Renovations to basketball courts, playground at Queensbridge Houses are underway

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By Bill Parry

TimesLedger Newspapers

The basketball courts and playground at the Queensbridge Houses are about to get a complete overhaul.

City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) joined community leaders Tuesday for a groundbreaking ceremony for the $350,000 project funded through last year’s Participatory Budgeting in which more than 3,600 residents in his district decided how to spend $1.85 million in funding.

Investments in the basketball courts and playground at Queensbridge were among the winning projects, as they provide outdoor space for children and youth to play, build relationships and engage with their community. The renovations are part of Van Bramer’s ongoing commitment to improving quality of life for residents in the Queensbridge Houses and in public housing throughout his district.

“The basketball courts in Queensbridge are central to this community,” Van Bramer said. “I am thrilled to have allocated funding to renovate and restore the courts and nearby playground. These basketball courts have helped generations of Queensbridge residents develop their talents and leadership skills. I am proud to ensure that future leaders have a place to gather, grow and build community.”

Meanwhile, Van Bramer may have company in the race to succeed Queens Borough President Melinda Katz when her second term expires in 2021. City Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) hosted a fund-raiser last week in which supporters were invited to help him “expand on our legacy and fight for higher office once my term ends.”

Van Bramer announced he would seek the borough president office in February and while Constantinides would not comment specifically on his plans, he did say he is mulling his next step in public service when his second term comes to an end in three years.

“Through my service on the City Council, I am proud of everything we’ve been able to accomplish for our community, including better access to health care, new ferry service, and key investments in our public schools,” Constantinides said in a statement. “I am committed to fighting for Queens and addressing the challenges that remain throughout the rest of my time in office. I am also eager to explore opportunities to continue to serve the people of Queens and fight for a brighter future.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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Source: Times Ledger

Springtime theater promises to delight in Queens

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By Ronald B. Hellman

TimesLedger Newspapers

“We’ve never seen anything this bizarre in our lifetimes, where up is down and down is up and everything is in question and nothing is real.” — Charles Lewis, the Center for Public Integrity

Try to put those recurring thoughts out of your mind because, hey, it’s spring, it’s warming up, and local theater is in full bloom. Here are three productions to put on your list.

The Astoria Performing Arts Center once again fulfills its mission to bring high-quality professional theater to Queens, winding up its 17th season with the legendary musical “Follies” (book by James Goldman and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim). As we devoted Sondheim fans know, the characters in “Follies” examine the choices they made that have shaped their lives, while they say goodbye to a theater about to be demolished where some of them used to perform.

Coincidentally, APAC will also say goodbye to its performance space of 10 years — in a gym that you would never recognize as such — at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church — located at 30-44 Crescent St. It will announce its new location this summer.

Artistic Director Dev Bondarin directs “Follies” which runs from May 3 through May 26, with performances scheduled for Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

“We are having a great time and can’t wait to share this show with an audience,” Bondarin said.

Since its inception, APAC has received 51 New York Innovative Theater Award nominations and has won 11 times, including four times for Outstanding Musical Production.

Over in Flushing at Electchester, a housing co-op created specifically for trade workers, Working Theater and its Five Boroughs/One City Initiative presents the world premiere of “Alternating Currents,” by Adam Kraar, directed by Kareem Fahmy, with a professional cast and crew, a tale of love and diversity and two newly-married electricians. (Do sparks fly?)

Performances are scheduled from April 26 through April 28 in Queens (Local 3 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on Jewel Avenue) before touring the other four boroughs and settling down at Urban Stages in Manhattan.

Working Theater is in its 33rd season. Its mission is to create theater for and about working people. The initiative, launched in 2014, commissions five teams of writers, directors and other artists with the goal of producing theater rooted in a neighborhood of each of New York City’s boroughs. Access theworkingtheater.org or call (866) 811-4111 for more information.

