The 19th District City Council race has been ratcheted up a notch this week with opponents of incumbent Tony Avella charging him with mishandling funds for the College Point Sports Complex and pointing to the city’s lawsuit just two weeks before the election.
The Queens Chronicle announced last week that after nearly seven years, the College Point Sports Complex will be reopening in November. The city’s $5-million project was necessitated after the city shut down the fields in 1997 when it was discovered that illegal fill was endangering the young athletes.
Enviro-Fill was hired by the sports association, headed by Avella, to fix up the fields and was supposed to use dirt and crushed concrete. Now, the city wants to be paid back for its efforts, which cost over $10 million to clear 210,799 tons of illegal fill. The lawsuit wants $16.5 million from the owners and operators of Enviro-Fill and the College Point Sports Association.
Jumping on the lawsuit was Phil Ragusa, a certified public accountant and the Republican candidate challenging Avella for his council seat. “Avella failed our children and cost taxpayers $16.5 million. We need accountability and good judgment in our elected officials. Tony, you broke it, you fix it,” Ragusa said in a press release.
One of Ragusa’s supporters, State Senator Frank Padavan, also was quick to blame Avella for most of the problems. “Avella is an idiot when he says he had nothing to do with it. He had everything to do with it,” the senator said.
He noted that the sports association has to file a financial disclosure with the state every year and that Avella’s signature is on them in the late 1990s. “The youngsters held fundraisers and Avella turned over $84,000 that was invested in the stock market in 1998 and they lost the money.
“Those were good economic times. It was hard to lose money in the stock market at that time,” he added. “With that type of group, you have fiduciary responsibility. You should invest in very secure things.”
The city councilman replied that “Padavan should check his facts. The investment process was set up 10 years before I got involved.”
After the city padlocked the sports complex, Padavan accused Avella of hiring a lawyer for $38,000. “I don’t know what he did or why he was hired.”
Avella responded that in reality two lawyers were hired by the association. One dealt with the city and one tried to rectify getting the facility open. Although the 22 acres was owned by the city, the CPSA was allowed to lease the property for $1 a year.
Finally, Padavan said that under Avella’s watch a $32,000 front loader disappeared from the property.
“It was stolen,” Avella replied. “While the Department of Design and Construction was overseeing the current work, two Bobcats (construction vehicles) were stolen. It happens.”
Padavan believes that the whole illegal landfill episode never should have happened. “I don’t know what was in his (Avella’s) head but it’s his fault.”
Avella called the charges political nonsense and timed to come out just two weeks before the election. “The city told me about the lawsuit two months ago. The CPSA and its members are not being sued. The city will try to get it through our insurance. We are the victims.
“I don’t understand the logic of going after the victim,” he added. “I told the city’s corporation counsel that and that he can go ahead and try.”
Avella believes the CPSA involvement laid the groundwork for the property becoming a city park. “There would have been a big factory there now because the city wanted to use all that land (in the College Point Corporate Park). We won.”
Ragusa pointed out that the CPSA paid one of its officers to monitor the dumping of fill “and was negligent in its oversight,” according to the lawsuit.
Avella said his group was never required to have a watchdog and that one of the members volunteered “but he wasn’t there all the time. We all wanted better fields. That’s all.”
Enviro-Fill officer, Benjamin Rastelli Jr., of Whitestone pled guilty last April to dumping illegal fill and agreed to pay the city $250,000. He was also sentenced to serve three months in jail on weekends and five years’ probation. The firm went out of business as soon as the complex was closed.
Despite the heat on this topic, Avella is expected to be re-elected. He has won points with constituents for listening to their problems and trying to get them resolved. He was also only one of two Democratic councilmen from Queens to vote against the mayor’s unpopular property tax hike.