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Bloomberg defends Shulman in Willets Point flap

Mayor Michael Bloom-berg dismissed Monday accusations the city used public funds to form a group headed by former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman to lobby on its behalf during the administration’s battle to push through the massive Willets Point redevelopment project.

“It’s a cheap shot at Claire Shulman, who has dedicated her life to this city,” Bloomberg said during an interview with reporters and editors from the Community Newspaper Group, TimesLedger Newspapers’ parent company.

“These groups are designed to lobby,” Bloomberg continued. “I don’t know if they technically broke the law.”

State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office recently began an investigation into whether Shulman’s group, the Flushing Willets Point Corona LDC, illegally lobbied city officials after it came to light the city Economic Development Corp. funneled money to the organization.

According to state law,local development corporations may not attempt to influence legislation.

Bloomberg addressed a bevy of other issues during his hour-long interview at CNG’s Metrotech headquarters in Brooklyn, including hospital closures in Queens, the economy and, of course, term limits. The mayor is being challenged by city Comptroller Bill Thompson, a Democrat, and City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) for his seat.

The mayor, an independent who is running for a third term, has long been an advocate of the Willets Point rezoning that will transform the industrial expanse into a residential and commercial area. While he and his administration have come under fire for what critics have called aggressive tactics to acquire private Willets Point property, the mayor said plans to transform the blighted area had for too long remained stagnant.

“The Willets Point process started 50 years ago,” Bloomberg said. “You have to at some point say enough is enough. We need housing, we need jobs.”

When asked what the city is doing to address health care in Queens, a borough that has seen three hospitals close in less than a year, the mayor said small hospitals have faced enormous pressures in the rough economy and from federal policy unfriendly to the medical centers.

“Small hospitals will continue to close unless Washington addresses the real problems,” Bloomberg said. “We educate all these doctors and then don’t give them a green card. You’ve got to have tort reform.”

Bloomberg said city hospitals are prepared to handle a possible swine flu resurgence this fall, but the mayor urged residents to refrain from visiting hospital emergency rooms unless they are seriously ill.

The sour economy has hit New York especially hard and the city now has more than 400,000 unemployed residents, the highest number since 1992, according to Thompson. But conditions could have been a lot worse, Bloomberg said.

“We projected 200,000 job losses and, in fact, it has been 96,000,” Bloomberg said of the prolonged recession. “We projected 32,000 job losses on Wall Street, and there’s been 30,000. The impact on the city has been severe but no worse than projected.”

Bloomberg said the city will face another budget deficit next year and residents should expect to see city agencies pared down.

“We are going to have to downsize every part of the government, and the question is can I find ways to maintain or improve the services with less because the taxpayer is not going to spend anymore,” he said.

Bloomberg pointed out that his administration has cut 5,000 police officers from the streets since he became mayor, but crime has fallen because the Police Department runs more efficiently.

“My job is not to have the biggest police force but to bring down crime,” Bloomberg said.

The mayor addressed term limits at Monday’s interview.

“It was a unique period in the city,” he said, explaining his push for a third term for city officeholders. “The economy was starting to fall apart, our school system was on the verge of a major breakthrough. Voters want somebody independent and competent, and hopefully they’ll think I’m that person.”

Reach reporters Nathan Duke and Anna Gustafson by e-mail at timesledgernews@cnglocal.com.

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