Last but not least is Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” presented by our oldest Queens troupe, the Douglaston Community Theater, at the Zion Episcopal Church — located off Northern Boulevard and 243rd Street — from May 4 to May 12. This production merits special attention since it features Frank DiSpigno, now in his 51st year as an actor and director.

DiSpigno, a Whitestone resident, seldom performs in Queens these days, so catch him while you can. He stars in “The Sunshine Boys”, along with Gary Tifeld, and also directs. Rumor has it that he may also help set up the chairs and work the concessions, but as I have already suggested, who knows what’s real these days.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBHOFC@gmail.com.

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Source: Times Ledger

Put money back into the hands of people

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By Warren Schreiber

TimesLedger Newspapers

The property tax system in this city has been broken for decades.

It’s no secret. I’ve known about it since I became president of the Bay Terrace Co-op 20 years ago, and my neighbors feel the pinch of it every month when they pay their maintenance bills, which includes the tax.

It’s also no secret that the city has been reluctant to do anything about it other than pay lip service to protecting the middle class. Fortunately, after years of neglect, homeowners could be on the verge of getting some well-deserved relief.

The City Council recently proposed a $400 property tax rebate to all homeowners making under $150,000 as part of their response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s preliminary budget. I know I’m not alone when I say that’s a great idea. My neighbors, the people who live in my co-op, are seniors on fixed incomes, teachers, firefighters and single moms. For them, an extra $400 could pay for groceries, doctor’s bills or new clothes and shoes for their kids.

Unfortunately, Mayor de Blasio — who would need to approve the property rebate plan as part of the budget process — said last week that the $400 rebate is a non-starter because he doesn’t “see” the resources in the city’s $89 billion budget to pay for it.

I say we get him a pair of glasses.

His refusal to even entertain the notion of a property tax rebate for homeowners came just days after Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced the Council’s plan. Instead of opening the door to having a conversation about a rebate, he basically slammed it shut.

That’s not right. There should always be room for discussion — especially when it comes to a rebate that would be paid for, at least in part, through property tax money the middle class has been sending the city Department of Finance for years.

I understand reforming tax law and changing property valuation formulas is a complex process that won’t happen overnight, but my neighbors in Bay Terrace could use the relief now. Forty percent of what our shareholders put into our budget pays for property taxes. This year, the initial valuation assessment for our co-op – the figure property taxes are based on – went up 11 percent. Which means our bills went up, and for many of us, that’s really tough to keep up with.

It’s not fair, and it’s gone on for too long.

This is why Johnson’s rebate proposal is such a good idea. It’s not going to fix everything. It’s not meant to, but it lets us know he’s actually serious about doing something.

It’ll put money back into the hands of people who, if we’re being fair about it, shouldn’t have had to fork over the money as part of their tax bills in the first place.

Warren Schreiber is president of Bay Terrace Cooperative Section 1.

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Senate passes Gianaris bill that would enforce harsher penalties on drivers who kill, injure pedestrians

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By Bill Parry

TimesLedger Newspapers

Almost a half decade has passed since state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) first introduced legislation that would toughen penalties on drivers without valid licenses who kill or injure pedestrians, cyclists or other motorists and the measure was approved unanimously Monday by the state Senate. The bill now awaits action in the state Assembly, where it sits in the Codes Committee.

Gianaris first introduced the bill, which would increase the penalty for killing someone while driving with a suspended license to a Class D Felony in 2013, after 8-year-old Noshat Nahian was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer in Woodside as he tried to cross Northern Boulevard to attend his third grade class at PS 152. Gianaris redoubled his efforts following the tragic death of Ridgewood teen Kevin Flores in January.

Flores was killed when he was struck by an oil truck as he rode his bicycle in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The driver was arrested and charged with one count of aggravated unlicensed operation of a vehicle.

“I am pleased the Senate passed this important proposal, which is the first step towards delivering justice for families victimized by reckless motorists. The dangerous drivers continue to kill because the current punishment does not fit the crime,” Gianaris said. “We must get serious about strengthening our laws before another life is lost at the hands of drivers who should not be behind the wheel.”

