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Boards hit by cuts, loss of computer access

It is a new millennium, but Queens community board members said this week they are being dragged back into the Dark Ages by the prospect of crippling budget cuts and an effort to cut off their computer access to Buildings Department records.

Just a few weeks after Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a 20 percent reduction in the budget for all city agencies and office staffs of the borough’s 14 community boards began scrambling to shrink their budgets, another obstacle emerged.

The city Buildings Department is preparing to end computer access for the city’s community boards. Until recently, community board systems had been linked to the Buildings Department so board members could enter complaints and check the status of construction projects in their districts.

Community boards, which were created in the late 1960s to give city residents a voice in government, respond to and provide a forum for constituent concerns and quality-of-life issues. The boards have small salaried office staffs headed by a district manager and as many as 50 volunteer members.

They hold non-binding votes on zoning, development and construction projects, and traffic issues.

While Bloomberg’s requested 20 percent budget cut is contingent on the city’s economic state in the new fiscal year, which begins July 1, Queens community boards said the planned cuts and loss of computer access are limiting their power.

“We’re supposed to be moving forward, not backward,” said Yvonne Reddick, district manager of Jamaica’s CB 12, echoing the concerns of many Queens boards.

Bernard Haber, longtime chairman of CB 11 in Little Neck, said the budget cuts and the loss of computer access to the Buildings Department system were serious blows to community boards.

“It weakens our ability to do our job,” he said at the January CB 11 meeting.

Queens Village’s CB 13 chairman Richard Hellenbrecht said the changes were “going to stop us in our tracks.”

Many Queens boards said if the 20-percent cut is enacted, they would be forced to reduce their already small staffs.

Marilyn Bitterman, district manager of CB 7 in Flushing, said, “I would have to cut my work force by 25 percent” to meet the budget reductions.

“There’s not too much I can cut from,” she added.

Dan Andrews, spokesman for Borough President Helen Marshall, said she was especially concerned about the budget cut’s impact on community boards.

“She believes it’s going to be a devastating cut,” Andrews said.

As district managers and community board chairmen in the borough tried to figure out how they would reduce their relatively small budgets, they were also stymied by the Buildings Department’s action.

Last week Buildings Department spokeswoman Ilyse Fink defended the agency’s move, saying it was getting ready to install a new call center to handle complaints from community boards and residents.

“Community boards were given this access at a time when our resources were strained,” Fink said. “With the call center, we can now retake that function.”

Fink said the call center would be more efficient than the current system because it would create a single, stream-lined complaint center.

“It will cut down on duplication and properly prioritize complaints,” said Fink, who said the call center would be a staffed office. “Each community board will have a point person. It will be a critical operating component to us.”

But Queens boards do not share the Buildings Department’s enthusiasm for the change.

Hellenbrecht said simply that the Buildings Department change “handcuffs us.”

Gary Giordano, district manager of CB 5 in Glendale, said the lack of computer access may result in more problems than benefits.

“I think that us being able to enter the complaint directly into their system was more efficient and should have cut down on their workload,” Giordano said. “It’s also a question of accuracy — if we are entering that stuff directly into the computer, we’re accountable for the facts of the complaint.”

Kathleen Reilly, district manager of CB 6 in Forest Hills, said the change was “foolish.”

“Boards were supposed to be more interactive with city agencies,” she said. “I was hoping we’d be interactive with other agencies like DOT (Department of Transportation) and Parks, as opposed to asking us out of the one we’re interactive with.”

The TimesLedger staff contributed to this story.

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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