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Contenders for Katz seat debate hospitals, schools

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The six Democrats running in a packed race for City Councilwoman Melinda Katz’s (D-Forest Hills) seat called for better health care and more schools in the district at a TimesLedger Newspapers debate last week during which the candidates also tackled the Cord Meyer rezoning, ethnic tensions and term limits in the run-up to the Sept. 15 primary.

District 29 candidates Heidi Harrison Chain, Albert Cohen, Michael Cohen, Mel Gagarin, Karen Koslowitz and Lynn Schulman gathered at the Flushing Library Friday for the one-hour debate held by Community Newspaper Group,the TimesLedger’s parent, which was mostly cordial and during which the candidates frequently agreed with one another.

Each Council hopeful lamented the closings of Parkway, St. John’s and Mary Immaculate hospitals within the past year and said the district was woefully underrepresented when it came to health care. While not all the candidates specifically called for Parkway to reopen as hospital officials fight with the state to restore operations, they all agreed more hospitals are needed in their district and the borough.

“This is an intolerable situation,” Michael Cohen said of the loss of hospitals.

Michael Cohen called for a public referendum that would decide if funds should be used to reopen St. John’s and Parkway.

Albert Cohen and Gagarin also supported reopening Parkway, which was closed by the state Health Department in November.

Gagarin said he wants to create special zoning for hospitals that would mandate a shuttered hospital be replaced by another health facility, and Schulman said she would especially fight to increase the number of ambulances in the district. Chain said she hopes whoever buys St. John’s Hospital in Elmhurst will run some type of health care facility at the site.

The candidates again agreed that schools in their area are often overcrowded and additional schools were needed.

Koslowitz called School District 24 “the most overcrowded school district in the entire United States, and they need schools to be built.” Chain said addressing overcrowding “has to be a priority.”

Schulman agreed more schools were needed but said while residents were waiting during the years it can take before an establishment is built, the city should look into properties it owns to possibly house students before the other buildings are ready.

Albert Cohen had a similar idea and called on the city to look into renting private property that could act as schools. Gagarin said he wants to “work with the School Construction Authority to make sure we’re getting our fair number of seats,” and Michael Cohen said the city Department of Education needs to better communicate with residents to determine where to build new schools.

Every candidate but Albert Cohen agreed with the Cord Meyer rezoning, which aims to curb over-development by limiting the height buildings can be in an area of Forest Hills. Albert Cohen said the move was an affront to the Bukharian community, many of whom live in the Cord Meyer area and have built large homes that others have said are out of character with the neighborhood’s architecture.

“I don’t think it was discrimination against anyone,” Chain said. “It was to protect the community.”

The rezoning, which the Council passed this summer, has highlighted the tension between the Bukharians and non-Bukharians and every candidate said they hoped to bring the different parties together to create a more unified community.

“After the vote on Cord Meyer I reached out to the Bukharian community and talked about how we can live with one another,” Schulman said. “… I want to continue to bring people to the table.”

The six Democrats all slammed the Bloomberg administra­tion’s push and the Council’s vote to extend term limits, and each candidate said they would have voted against it.

Each candidate was permitted to ask a question of one of their opponents during the debate, and much of the focus was on Chain’s decision to decline matching funds. Both Albert Cohen and Michael Cohen questioned why she declined to participate in the program, which has allowed the other candidates to receive more matching funds.

Chain said she opted out of matching funds because she felt it was “inappropri­ate” to take money from the city in tight fiscal times.

Whichever Democrat wins may be challenged for the seat by the sole Republican the city Campaign Finance Board lists as a candidate, Jay Golub. Golub has raised $100, according to city filings, and has not returned repeated messages from this newspaper inquiring as to whether he will run against the Democrat primary’s victor.

A full video of the debate is available online at our new political site, BoroPolitics.com.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

Posted 6:28 pm, October 10, 2011
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