The most severe penalty a district attorney can seek currently in such instances is a misdemeanor. Convicted drivers are rarely sentenced to any jail time at all and they are free to commit additional offenses, according to Gianaris, who pointed out that Phillip Monfoletto, the driver who allegedly killed Kevin Flores, had nine license suspensions on his record and continued to drive with a suspended license, even mocking the leniency of current laws in a Facebook post.

“My dearest friend Kevin Flores was killed and had an amazing future ahead of him,” Neyfa Philogene, a seventh grade classmate of Kevin’s at Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School, said. “It is really an honor that this bill was passed to honor not only him but the children that have been killed in car crashes. This shows a lot of love. We loved Kevin and miss him.”

Gianaris’ legislation would increase the penalty to a class E felony for seriously injuring a person and a class D felony if the collision resulted in death, with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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NYPD: 4-month-old girl found dead in Jackson Heights home

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By Bill Parry

TimesLedger Newspapers

JACKSON HEIGHTS — The NYPD is investigating the death of a 4-month-old baby girl in Jackson Heights. Police, responding to a 911 call around 10:50 a.m. Monday, discovered the little girl unconscious inside her family’s home on 35th Avenue. Zeyrep Kocaman was unresponsive with no obvious signs of trauma, police said.

The baby was transported by EMS to Elmhurst Hospital Center, where she was pronounced dead, according to the NYPD. The New York City medical examiner will determine the cause of death.

— Bill Parry

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MTA announces major overhaul of Astoria Blvd. station will include four elevators

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By Bill Parry

TimesLedger Newspapers

After decades of complaints from the Astoria community about the lack of accessibility at subway stations along the N/W line, the MTA announced Tuesday that four elevators would be installed at the Astoria Boulevard station, beginning this summer.

The project will include a pair of street-to-mezzanine elevators as well as another two mezzanine-to-platform elevators. The installation of the street elevators will require the complete demolition and reconstruction of the entire station mezzanine, which will also be raised to reduce strikes by trucks driving underneath.

“I’ve made accessibility one of my top priorities since the moment I arrived at New York City Transit and am thrilled that we’re bringing elevators to this critical intermodal hub that connects to LaGuardia Airport,” NYC Transit President Andrew Byford said. “We are continuing to spend billions of dollars on accessibility throughout the entire subway system. The systemwide study that’s underway now, combined with future funding in the MTA capital plan, will provide the path forward to even more accessibility improvements.”

Work at the Astoria Boulevard station is expected to get underway in September and the station will remain open for service until work is completed at nearby stations in February 2019. The Astoria Boulevard station will then fully close for nine months for the reconstruction project, which will accommodate the four new elevators.

“Our community has been waiting for an accessible station on the N/W line for decades, and the news about Astoria Boulevard was a long time coming,” state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) said. “Still, the MTA is not doing nearly enough to cushion the blow that will come with the extended station closure during construction. We’re already dealing with closing businesses and inconvenienced riders where other stations are closed. The MTA needs to do more to help our community deal with yet another months-long shutdown.”

The MTA closed the 30th and 36th avenue stations in October for massive infrastructure repairs. They will reopen in June. The Broadway and 39th Avenue stations will be closed for seven months beginning in July and work at the Ditmars Boulevard station begins this month and is scheduled to be completed by June 2019, with the station remaining open throughout the project.

“Our community has spent years advocating for elevators at the station to improve accessibility for people with disabilities, parents with strollers, and seniors.,” City Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) said. “However, our community’s experience with the MTA’s 30th Avenue station closure has left us with many burdens, concerns, and unanswered questions. While closing the station will bring some negative effects to our neighborhood during the construction, including longer commute times and more crowded stations, the added accessibility features will bring essential long-term infrastructure improvements to the station. I will continue to hold the authority accountable on this and other similar projects.”

The MTA says it will perform community outreach to nearby businesses and other properties which will precede the project, while a major notification effort including extra personnel, signage, social media and advertisements will help ensure that customers and neighbors are prepared for any disruptions.

