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Mayor addresses concerns at Hamilton Beach meeting

No sooner had the applause died down at the monthly meeting of the New Hamilton Beach Civic Association than the assembled crowd began peppering Bloomberg with questions about issues ranging from the street flooding one might expect in one of Queens' lowest-laying areas to the mayor's controversial education reform package.

Bloomberg offered more realism than quick-fix promises, saying that he and his staff would look into most of the problems and respond within four weeks. "We'll get some answers. Whether you like them or not, I don't know," Bloomberg said.

Meanwhile, in his opening remarks, Bloomberg painted a general picture of the city that was at once realistic and optimistic.

"The city's doing OK," he said while addressing the assembled crowd at Riley's Yacht Club on Russell Street. Despite economically troubling times, Bloomberg said crime had dropped 25 percent to 30 percent over the last three years following a trend set during the Giuliani administration.

"The legacy of Giuliani is that you believe that crime can go down," Bloomberg said. Once Rudolph Giuliani proved that big cities and crime were not necessarily synonymous, Bloomberg added, no future mayors could ever allow crime rates to climb and keep their jobs.

Bloomberg said police forces were doing more with less - the agency has 3,000 fewer cops now - but increased cooperation between law enforcement agencies, including the Police Department and the district attorneys, had made crime-stopping more efficient.

Bloomberg indicated that New York City would continue to face a tough budgetary crunch for at least the next year with fixed and expanding yearly expenses topping $14 billion and a limited pool of revenue. Unlike the state government, which only needs to pass a balanced budget, the city by law must actually balance the books at the end of the year, Bloomberg said.

The city has trimmed $3.5 billion from its budget, he said, "and we've raised some taxes."

"Taxes are a big problem," Bloomberg said, while pointing out that higher taxes were necessary to continue offering major city services that residents expected.

The only solution was to "grow your way out of the problem," he said.

As the city economy recovers, Bloomberg said he would like to eliminate the sales and property tax increases instituted during the last several years, both of which he said would "go away from this year to the next." He also said he intends to roll back property tax increases for homeowners while maintaining them for corporations that "can afford to pay," drawing applause from the crowd.

Several audience members questioned the mayor on his controversial education program that would hold back third-grade students who do not score well enough on a reading exam.

Bloomberg described the period as a crucial dividing line in the education system. After third grade, students are no longer learning to read, he said. "In the fourth grade, you use reading to learn."

Bloomberg went on to say that "there is more of a need for schools in Queens than anywhere else," and said he had continued new construction here while halting it elsewhere for budgetary reasons. The borough has the lowest number of classrooms per student of any borough, he said, principally because the area's population continues to grow.

Attendee John Fazio, who has been active in community issues, said area leaders had been seeking Port Authority land, which is being used as a parking lot, to build a school.

Bloomberg said he has no authority over the PA, and when one audience member asked how long it would take to increase accountability at the New York-New Jersey agency, Bloomberg said: "Do you have any great grandchildren yet?"

It was not the mayor's first comedic interlude of the night: Earlier when several cell phones started to ring as the mayor was speaking, he quipped, "I'm the mayor; I never get a call."

Despite the spontaneous atmosphere, Bloomberg fielded a number of questions about infrastructure in the Hamilton Beach area.

Elizabeth Grassi, who described herself as a Republican activist, decried the lack of sidewalks on area streets, some of which do not meet the city's 60-foot width requirement for sidewalks.

When cars pass her in both directions as she is walking, Grassi said, her only recourse without sidewalks is to say: "Feet don't fail me now, and get me the hell out of the way."

Audience members said street flooding at high tide and during rains, particularly on 99th Street where a new drain was installed, is also a problem.

"In the summertime my children can swim in the street, but they can't ride their bikes," one woman said.

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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