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URGENT City Council Approves Deseg Plan in 11th-Hour Meeting

September 10, 1988 GMT

......................................................................... (AP) _ The Yonkers City Council reversed itself and approved a court-ordered housing desegregation plan early Saturday, caving in as fines hit $1 million a day, hundreds of workers faced layoffs and public opinion shifted against them.

The 5-to-2 vote came at about 1:30 a.m. following a day of meetings and discussions as pressure grew to resolve the crisis, with hardliners in a raucous Yonkers City Hall condemning the politicians who now supported the plan.

As the final roll call was called and two of the four recalcitrant councilmen, Peter Chema and Nicholas Longo, changed their votes, a crowd of about 100 in the gallery at City Hall broke into loud cheers.

″It’s time to put behind the fines, the fight and the turmoil,″ said Chema before switching his vote.

But others in the audience were infuriated by the reversal. One woman yelled,″You little snake″ at Chema, while another man screeched at Mayor Nicholas Wasicsko, ″You sold us out, Nicky 3/8 We’ll remember 3/8″ The mayor also voted for the plan.

The city of 194,000 just north of New York City has incurred $1.6 million in fines. Yonkers faced a $1 million fine Friday and was to begin laying off hundreds of city workers Saturday. The fines had started at $100 and doubled each day, reaching $819,200 Thursday for a total of $1,638,300.

U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand, who ordered the end to segregated housing in Yonkers three years ago, will determine if the city must pay Friday’s fine.

″It’s our understanding that if we pass this tonight, we will not″ have to pay Friday’s fine, city attorney Paul Pickelle said before the vote.

Wasicsko said he received a message from New York Secretary of State Gail Schaffer, head of the state financial control board, saying the layoffs set for Saturday had been rescinded by the state Emergency Financial Control Board.

Both Chema and Longo prefaced Saturday’s roll-call vote with long speeches saying they had reached agreements with the plaintiffs to make changes in the ordinance, but also realized the judge would not agree to those changes unless the councilmen changed their votes.

″In the past we have thought of those fines somewhat in the abstract,″ Longo said. ″It was the city being fined and the city being affected ... the abstract has now become a reality.″

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The city has been in contempt of court for the council’s refusal to carry out the housing-desegregation order it approved earlier this year.

Among the modifications made in the housing decree under the agreement with the plaintiffs was a commitment to build 100 stand-alone units, instead of the 200 previously approved, with the rest to be part of other housing developments.

Chema said they will also consider a home owners insurance policy to make up the difference in a loss of property value when a home owner sold a home.

Changes in the plan worked out between the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the council members must be approved by Sand, the U.S. Justice Department and the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.

Earlier, a lawyer for the NAACP, Michael Sussman, said the two sides had ″hammered out a fairly complex agreement″ but that Sand refused to consider the revised plan.

Earlier Friday, the council and Wasicsko gathered and voted to transfer $819,200 to pay Thursday’s fine.

As the councilmen entered City Hall, some of the crowd - angered by the report of negotiations - shouted, ″Sellout 3/8 Sellout 3/8″ But another section applauded the vote to pay the fine, drawing a quick response from Wasicsko.

The fine payment came at a time where local support of the opposition to Sand’s plan was starting to wane.

″We’ve done all we can. We went to the Supreme Court and didn’t get anywhere,″ said Henry Knetter, 65, a northeast Yonkers resident. ″There’s no garbage pickup. There might not be any police protection. It may be time to wise up.″

Knetter spoke for an increasing number of local residents whose ardent opposition to low-income housing has dwindled as the harsh realities of Sand’s stiff fines began hitting home.

Phone lines at City Hall were jammed this week with callers urging one of the adamant councilmen to change their vote, Wasicsko said. Uncollected garbage sits outside many homes; children going to school have no crossing guards; the three town libraries were to close Saturday.

″They’re (Yonkers residents) saying to the councilmen more and more, ’Hey, look, we give up. Just get this thing solved,‴ said Gov. Mario Cuomo in Albany.

The fines - which began at $100 per day, doubling daily until hitting a $1 million-a-day cap on Friday - forced the state Emergency Financial Control Board to impose a ″Doomsday Plan″ aimed at providing public safety services while delaying bankruptcy.

Phase One would have kicked in on Saturday, with 447 of the city’s 1,834 employees receiving layoffs notices as part of a $20 million savings package. The Parks and Recreation Department would close, while the Planning Department would be slashed to two employees.

Other layoffs would come from the departments of real estate, civil service, fiscal services and public works. Control board Chairwoman Gail Shaffer, New York’s secretary of state, said the cuts were designed to keep Yonkers solvent until 1989.

Sand, who in 1985 ruled the city had practiced segregation in housing and education for 40 years, imposed the fines after the four councilmen refused to implement part of his plan.

City schools were desegregated under a Sand-approved plan, and the City Council initially agreed to build 1,000 units of low-income housing in January. They reversed field on the housing at an Aug. 1 meeting, prompting Sand to impose fines which would double every day.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Sand’s fines on appeal, but placed the $1 million cap on the amount.