By Mark Hallum
Borough President Melinda Katz is looking to keep the ball rolling on what she describes as a successful first term with Queens now the fastest growing borough in the city.
Among the issues she is leading on are supporting immigrant services, boosting public transportation options and reducing overcrowding in schools. One of her recent projects has included establishing an immigration task force, a network of non-profits that can aid the diverse population of Queens through tightening regulations under the Trump administration.
“Queens is very distinct, I have [government officials] from all over the world that come into my office and meet with me just to see how we do it,” Katz told TimesLedger staff during a recent visit to the newsroom, explaining how Chilean leaders had recently toured the borough. “They just want to know how Queens manages it as they get more immigrants and also just out of curiosity. They hear about Queens, they hear about how we make it work really well. As I tell them, we don’t tolerate it, we celebrate it.”
For these reasons, Katz said she stands by the city’s policy of remaining a sanctuary city as residents begin to worry about their ability to stay in the United States. Fears have risen as reports of Immigration and Customs Enforcement activities made their way into public awareness. Not only have ICE agents made an appearance at a school in Queens since President Donald Trump’s attempts to crack down on illegal immigration, but according to Katz, ICE has also been present at courthouses where human trafficking trials are taking place.
“I think the fact that we’re a sanctuary city, though, makes us safer,” Katz said. “Remember: The police department doesn’t report undocumented folks and that’s a good thing. People should be able to report domestic violence and crime in the neighborhood without worrying that people are going to have ICE problems.”
The Immigration Task Force is a network of legal and social work organizations that advocate for the emigre communities with special outreach to Muslim residents. According to Katz, although these organizations are separate, they work together as one within the task force, offering specialty services to cover every angle an individual situation could present.
Since Queens is a transit desert, Katz sees Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to fund the MTA with congestion pricing an unfair burden on residents of the outer boroughs. She wants to keep the East River bridges free from tolls for residents commuting between Queens and Manhattan.
“There’s something in me that doesn’t feel it’s right that you should have to pay to go into a certain part of Manhattan if you’re not from there,” Katz said, pointing out that Queens residents drive more than any other borough. “Only a third of our borough is covered by subways, so from the get-go, it’s an issue.”
Katz believes the growth of ferry service is beneficial to Queens and gave Mayor Bill de Blasio credit for making this option a reality compared to other administrations which have failed to keep the promise of delivering on commuter ferries.
In terms of how the city or state should address the derelict Rockaway Beach Line right-of-way, decommissioned by the LIRR in the 1960s, Katz is critical of the proposal to make a high line park from the rusty, 3.5-mile trestle.
The Queens Way proposal would require better police presence and would be a burden on the city Department of Parks and Recreations, Katz said.
The Rockaway Beach Line proposal has its own set of drawbacks, such as moving the land underneath the trestle back into state hands since it was handed over to the city, and funding the MTA so the line can be safely activated again.
Katz has also taken on the task of reducing over-crowding in schools, most notoriously symbolized by the use of trailer classrooms put in place temporarily decades ago yet still in service. The borough president has worked with the Dept. of Education and the School Construction Authority to expand options for families so students can learn in a better environment.
Katz will run opposed by Republican candidate William Kregler in the general election.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall