By Mark Hallum
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) is touting his record in his bid for re-election and hopes to continue with his work on quality-of-life issues in the northeast Queens district as he faces fellow Democrat John Liu for the second time in the Sept. 13 primary.
While he pursues the push for better maintenance of city-owned trees affecting residents of the suburban neighborhoods from Flushing to Douglaston, the incumbent told the TimesLedger Newspaper staff he wants to preserve the SHSAT exam for selective high schools and address the growing problem of illegal conversions of single-family homes into multiple-family dwellings.
“I sent out a tree survey in February to certain [areas] where there are a lot of one-family homes that have a tree in front of their housing, asking them do you feel safe, is it a problem, do you know about the tree and sidewalk repair program. We got 1,200 responses,” Avella said, explaining how the city Department of Parks still is not able to tackle all the tree issues in the city. “In terms of my district, we pay some of the highest property taxes in the country. All they want is proper services and they’re entitled to it.”
Avella said that trees in decline now get an A-D rating system for setting priority for tree removal, which he contended has not improved, and claimed what once took 90 days to see forestry inspections, pruning or removals done, is now taking an extended period of time.
After serving two terms in the City Council, Avella was elected to the state Senate in 2010 and is being challenged for his seat by Liu, who decided to enter the primary in the final hour after being urged by some Democrats to run. In 2014 Liu, a former city comptroller, lost his bid to unseat Avella in the primary by 560 votes.
While many other former members of the IDC are facing intense scrutiny from their constituents, such as state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst), Avella does not see his own constituents taking issue with his association with the now dissolved breakaway group known for negotiating with the majority Republican.
Until Avella defeated longtime Republican state Sen. Frank Padavan in 2010, the 11th Senate District was dominated by the GOP. City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Bayside), who is now in prison serving a sentence for corruption, was succeeded by Paul Vallone (D-Bayside).
Avella, like many other state officials, stands against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s call to abolish the SHSAT in order to bring more children of color into the city’s specialized high schools.
“There is a legitimate diversity issue. The problem is not the test. The problem is we’re not educating kids at the lower grades to be able to pass the test,” said Avella, who he is not opposed to the legislation required at the state level to abolish the exam. But he has introduced his own bill to create gifted and talented programs in every district in the city and advance courses to prepare students for the SHSAT.
“The interesting thing is that the diversity is in minority communities. That’s where there are no gifted and talented programs, and that is a fact that the mayor doesn’t tell people… It’s a politically correct thing to say ‘we have to do this to increase diversity,’ but we’re not helping the kids, we’re educating them. So you can change the plan, you can change the admission process, but if you’re not providing the best education, you’re accomplishing nothing.”
According to Avella, the city Department of Buildings is slow to respond to complaints of illegal conversions, something he partially blamed on the emergence of home sharing app Airbnb.
“With Airbnb now, some of these property owners are converting into multiple rooms and then listing on Airbnb and the DOB is taking forever to go out and inspect,” Avella said. “We have some very active civics that are checking Airbnb and they’re sending me this stuff, where they’re advertising four baths, five apartments in a one family house… Dept. of Buildings is a revenue-generating agency. In other words, it raises more money than it takes to operate.”
The DOB could afford to hire a larger staff to keep up with calls and complaints, according to Avella, who advocated for banning developers and individuals with a history of consistent violations.
“If you’ve so consistently violated the law, you should be prohibited from operating in construction,” Avella said.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall