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Authorized to no avail: Dennis Phayre was towed against the lot owner’s wishes. Photo: Alicia Solsman

Dude, Where’s My Car?
As downtown Albany drivers scramble for legit parking places, even some who do the right thing get towed

Ah, the holidays in Albany. The lights along Lark Street. The ice skaters twirling in front of the Christmas tree in Empire State Plaza. The sight of your upended car dangling from the rear of a tow truck.

’Tis the season to get towed in the city. Downtown parking—never exactly abundant in Albany—gets scarcer this time of year as shoppers and partygoers vie for a space to stash their cars. Add to this combination the 3-foot snow banks along the curbs that make tight spaces even tighter, bring on an overeager tow-truck driver, and your night out may end up with the cops getting called.

Such was the recent experience of Dennis Phayre, owner of Albany’s Shades of Green restaurant on Lark Street. The tale starts with Phayre waking up one night in late November to an odd sound in the parking lot of the former Junior League building at 419-421 Madison Ave., across the street from his home.

Phayre knew that Osborne Street Garage had held a contract with the previous owner of the building to tow improperly parked cars off the premises. However, he had permission to park there from the new owners of the building—Terra Stratton and her husband, Christopher Migliaro, who recently had told Osborne to suspend the towing contract until otherwise notified. But Phayre’s two cars were indisputably on their way out of the parking lot, courtesy of an Osborne Street Garage tow truck.

Albany police always stand by when a tow truck is hooking up an illegally parked car on a city street. Tempers tend to flare at such times. But the police can’t be ex pected to settle the question of who had what right to park on which privately owned lot, said De tective James Miller, the Albany Police Department’s spokesman. “That’s a completely separate issue,” he said. “The city doesn’t have any jurisdiction over that. That becomes a civil matter. Are there situations where there are private lots where a tow company can be overzealous, or a [tow-truck] driver can be overzealous? Yes, but there’s not much we can do about it.”

Still, an Albany officer responded to Phayre’s call, and stood by as Phayre successfully argued over the phone with Osborne to release his cars at no charge. But the discussion reached a stalemate when Phayre asked Osborne to return his cars; instead, he was told, he would have to retrieve them. Not even the cop could convince Osborne to do otherwise, so Phayre accepted the cop’s offer of a ride to the Osborne lot in his patrol car.

“This took about 45 minutes to an hour’s worth of an Albany police officer’s time,” Phayre said.

Osborne president Joe Gimondo’s only justification “was that he had never been notified by certified mail” of the end of the contract. But Stratton said she and her husband both called Gimondo immediately upon taking ownership of the Junior League building, telling him to suspend all towing operations on the lot until further notice.

Gimondo could not be reached for comment. In a message delivered via a staff member, he said this is the busiest period of the year for his garage and that it was difficult to make time to be interviewed.

Although Osborne is one of the most visible towing operations in the city, it is only one of several that hold municipal or private contracts to tow illegally or improperly parked cars. Although the state Department of Motor Vehicles issues licenses to automotive repair garages, it does not give separate permits to those garages’ towing operations, and therefore doesn’t keep a file of complaints about towing companies.

Nor, as it turns out, do the Albany police. These matters tend to be resolved on the spot, usually when the police get called to a confrontation between a tow-truck driver and an enraged car owner.

The scene of countless such standoffs in the past was the Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner of Lark Street and Madison Avenue, where cars that couldn’t be matched to a customer inside were picked off like rookies trying to steal second from Ivan Rodriguez.

Dunkin’ Donuts management says its lot has been surprisingly calm the last couple of years; motorists seem to have finally gotten the message.

That’s good, because tow truck drivers tend to tow first, argue later. Stratton recalls the time she left her car unattended while she ran back into a grocery store because she’d left her purse inside. By the time she emerged minutes later, Osborne had her car hooked. Neither Stratton’s pleas nor the accounts of passersby who vouched for her convinced the driver to let the car down, although Osborne did reimburse her later.

“They still towed me, right while I was standing there,” Stratton recalled. “And I even cried.”

—Darryl McGrath

Can’t get a chair through there: People with disabilities are calling for better sidewalk clearing, especially at intersections like this one. Photo: Teri Currie

Gettin’ the Snow Out
Uncleared sidewalks are a serious problem for many Albany residents, who think the city should do more to make the white stuff disappear

Here are some images that didn’t make it into the day-after slide shows of winter’s dramatic opening act for this year: A 4-year-old struggling through snow up to his hips as he tries to hold onto his dad’s hand while walking the one-person-wide path tramped through the unshoveled sidewalk in front of a vacant lot. Two motorized wheelchairs chugging up the slippery travel lane of Lark Street toward Central Avenue. Janet Carr, who is legally blind, demonstrating what she jokingly calls her “deep snow caning technique,” as she feels her way on Monday afternoon through yet another snow bank between crosswalk and sidewalk.

Last winter was scary because unshoveled sidewalks and intersections frequently forced her to walk in the street, said Carr, a Morton Avenue resident who even when there isn’t snow will often travel blocks out of her way to avoid intersections that feel unsafe to her. But, Carr, who snaps “Don’t slow down on my account” as she taps briskly down the cleared stretches, is not just worried about her own comfort. As she negotiates the narrow gaps and bumpy packed-down patches, she comments, “Can’t get through here with a guide dog,” and “You want to try this in a wheelchair?” “One woman I spoke to lives three blocks from CVS; they were taking a cab to the drugstore [last winter],” she recalled.

The memory of last winter prompted Carr and three other blind Albany residents to take preemptive action: They showed up at the Albany Common Council meeting on Nov. 17 to speak about their concerns during the public comment period. “Maybe a few cane-wielding citizens will make a difference,” Carr hoped. “Why should accessibility end at the front door of my residence or my place of work?”

Joe Laramie, a state worker who lives in the Delaware Avenue neighborhood, and his wife went with Carr to that meeting. “What I wanted to present to them was we weren’t just a small band of activist blind people,” said Laramie, “but that the issue was affecting maybe three-quarters of the population,” once you take into account the whole disabled community, the elderly, and schoolchildren. “It’s a real safety issue,” he added, noting that he knew of complaints from last year that took weeks to be handled.

Though Michael Whelan, assistant commissioner of the department of general services, didn’t hear the group’s testimony, this issue was already high on his list of priorities. “We’re well aware of that,” he said, adding that it’s merely a matter of getting to it all. The department handles complaints of unshoveled sidewalks first, posting a warning on the door giving the property owner 24 hours to take care of it and then sending someone to clear the sidewalk and billing the owner. Unpaid bills get added to next year’s tax liens. Once they make their way through the numerous complaints, said Whelan, then they turn their attention to chronic “problem properties.”

The city, Laramie and Carr all agree that those problem properties are usually owned by absentee landlords, though Carr is quick to point out that her own landlords “move heaven and earth” to get the sidewalks clear in front of all their properties.

The transition from curb to street at intersections, however, is DGS’ responsibility from the get-go, said Whelan. An intersection should have a wide path from sidewalk to street in both crossing directions. “If any of those need cleaning, they don’t really have to be complaint-generated, we go out and do them,” explained Whelan. As of Tuesday morning, they had a ways to go, with several corners in the Lark Street business area still sporting uncut banks.

Whelan thinks the incidences of landlords neglecting to shovel might be down a little bit this year, because they have been stepping up their enforcement and billing. “We’re getting their attention,” he said. Laramie and Carr have noticed small improvements too, including better publicity for the phone number (434-CITY) to report problem intersections or sidewalks.

Albany School Superintendent Michael A. Johnson and Mayor Jerry Jennings also issued a statement on Friday exhorting residents and business owners to clear their sidewalks promptly. “This could be a wonderful example of how Albany residents come together to share in the responsibility of the safety of Albany’s children,” said Johnson.

But Carr was hoping for something a little more dramatic, with more resources devoted to enforcement and equipment. “We’ve spent thousands making the city pretty,” she asked. “Why not a couple thousand [more] to make the city safe in the winter?”

“I’m willing to give [property owners] 48 hours,” said Laramie. “Give people a chance.” On the other hand, he said, “People need to work a little harder at caring for the people around them.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Not Enough Hands
New York nurses say selective staffing-ratio changes just aren’t enough

It’s no secret that the United States is in a nursing crisis. Turnover is rising, and Capital Region hospitals are not alone in having recently turned to overseas recruiting to fill their vacancies. So when the New York State Nurses Association heard that a state group was recommending a mandated ratio of nurses to patients for live-donor liver transplants, the news was welcome, but seemed somewhat incomplete.

On Dec. 4, the State Hospital Review and Planning Council approved regulations requiring one nurse for every two patients immediately after a liver transplant, which is especially critical for donors, and one nurse for every four patients as they move into less-dire stages of postsurgical care. Now the recommendations go to state Health Commissioner Antonia C. Novello, who initially pushed for them, for approval.

These recommendations come after the 2002 death of Times Union reporter Michael Hurewitz, who died after donating 60 percent of his liver to his brother. A state board found his death was due to insufficient care after the procedure.

The nurses association was glad to see that the state was making strides to secure better care for liver donors. “We were pleased that the state acted on its authority,” Martha Gershun, NYSNA’s communications director, said, adding that the state has gone out of its way to point out that it’s well within its power to impose staffing ratios.

But NYSNA also believes the state should take that authority and extend better care to all patients. As Gershun said, “Our question is this: Why not the same standard for the recipients? What about kidney donors, what about heart transplant patients, what about bone-marrow transplants, what about cancer patients? If this is something that is good for a patient in serious condition, then all patients should have the assurance and the safety of safe RN-to-patient staffing ratios.” Gershun explained that state regulations generally say “hospitals have to have sufficient staff, which is open to total interpretation.”

The state Health Department did not return phone calls for comment.

In 2001, the state education department and NYSNA put together a task force to evaluate the future of nursing in New York, and surveyed thousands of nurses about their jobs. “They found that understaffing, and essentially the terrible stress nurses are under every day because there are not enough nurses around and there is no proper planning, is sending them out of the profession in droves,” said Gershun. “Twenty-two percent of nurses plan to leave the profession in five years, and among the top reasons they cite for this is stress.”

“To a large extent, the reasons the nurses are not there is because the working conditions are impossible,” Gershun explained, adding that when those working conditions improve, nurses are more inclined to stay. She said that an Australian province “implemented across-the-board nurse-to-patient ratios a year or two ago, and in one year 3,000 nurses came back into the profession. So it’s very clear from their own testimony [on] why they’re leaving that if these conditions were alleviated they would come back.” Furthermore, in anticipation of a new staffing-ratio law in California and subsequent (and now suspended) regulations, the HMO Kaiser Permanente implemented staffing ratios in its facilities and has found that “recruitment and retention are up.”

Gershun said that NYSNA is supporting pending legislation in the state Legislature that would require the implementation of staffing ratios for all major hospital procedures, “not one organ at a time, but for every patient.”

—Ashley Hahn

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