Two huge fish tanks that cost $750,000 were unveiled February 19 at the Staten Island ferry terminal by Mayor Bloomberg, who joked, "I really don't think people have a reason to carp about this." Why am I not laughing at this colossal waste of taxpayer money that will cost nearly $100,000 a year to upkeep? A week earlier I had approached one of the plainclothes men standing with the NYPD officers and asked if the police officers had received their raise. He shook his head and when I asked who was paying for the tanks, he said, "It's coming out of your wallet."
I also spoke to the young officer aboard the ferry and asked him why police were not getting their raise. What's the holdup? He shrugged his shoulders and said, "I don't know." Why is it that the administration can be intimidated by the teacher's union but has no problem playing hardball with the PBA? The superb HBO drama "The Wire" dramatizes the funding battle in Baltimore that leaves its police department unable to cope with violent crime because the mayor places the schools ahead of law and order. Is New York on that same path?
Yes, the fish are exotic and lovely to look at, but any Zen moment is hard for me to achieve when I consider that the city has one of the lowest paid metropolitan police forces. Starting salary for new recruits who will be risking their lives to protect the citizens of New York City is only $25,000 and, surprise, surprise, very few high-quality applicants are taking the skimpy offer.
The gentleman I spoke to at the terminal claimed that the NYPD budget has cut back on overtime, and his remarks about the understaffed force are reiterated on many of the NYPD forums on the Internet. Over and over we read reports that crime is down, but is that a reality or are those statistics being manipulated?
During the Giuliani administration, there was a significant police presence in the housing projects and a reduction in random shooting incidents. This is no longer the case. In February 2006, the NYPD dissolved Staten Island's Housing Unit so that there are no longer officers patrolling the city housing developments. Voila. No cops on patrol, therefore crime increases. Since I live near the notorious Stapleton housing project, where undercover cops Rodney Andrews and James Nemorin met Ronell Wilson for a gun deal in 2003 that cost them their lives, the issue of adequate police protection weighs much more heavily for me than exotic fish swirling in a fake lagoon.
I'm not going to blame Borough President James Molinaro for spending capital funding for the tanks, because that's just the way the system works. He explained to Staten Island Advance reporters, "This is capital money. I can't hire a school teacher, I can't hire a cop, I can't put a new bus on the street with this money."
The person responsible for assigning these expenditures, Mayor Bloomberg, is a big believer in the soothing effect that aquariums have on harried commuters, and insists, "These tanks are really going to add to the 'lure' of Staten Island." Sure. All the tourists are going to get off the ferry from Manhattan, see the fish floating in their tanks, and then get an overwhelming urge to visit the rest of the borough. I find that scenario highly unlikely.
It makes me wonder if Mayor Bloomberg has ever been a tourist himself. The only way these tourists are ever going to leave the terminal to explore the rest of the borough is if it becomes easy to do so.
I happen to think that Staten Island has a lot of unique sites to offer not only to tourists but to other New York residents who view this borough as the forgotten borough, or just the "boondocks." Mr. Molinaro would have been wiser to open a special bus ramp with vintage trolley cars that travel directly to attractions such as Snug Harbor Cultural Center; the Tibetan Museum; the historic Conference House; the Richmond Town restoration; South Beach, and many other places of interest. This is the greenest borough, which should be of interest to environmentalists and wildlife lovers, but right now, these places are just too hard to get to and tourists have limited schedules. Tour buses are another option.
My concern for the tourists and the fish, however, ranks way behind my concern for our police officers and public safety.