STATEN ISLAND — Nearly 30 years after Staten Island leaders fought exhaustively to secede from New York City, South Shore Councilman Joe Borelli (R) plans to revive that fight again.
In a borough that makes up just 6% of New York City’s population with only three City Council representatives on the 51-member legislative body to serve as a check on the mayor, who controls virtually all city services, Borelli says that in reality, Staten Island leaders have little to no power to effectively deliver city services to the borough.
He wants to change that system.
“The city is 8.5 million people, we have a population the size of Austria, we have a budget the size of Ireland, we have more police officers in uniform then there are people in the entire Royal Navy … all of this stuff is governed by one human,” he said. “That is atypical in the United States of America.”
“Borough presidents and City Council members are not responsible for any service delivery,” he continued.
Borelli plans to introduce two pieces of legislation by next month:
- One would authorize the creation of a committee to look at what kind of government the Island would get if it were to secede and how much the effort would cost.
- Another would form a similar commission to study whether it is feasible to form county governments within New York City.
The last time Staten Island tried to secede from New York City began in 1989, in an effort that was led by Republican Sen. John J. Marchi.
That year, the state Legislature passed a measure signed by then Gov. Mario Cuomo authorizing a study and initiating the process for Staten Island to secede from New York City on the last day of its legislative session.
By 1990, Staten Islanders voted overwhelmingly in favor — 83 percent — of a secession study and by 1991, Cuomo swore in a New York State Charter Commission for Staten Island.
Two years later, in 1993, Staten Islanders approved — 65 percent — a non-binding referendum to secede from New York City and the state Senate also approved a secession bill.
EFFORT KILLED IN ALBANY
But those efforts came to a halt when former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver refused to allow a similar measure to be voted on in the Assembly without a “home rule message” from New York City.
The city never held a secession vote and the measure for Staten Island to secede died in committee.
Similar to the decades-old fight, Borelli said seceding would require a home rule approval from the city and the state would need to be on board too because only the state legislature can form or abolish a county.
If the Island were to secede, Borelli said the borough would likely get a government similar to what was outlined in a 1993 Staten Island secession study, which envisioned a county executive, mayor and some form of local council governing the Island.
Under a county government, Borelli thinks the Island could be governed under a city-county structure similar to cities like San Francisco and Chicago.
BORELLI SECURES LOCAL BIPARTISAN SUPPORT FOR SECESSION
Borelli has secured bipartisan support for his plan.
Minority Leader Steven Matteo (R-Mid Island) has agreed to co-sponsor his bills and State Sen. Diane Savino (D-North Shore) has agreed to carry similar legislation in the state Legislature, he said.
Democratic Assemblyman Michael Cusick said he is open to Borelli’s legislation and willing to explore the issue of secession.
Borelli pointed out that the late Cuomo authorizing the secession study in 1989 was seen largely as a rebuke on then-Mayor Ed Koch for not doing a good job governing the city.
Though he is unsure if Mayor Bill de Blasio will be around to see his legislation through or if he would be on board with his plan, he thinks there is a possibility Gov. Andrew Cuomo could follow in his father’s footsteps in a jab at his rival de Blasio.
“It’s really is impossible to ignore the fact that this is happening in part because of Bill de Blasio, he said. “There’s someone who is disinterested in governing New York City and even more so when it comes to Staten Island.”
The South Shore councilman has been keeping a “pros and cons” list of how the Island could benefit but also lose out if it were to secede from the city.
But he’s under no illusion that secession will be an easy task.
ISLAND COULD FIX DEER PROBLEM, GAIN NEW SERVICES BUT WOULD HAVE TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO SPLIT DEBT WITH CITY
If the Island were to secede, Borelli thinks the borough could do things like finally fix its deer problem by moving forward with a controlled cull, which is illegal in New York City, rather than spending millions on deer vasectomies.
He also thinks the borough could opt out of “duplicative services” like the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, which he said residents can issue similar complaints to the state’s Division of Consumer Protection.
Under secession, the Island would no longer be on the hook for paying for the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation, he said — which is the largest municipal healthcare system in the country that Staten Island is essentially not a part of as the only borough with no public hospital.
HURDLES TO OVERCOME; HOW TO FINANCE IT
But there would be a number of hurdles that would come with seceding from New York City.
Figuring out how to split capital debt with the city on city-owned Island projects and facilities is one. The borough would also need to build a county jail, figure out how to pay for the Freshkills park transformation and split the liabilities for current city pensioners.
“Changing the letters on the police cars aren’t the problem, it’s how we figure out what percentage of city debt we’ll owe for the long-term and what assets would be ours.”
He said Island services would likely be financed through property taxes, sales, and income taxes the borough would control.
Borelli thinks services like the Island’s express bus, which is operated by the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, would remain in place.
Under secession, the South Shore councilman said the Staten Island Ferry and city buildings and properties could be transferred to the Island, but he contended it would be a “very complicated negotiation.”
He said the Island would have to negotiate how much city debt it would be responsible for but in that process could gain the title to some of the real property assets the city owns in the borough.
When it comes to the Island’s free ferry, which is owned and operated by the city’s Department of Transportation, Borelli said worst case, the Island would either have to subsidize the ferry on its own, charge riders, or strike a deal with the city to continue operating the ferry on its own.
He said one of the biggest fears people had during the 1993 secession effort was that property taxes would go up as a result of seceding from New York City. But he said property taxes went up without the borough seceding and in the end, sees no valid counter-argument for why the Island should not try to secede a second time around.
“I find it difficult for the opposition people who wouldn’t want to secede, I think the burden’s on them to prove why Staten Islanders shouldn’t govern Staten Island and what the city does better than what we can do on our own,” he said.
Mid-Island Councilman Matteo said seceding from New York City will be a “complicated undertaking,” therefore a task force to study the endeavor and to understand the cost and consequences is needed first.
Read the article on the Staten Island Advance website at https://www.silive.com/news/2019/11/forgotten-borough-no-more-borelli-moves-forward-with-plan-to-revive-island-secession-from-new-york-city.html