Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC. We are in the home stretch of our year-long series, 51 Council Members in 52 Weeks, in which our goal has been to touch every neighborhood of New York City by talking to every member of the New York City Council in this year, in which most of City council is new because of term limits. Today, we arrive at District 51, the southern third of Staten Island, some of the neighborhoods being Annadale, Bay Terrace-- not the one in Queens, Eltingville, Great Kills, Huguenot, Prince's Bay, Tottenville, and others down there.
We'll talk to the councilmember from there about the district, as we've been doing with all of our guests in this series, but also get a bigger picture minority leaders take from Councilmember Joe Borelli. He does lead the small six-member Republican minority. In this year, when most of the council is new because of term limits, he's one of the longest-serving members, maybe the longest, having been in council since 2015.
His bio page says Borelli is a passionate advocate for conservative ideology and that throughout his career in state and city government, he's been a leader in the movement for property tax reform, lower tolls, taxes and fees, and an unwavering supporter of law enforcement officers. Joe Borelli may be the only member of council with a new book out this year. It's a history book called Staten Island in the Nineteenth Century: From Boomtown to Forgotten Borough. Leader Borelli, great that you're on today. Thanks for joining 51 Council Members in 52 Weeks.
Councilmember Joe Borelli: Anytime. It's great to be the finish line really of this series and to put really the exclamation point on the series. It's a lot of fun. Thank you for having me.
Brian Lehrer: Thank you. I will say, for full disclosure for our listeners, there are a few, even though we've gone in district order through the year as much as we could, a few who for scheduling purposes we couldn't do in order and who we will be making up in the coming days. Your book is new, right? Just out this year?
Councilmember Joe Borelli: Yes. It is the second book I've done on the history of Staten Island. It's a little passion project of mine. I started writing them in 2016. They're a lot of fun. They just really are. Staten Island has a very unique place in the history of not just the city but of the country. It was some of the earliest settled and visited islands by European settlers. We have a rich history of the Lenape people living in the borough. The history just go through the 19th century right up until the consolidation is where I actually stop.
Brian Lehrer: I think that part of the premise of the book, even though it's a 19th-century history book, is really relevant to today. I'm going to read from the Amazon page for the book and then ask you to elaborate. It says, "At the close of the 19th century, Staten Island was swept up in the politics of consolidation with 84% of locals voting to join Greater New York," that's the city of New York as we know it, "yet the promised benefits of a new mega city never materialized."
You want to do some history with us? I think some of our listeners know that the year 1898 was when the various counties consolidated as the five boroughs. Considering how different Staten Island was, even at that time from Manhattan and the further commute to the business districts even then and all that, why did Staten Island decide to join the city?
Councilmember Joe Borelli: Well, it's good. I do go into some of the first-person interviews that the newspapers of the day conducted with some of the borough residents. There was a consensus of two things, that Staten Island's waterfront would be developed for industrial purposes and connected to the rest of the city and the mainland, and the rest of the industrial heartland of America. That was an economic justification for consolidation. A lot of monied interests from Manhattan and the city of Brooklyn were also eager to develop Staten Island's waterfront. It's a great thing.
On the other side, there was also this belief that a greater city would lead to less corruption in government. Seth Low was one of the leaders, Andrew Haswell Green was one of, obviously, the father of Greater New York, was one of these advocates. We had a ring called the Snug ring on Staten Island, which was the local Tammany affiliate. They had one of the biggest scandals of the day in Snug Harbor, where they had these old timer seamen or retired seamen who would vote 3, 4, 5 times and they all got caught.
There was a real interest of removing the local Tammany boss, Nick [unintelligible 00:04:53], and replacing it with a good government. Of course, we know consolidation happened and Seth Low didn't end up winning the first mayoralty. I'm not sure if it came to fruition even then, or maybe even now. The other thing that never happened was the development of Staten Island's waterfront and the connection to the rest of New York City. Greater New York had an ability to bond and do Capital Projects where we get all these subway lines that come out of the new consolidated city's ability to finance. Staten Island never got that. Of course, we never really got the same waterfront development that the other boroughs did.
Brian Lehrer: The subtitle, From Boomtown to Forgotten Borough, do you think since Staten Island is the only borough that the subway system doesn't serve, would that have been technically feasible when the subway was being developed at first? Would it not feel like a forgotten borough had that happened?
Councilmember Joe Borelli: I think it would be. Mayor Hylan, 1918 or '20 or so roughly, did break ground on a subway connection that ironically would have connected, I believe, to the R Line in Bay Ridge. The irony there is that it actually would still take longer in 2022 hours to get to Manhattan from Tottenville going through that way than if you now currently take the ferry or the Staten Island Railroad.
Brian Lehrer: Really?
Councilmember Joe Borelli: Don't forget too, the Greater New York City financed all these bridges, dozens across the East River and Harlem River. It wasn't until the formation of the MTA that we were able to issue transportation revenue bonds to actually finance our own car, automobile connection to the rest of the city.
Brian Lehrer: Staten Island developed with much more of a car culture than the other boroughs. Is that why bringing it up to the present, representing your district, you're a passionate advocate of lower tolls, as your bio page says?
Councilmember Joe Borelli: Oh, sure. Staten Islanders pay upwards of $20 in total to go to New Jersey or to cross the Verrazzano Bridge. We do get a discount there. It's a cost. We have a significant fear of congestion pricing. I don't know if you've been following the news over in the UK, but Mayor Khan had to put the expansion of their version of congestion pricing, ULEZ, as they call it. They had to put it to a public consultation and 66% of Londoners actually voted against the expansion of the congestion charge in London.
Now, this is the same plan that if you go back to even Mayor Bloomberg was being touted as something that Londoners love and it's working really well and it has all these great benefits. When you actually ask Londoners today whether they wanted this system expanded and the prices to go up, they actually voted pretty heavily, two-thirds, against actually expanding it.
It's a fight that's going on right now. We're equally concerned about it here because I think once we implement the tax, once we start issuing bonds and stuff on the revenues that are coming from this tax, it'll never go away, it'll never decrease, and it'll be just a cost that gets perpetually raised just like the tolls. It'll actually cost more to go from Borough Hall Queens to City Hall in Manhattan than it will to actually go from City Hall in Manhattan to City Hall in San Francisco in tolls if you think about that. That's a superlative that I think should resonate with some people. That's crazy.
Brian Lehrer: I saw your tweet this week. "Congestion pricing is a scam here and the UK as New York lawmakers continue to allow massive revenue losses due to fare beating." That was your tweet. The MTA needs funding and the climate needs less driving. If they crack down on fare beating, would you support congestion pricing?
Councilmember Joe Borelli: Well, if we crack down on fare beating, we'd ideally be able to add $500 million back to our revenue pool, which again goes towards paying the bonds on capital debt. That forms the basis of why we financially need congestion pricing in the first place. You could argue the political side of it and the environmental side, but I'm saying that the financial side of congestion pricing, there are other ways. I was in Albany for three years, and, as a staffer, I was there for another decade. Every five or six years, there's another way to raise the revenue needed for the MTA. We've raised payroll taxes 0.25% or something.
There are ways to do this that the burden is more equally shared than a congestion charge on drivers. Like you pointed out earlier, Brian, my constituents don't really have option B. If we don't take our cars somewhere, there oftentimes isn't an option B. I've made this case really everywhere I've been asked about it, I think that the advocates really should just spend a day in City Hall Park right at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge and see who really is taking the Brooklyn Bridge every day. It's not Lexuses and Maseratis, it's not people in top hats and monocles. It's Nissan Sentras. It's Sprinter vans with plumbers in it. It's home healthcare workers in minivans and stuff like that. These really are the working-class people of New York City that we've unilaterally decided will pay for this price.
Brian Lehrer: I know others would say if you look at the average income of people who drive into the city as opposed to others, it would come out differently than what you just said, but we'll leave that as a matter of debate. This is WNYC FM HD and AM New York, WNJT FM 88.1 Trenton, WNJP 88.5 Sussex, WNJY 89.3 Netcong, and WNJO 90.3 Toms River. We are New York and New Jersey public radio and live streaming at wnyc.org. A few more minutes with the New York City Council minority leader, Joe Borelli from Staten Island, from District 51 on the south part of Staten Island in our series, 51 Council Members in 52 Weeks. Are you the longest-serving member being in since 2015?