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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Source: Times Ledger

Colorful Hindu celebration of spring revisits Richmond Hill

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By Mark Hallum

TimesLedger Newspapers

Hundreds from the Hindu community showed up to get colorful by tossing rainbow-hued powder at one another and to celebrate the beginning of spring at the 30th Annual Phagwah Festival Saturday in accordance with tradition.

What has also become a Queens tradition led by Indo-Caribbean organizations strong in the areas surrounding South Richmond Hill has not lost momentum over the years, but there is some concern that Hindu beliefs may be diminishing with the younger crowd.

Born in Guyana, Romeo Hitlall organized the April 14 event and has been living in Richmond Hill for more than 32 years with his wife and two children who are in college.

“We try to promote the culture so that our kids and the younger generation can continue to understand our culture. We don’t want them to lose their identity,” Hitlall said. “There’s a lot of kids who go to Catholic school or public schools where the Hindu religion is not part of the system… We try to get the young people out to participate in the religion. Back home, in Guyana or Trinidad, this is how they would have celebrated [spring], they would play with the colors.”

Also known as Holi, Phagwah was originally meant to be celebrated March 2, Hitlall said, but it was postponed until warmer weather arrived.

The organizer’s judgment call paid off with a hot, sunny day for the celebration during which powder in shades of red, blue, purple, green and white were thrown on one another.

Preceded by a parade, the full celebration at Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto Park was the scene of the “Festival of Colors” where revelers douse one another with bright powder, listen to music, dance and enjoy free food.

On stage was well-known Guyanese freedom fighter Pandit Ramlall — who arrived at the forefront of the parade in a white convertible BMW — and Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), who issued an official proclamation.

Rohan Narine follows in the footsteps of his father, Dhanpaul, as a community leader by heading up the Sadhana organization with his wife.

One of the group’s focuses is on the beach clean-up efforts at Jamaica Bay after Hindu rituals are performed on the waterway.

Jamaica Bay acts as an American stand-in for the Ganges River for prayer offerings known as “Ganga Puja,” according to Sadhana’s website.

Unlike the Ganges, the bay known for its pollution does not carry debris away like the holy river in India and Bangladesh.

But beach cleanup is not Sadhana’s only purpose, however. The group promotes domestic violence prevention and intervention in southern Queens and has teamed up with the city government to accomplish its goals.

“One of the things we’ve been doing is trying to enhance the public, private and non-profit partnership, such that the Hindu temples are coming from the non-profit/religious side and we are trying to represent city government in a way that can benefit and enhance the safety and lifestyle of the community,” Narine said. “We’ve partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Domestic Violence to spread pamphlets, to educate, and to connect people from the community who might otherwise be concerned to come out or that their identity might be revealed and they might want to keep that hidden in immigrant populations. We’re trying to give to them a safe space with services that are free.”

The Federation of Hindu Mandirs plays a big role in the city connecting different temples and organizing the Mahatma Gandhi Peace March, a seven night event in October, and domestic violence outreach.

The Phagwah celebration in Richmond Hill is currently the only one of its kind in the city and draws large numbers of Hindus from Brooklyn.

Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhallum@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4564.

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Source: Times Ledger

Peralta rallies for DREAM Act at Flushing Meadows Corona Park

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By Naeisha Rose

TimesLedger Newspapers

State Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) joined Dreamers and their advocates last week at a rally held at the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park to call on the New York State Senate to pass the Dream Act and expand the Tuition Assistance Program to undocumented college students.

The Dream Act was a bill that was introduced in 2001 that would have given eligible undocumented individuals who were brought to the country as minors a pathway to legal status. The 2017 version of the bill offers a three-step pathway to U.S. citizenship through college, work or the armed forces if eligible.

The demonstration comes weeks after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the dissolution of the Independent Democratic Conference and the reunification of most of those Democratic Senate members with mainline Democrats. The mending of the party could improve the chances for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, the latest version of the Dream Act.

