An appeals court on Friday upheld a federal judge’s order imposing devastating fines against Yonkers, but city councilmen, who also face staggering personal fines and jail sentences, refused to back down from their opposition to a court-ordered housing desegregation plan.
At a council meeting shortly after the court decision was announced, Councilman Henry Spallone said the fines could “financially destroy the city, and probably for all time.”
But Spallone nonetheless said he was willing to become “a political hostage,” rather than allow a total of 1,000 new public housing units to be built in primarily white neighborhoods on the city’s east side.
Councilman Nicholas Longo, another member of the 4-3 majority opposing Judge Leonard B. Sand’s plan, said it would “destroy the future of the city, and none of us wants to be a part of it.” The order is designed to remedy what the court in 1985 found to be four decades of intentional segregation in housing and schools.
Mounting financial pressure and national attention have only seemed to drive the council--and groups opposing the desegregation order--more deeply into position.
When Mayor Nicholas C. Wasicsko asked Friday afternoon if any councilman planned to change his vote, the chamber was silent for about a minute and then about 100 spectators burst into wild cheering.
“Hang tough, guys,” one yelled. “Hang tough!”
At a hearing last week, Longo said that even if the councilmen were removed from office, they would become “a government in exile, and like the French did in their country, we’ll return and get rid of the Nazis.”
Opponents of the plan argue that their objections are based on economics, not race. They predict that the public housing would ruin east side neighborhoods, as they say it has the city’s blighted southwest side. Although residents of eastern Yonkers are mostly middle-class, the value of their homes has skyrocketed in recent years, often to $250,000 and beyond.
But supporters note that the planned housing is vastly different from southwest Yonkers’ run-down concrete towers, where drug-dealing and violent crime are part of everyday life. They note that the subsidized middle-income housing would be mixed among far greater numbers of new market-rate apartments, and that low-income townhouse-style units would be spread thinly among neighborhoods.
Yonkers, New York’s fourth-largest city, already has paid $12,700 for its refusal to go along with the order. The escalating fines were suspended Aug. 9, pending the outcome of the appeal.
While upholding the judge’s decision to impose the fines, the appeals court gave the city a little more breathing room. The penalties initially were to have begun at $100 and doubled every day until the city complied with Sand’s order; now, those fines will go no higher than $1 million a day--a point they would reach Sept. 10.
At the new rate, the fines would theoretically wipe out Yonkers’ $337-million city budget in just less than a year, although the city would go bankrupt long before then. Under Sand’s initial ruling, the budget would have been consumed in a matter of weeks.
The three-judge panel let stand Sand’s imposition of $500-a-day fines against the four councilmen opposing the order. The councilmen also could go to jail in mid-September. The councilmen had already paid $3,500 each before the fines were suspended awaiting the appeals court ruling.
The fines would not resume until next Friday, giving the city time to take its case to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, Yonkers is not believed to have much of a chance of prevailing, considering the court’s refusal to hear its appeal of the original desegregation order earlier this year.
The furor stems from a landmark case that marked the first time in which discrimination in schools had been linked to segregation in housing. Yonkers, a city of almost 200,000 on the northern edge of New York City, has since integrated almost all of its schools, but has steadfastly resisted the housing plan.
In exasperation with a city he described as “a national symbol of defiance of federal civil rights orders,” Sand finally imposed the crippling fines earlier this month.
Yonkers, which had a brush with bankruptcy several years ago, already was operating under the supervision of a state-appointed Emergency Control Board. Shortly after the judge imposed the fines, the board froze all the city’s discretionary funding.
The effects thus far have been relatively minor--with the board refusing, for example, to allow the city to spend $325 for an outing for senior citizens last week. But even under the new, more lenient fine schedule imposed by the appeals court, City Manager Neil J. DeLuca predicted that he would have to begin laying off city employees within three weeks.
Mayor Wasicsko, who has tried unsuccessfully to persuade fellow councilmen to support the plan, suggested that they may weaken when they again begin paying fines and face the prospect of jail.
“Today was not the day to have a change of heart,” the 29-year-old mayor said, “but that day is coming.”