Hay-Ridin' Bruno Great Destabilizer

Tenants who call state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno stone-hearted obviously missed his eulogy for a barn.

The barn in question was an 80-year-old structure that collapsed near Bruno's 40-acre estate in upstate Brunswick. It was the kind of barn where a cow or a hog could get really comfy, at least until it was abandoned and fell in upon itself.

In mourning its passing last year, Bruno did not speak of just this barn that had turned to kindling. He addressed the larger issue of "preserving old barns."

"They are part of upstate New York's culture," Bruno said.

He proceeded to throw the considerable power and prestige of his office behind the Historic Barn Act. The act provides a 25% subsidy for the renovation of any barn built before 1935 and a 10-year exemption from increased tax assessments arising from the construction.

Even the wealthiest farmers are qualified. Bruno often bellows about Carly Simon and Mia Farrow and those other "greediest" rent-control tenants who "are living in subsidized units that don't need to be subsidized by other taxpayers." The taxpayers being landlords who subsidized the state Republicans with $900,000 in campaign contributions. He apparently sees no reason why the state should not help even the richest people fix up an old barn if they happen to have one.

"The only qualification is that the recipient own a historic barn," a state document says.

The Barn Act was signed into law last summer as part of the comprehensive Farm Preservation Act of 1996. That act also provides farmers who net less than $100,000 a year with a 100% exemption from school property taxes for up to 100 acres. The size of the exempted land increases yearly to 250 acres in 1999.

Over the next three years, the exemptions are expected to total $152 million. Kyle Stewart of the state Farm Bureau notes that farmers will have more cash to spend and that the ultimate beneficiaries will include "the tractor dealer, equipment dealers, all those people."

Lest the localities feel even a slight pinch from these exemptions, the state will make up the difference. This means we in the city will be helping the farmer to, in Stewart's words, "buy more cows, buy more property" and, yes, "put an addition on his barn."

The farmers' subsidizers include the nearly 2 million tenants who live in apartments that are either rent-controlled or rent-stabilized. Those tenants being the people of whom Bruno has said, "Let 'em move to the Bronx. Let 'em move to Queens. Let 'em move around the city like everybody else has to do in the whole world."

Judging from the ease with which Bruno quashed a Democratic effort to renew rent limits Monday, more than a few tenants soon may be doing just that. One place they will not be moving is into one of those historic barns.

The act clearly prohibits using the subsidized barns for "residential purposes," meaning no people. Just about everything else is fine. "Not just shelter of your horse and cows, sheep and hogs, also for vegetables," says Stewart.

One person who has behaved enough like a carrot to qualify for a barn berth is State Sen. Efrain Gonzalez (D-Bronx). He decided he was too sick to make Monday's rent vote, despite an ambulance waiting to ferry him to Albany.

Two other senators, Guy Vellela (R-Bronx) and Nicholas Spano (R-Yonkers) did pretty good sheep impersonations. Both had publicly avowed their support of continuing rent control. Both went baaaing along behind their leader Bruno in Monday's 33-to-27 vote.

Afterward, the two said they had not been voting on rent control itself, only on whether the matter should be brought to the Senate floor. The distinction brings to mind a horse's well-known by-product.

The distinction did little to comfort tenants who earn no more than the average farmer. They are left to wonder if they will find the rent beyond their means after June 15.

That is the date when rent control will expire unless renewed. Tenants could begin paying higher rents as early as July, which happens to be the month Bruno is expected again to lead the parade at the Saratoga County Fair.

Last year, he wore a cowboy hat and rode a palomino horse, as befits somebody who sees unbridled greed in tenants and culture in barns.

Original Story Date: 040997
Original Story Section: Beyond the City