don’t like that the project was scaled back dramatically from its original plan, a move that should allow renewed proposals from other potential developers.
Anti-Echo Bay signs that sprouted on city lawns seemed at times to be in direct competition with election signs that said, “I’m With Noam.”
Bramson said the UCBNR was a partisan group committed to undermining his election chances, an assertion that was rebutted in a letter to the editor by Howard Stevens, an enrolled Democrat and one of the group’s founders.
Stevens told me in an interview that he voted for Bramson for mayor. Other UCBNR members have defused accusations of partisanship by posting their contributions to Bramson’s past campaigns on the group’s website.
However, Echo Bay opponents do include a number of Republican conservatives who simply do not like Bramson — and never will. They actively campaigned against him and loudly celebrated when he lost.
Bramson may have a tougher time dismissing “Cause of Action,” a nonpartisan watchdog outfit based in Washington that has just released its second scathing report on the doings of Forest City. Among the findings:
• Bramson’s acceptance of $17,500 in campaign donations from Forest City consultants going back to December 2012.
• $5,000 in donations to Bramson from members of the Ratner family.
• $232,448 in consulting fees Forest City paid to the law firm of Al DelBello, a former county executive, who is counted among the most powerful movers and shakers in Westchester.
Citing the same economic complaints as UCBNR, Cause of Action said New Rochelle was a “target” of Forest City’s “political profiteering.”
John Murtagh, a former Yonkers city councilman who hosts a show on WVOX radio in New Rochelle, long has been a critic of Forest City and its heavy-handed powers of persuasion — which, in the case of the Ridge Hill mega-development, led to the imprisonment of two political figures in Yonkers on bribery charges.
“I warned the folks of New Rochelle on the radio,” Murtagh said last week. “Pay attention because standard operating procedure for Forest City, as soon as an election is over, you’re going to see the full-court press.”
Indeed, two days after the election, a man was seen at the New Rochelle train depot, collecting petition signatures on behalf of the Echo Bay development.
Obviously, Forest City doesn’t think this a done deal. Not yet.