Councilmember Joe Borelli: I am. I am the dean. I beat Rafael Salamanca by about two months, I think.
Brian Lehrer: How have you seen council change most in those years? One thing that's made news is that it has a female majority this term for the first time ever. Has it moved further left politically or anything else you would say?
Councilmember Joe Borelli: Well, I will tout that my conference also has up until Ari Kagan's switching a female majority, which we're proud of. We also have our first LGBTQ caucus member who's a dear friend of mine, David Carr, which we're also proud of our own diversity in our own conference. I think it's fair to say that the spectrum has been pushed in both directions. I think we have some new members who are young and eager and who are progressive and are trying to push the envelope to the left.
I think we have some conservative members who are more vocal than perhaps republicans and conservatives in the past who are trying to counterbalance that on the right. I think breaking a few eggs sometimes makes a delicious omelet, so I'm not too concerned about that.
I think the really unique change in this council though, is that for the first time in really 20 years, we're seeing a speaker face a reelection, not only in her district but also within the body. I think that does change the dynamic a little bit with who she has to-- I don't want to say placate, but who she has to bring in on a lot of decisions. I think that is a calculation that she has to make.
Whereas my good friend Corey Johnson had an easier time. When you're term-limited as a speaker and a councilmember, it's easier to say 'go scratch' for lack of a better word, if you don't like the direction that someone's heading in. It's going to be fun to watch her play out. I do support her. I wish her well, and even when we disagree politically, I think she's doing a good job.
Brian Lehrer: You think Speaker Adrienne Adams is getting pressure from her left? Is that the bottom line of what you're saying that may cause her to either lose her speakership position or grant certain policy concessions? Do you want to get more specific about that?
Councilmember Joe Borelli: That's essentially what I spent a minute trying to say without saying, is that certainly, the Progressive Caucus is going to flex their muscle a bit more because of this need for her to be receptive to them in a way that we just haven't seen in a while. In a way, Carl Hasty actually has to be perhaps more responsive to all the little blocks of his assembly conference than traditionally the speaker of the council.
Brian Lehrer: As minority leader, what would you say is the best and worst, in your opinion, of what council has done this year?
Councilmember Joe Borelli: As far as this year, the most controversial piece of legislation coming down the pike is this ban on landlord background checks, which is something that my conference and a lot of the Democrats frankly are [unintelligible 00:13:58] very strongly against. It really comes down to the issue of who owns your building or who has the rights to your property. Do landlords have the right to discriminate against people with some serious criminal convictions? I would argue that they do.
They're not a protected class outside of the Fair Housing Act. This would basically create a new protected class that could not be discriminated against. I'm okay discriminating against people who've been convicted of very serious crimes. I think the best thing we've done, something that I really worked on is the property tax rebate that happened earlier in the session.
Now, Comptroller Lander and I and the mayor have been having some small group sessions try to work on how we actually get the full property tax reform through the Albany legislature. As conservative as I am, it's great to have a partner like Brad whose old council district, frankly, will be one of the ones that gets a little harmed in all this with a property tax hikes perhaps.
Brian Lehrer: We only have about a minute before I know you have to go, so let me throw our standard last two questions at you together. In our 51 Council Members in 52 Week series, we're asking everybody, what's the number one reason that constituents contact your office? In your case, has that changed much since 2015? Finally, what's the show and tell item that you've brought us from your district that you'd like other people to know about?
Councilmember Joe Borelli: Number one, it's cost of living and the constant push to move for a lower-- at this point now, it's actually crazy to say, but a lower tax environment in New Jersey, most of my constituents oftentimes consider the move or make the move and that's what they corner me about. My show-and-tell item is oyster shells from shell middens, which are basically refuse piles that the Lenape people and other native tribes have left behind.
You could actually go and finally shell middens in Conference House Park. It was the site of a number of native burials, the site of seasonal camps by Woodland Indians, and it's one of the most interesting archeological sites in the five boroughs in Conference House Park, where you can take your kids and find a shell midden and actually talk to them about it.
Brian Lehrer: New York City Council minority leader and a representative from the 51st Council District in the southern third of Staten Island, Joe Borelli. Thank you so much for joining 51 Council Members in 52 Weeks. Let's keep talking.
Councilmember Joe Borelli: Thank you so much, Brian.
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