The IDC was a coalition of eight Democrats, including Peralta, who partnered with the Senate Republicans in the hope of sharing power with conservatives and passing progressive legislation as the GOP held a majority in Albany.

Peralta hopes that the reunification and the April 24 special elections for state Senate seats in Westchester and the Bronx will give Senate Democrats the magical 32 seats they need to have a majority in the 63-seat chamber and help the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act pass before the final weeks of the legislative session comes to a close in June.

“In this past session we brought up [the DREAM Act] in a hostile amendment, but because we did not have enough votes, it did not pass on the floor,” said Peralta. “Now on the state level, to the congressional level and everyone on the ground there is a unity. There are people moving together forward as one as Democrats.”

The night before the April 12rally Jessica Ramos, a Jackson Heights resident who left Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to challenge Peralta for his District 13 seat, sent out a mass email with a fact sheet describing how the senator’s alignment with Republicans in 2016 was one of the factors behind the DREAM Act not passing.

“Jose Peralta pretends to care about Queens’ immigrant families while undermining the Dream Act every step of the way,” Ramos said. “For two straight years, Peralta blocked the Dream Act by conceding power to the Republicans. Now, with an election looming, Peralta has decided he is a Democrat who will fight for the Dream Act once again. Queens’ residents won’t fall for this bait and switch — it’s too little, too late.”

Ramos accused Peralta of faking concern about the lack of passage of the bill, which was shot down by Republicans in the Senate he supported earlier this year, because of a hostile amendment he inserted.

A hostile amendment is a revision on a bill aimed to derail the stated intent and purpose of a resolution, according to www.nysenate.gov.

“As the daughter of immigrants, I’m deeply offended by Peralta’s empty lip service on the DREAM Act,” said Ramos. “Immigrant families are suffering because of Peralta’s dangerous alliance with the party of Trump, and I’m running to put an end to Peralta’s charade and take real action on the Dream Act.”

Peralta said that Ramos is just full of talk.

“Any of my opponents can talk about they will do this or they will do that, but what are you doing to put the energy and the legwork to make it happen?” Peralta said. “Are you lobbying legislators? Are you talking to Democrats, Republicans and Independents? Are you putting in the hours and negotiating what it is to get to that magic number of 32. If you are not, then you are just talking the talk because you are running for office.”

The Dreamers who stood in the sweltering heat next to the Unisphere were less concerned about Peralta’s role in the IDC and more interested in getting the bill passed and help fellow Dreamers succeed.

“We support the senator’s legislation to pass the Dream Act,” said Franco Arroyo, the executive assistant of the Dominico-American Society of Queens, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of Queens residents.

The organization has its headquarters in Corona and many of the students who are apart of its youth development program are undocumented.

“We see that the [kids] have fire in their eyes, and we want to support themso that they continue their education, however, many of them are unaware of the situations they are in as their families may not have told them about their status,” Arroyo said. “We need to fight for the Dream Act. We need to fight for the next generation of leaders.”

Reach reporter Naeisha Rose by e-mail at nrose@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.

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Source: Times Ledger

Mets’ starting rotation is dealing, but can the pitchers stay healthy?

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By Zach Gewelb

TimesLedger Newspapers

The Mets finally have a chance to see what the team — and fans —have envisioned for years: all five of their vaunted starting pitchers in the rotation at the same time.

The fearsome fivesome of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler took a turn together in the rotation last week for the first time and the results have given the Mets a reason to be excited.

Matz tossed five innings of one-run ball — an unearned run — against the Nationals. Harvey surrendered four runs in five innings the following day against Washington. Syndergaard pitched six innings of two-run ball against Miami. The next game, deGrom allowed four runs in six innings and Wheeler followed with seven innings, giving up only one run against Miami.

The totals: 29 innings pitched, 26 hits, 10 earned runs — good for a 3.10 ERA — seven walks and 28 strikeouts in the five game stretch. Most importantly, the Mets won all five games.

You can’t question those results.

This group has always had the potential to perform like this. But injuries have gotten in the way, which is why the five pitchers have never taken a turn in the rotation together before now.

Now the question is: can they keep it up?

To start, it’s a long shot that this group stays together as currently constructed. The Mets signed veteran southpaw Jason Vargas as a free agent this offseason to join the rotation. A Spring Training injury to his non-throwing hand has kept him sidelined for the time being, but he’s set to return soon. The Mets are paying Vargas $16 million for the next two seasons, which makes it unlikely the team will move him to the bullpen. When he completes his rehab assignment and proves he’s ready to go, Vargas will likely join the rotation.

Even if Vargas wasn’t around, the Mets also have Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman as starting caliber pitchers. Right now, they’re both pitching out of the bullpen, and can be called on to start in a moment’s notice.

And then there’s the injury concern.

Harvey has had trouble staying healthy since his 2013 Tommy John surgery. He returned in 2015 and pitched well, but broke down in 2016 and 2017 with other injuries that have also limited his effectiveness.

Wheeler also missed more than a season due to Tommy John surgery and Matz has had elbow and arm issues. While deGrom has been the most healthy of the bunch, he, too, had Tommy John surgery when he was a minor league player in 2010.

Every pitcher has injury risk. But given the history of these pitchers, it’s easy to wonder how long there will be stability in the Mets’ rotation.

So while it’s nice to see this group pitch together, don’t be surprised if the rotation looks a little different later in the season. But for now, enjoy the show. Because if these pitchers stay healthy and pitch to their potential, the Mets will be a force to be reckoned with this season.

Reach reporter Zach Gewelb by e-mail at zgewelb@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4539.

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Source: Times Ledger

Stringer town hall focuses on better education, transportation and improved senior centers

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By Naeisha Rose

TimesLedger Newspapers

City Comptroller Scott Stringer spelled out his priorities for Cambria Heights residents last week, holding a civic association meeting at Community Bridge Home to address and find potential solutions to quality-of-life issues in that neighborhood and in the city.

Some of the topics Stringer focused on were seniors, transportation access and education at the April 12 meeting.

“This city is getting older by the day,” said Stringer. “By the next couple of decades we are going to have 1.4 million seniors.”

The comptroller pointed out to the audience that the city only spends 0.4 percent on seniors in the city budget and that the current aging population is living longer than those in the generations before them.

“Seniors are living longer, they are more engaged than ever before, seniors are using technology, and yet a lot of the programs that we have [for them] is for a different era,” said Stringer, who has an 86-year-old mother and a 90-year-old stepfather who still plays tennis.

His solution was better senior centers, an improvement to Access-A-Ride, more and improved access to escalators in subway stations, and bus service that not only comes on time, but also goes to hard-to-reach areas.

In terms of transit, Stringer said an audit his office conducted showed that New York City’s bus service was the slowest in the nation and that bus routes are not extensive enough in Queens, because 20 years ago nearly 58 percent of workers went to Manhattan for work, which is no longer the case today.

The comptroller also said the city is losing hundreds of millions of dollars by having slowed down bus and subway service at night, which does not accommodate people who work evening or twilight shifts and tourists who visit the city.

“We have to fix our transportation system, we have to put the money in the system, and put management to the issue, and that is something that we must deal with,” said Stringer.

Not only does the comptroller want to secure funds to help seniors and adults travel, but he also wants to ensure the future of the youth by having more teachers who specialize in STEM and the arts, two areas that he said will have the most viable jobs of tomorrow.

“The high-tech economy is now defined by science, by the arts and those are where the opportunities our grandchildren and children will have,” said Stringer, who has an elementary school-age child. “We have to make sure that all of our schools have certified arts teachers and science teachers offering kids real curricula… so that they can become coders and entrepreneurs in the 21st century economy.”

His last goal for education is for zip code-less schools.

“You should be able to go to a school and have a real future and not be discriminated against by the time you are 5 years old.”

Reach reporter Naeisha Rose by e-mail at nrose@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.

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Source: Times Ledger