Westchester Square BID Board vacant following refusal to sign contract requiring BID to indemnify the city

Executive Director Yasmin Cruz speaking at the annual Westchester Square BID meeting on Wednesday, June 26, 2024.
Photo Maya Stahl

The Westchester Square Business Improvement District (BID) executive board is vacant following no motion to vote for a new board at the BID’s annual meeting last on June 26. The executive board’s decision to step down comes as a renewed contract between the New York City Department of Small Business Services (SBS) requires the BID to indemnify the city for liability, according to board members.

The contract between the Westchester Square BID and SBS is renewed every five years. Under the contract, which would have gone into effect July 1, the BID is responsible for any activities or projects in its district plan. The language in the proposed contract is identical to what the BID has been operating under since 2017, however, board members claim there is an increased opportunity for liability due to the opening of two homeless shelters within and near the district.

“There is no board moving forward. It’s unfortunate,” Gary Sheppard, chair of the board, said at the meeting. “We are in a very troubled time where we want to continue this but we have some personal issues with the board. We think it’s time to hand it off.”

The Westchester Square BID covers 19 block faces in Westchester Square and encompasses more than 200 stores. The BID’s mission is to “make the Westchester Square district cleaner, safer, more beautiful and to undertake enhancement projects,” by offering business support, security, supplemental sanitation, and event programming. The Westchester Square BID is one of 76 BIDs across New York City. 

The opening of two homeless shelters located on Poplar Street and Blondell Ave. has drawn backlash from residents and has created liability concerns for the BID in recent months. With one shelter still scheduled to open this fall, both shelters hold 200 beds for single men. The addition of these homeless shelters to the BID’s area increases the BID’s responsibility for liability, according to Sheppard.

The Department of Social Services did not respond to the Bronx Times request for comment.

Bronx community boards urge City Council to reform homeless shelter policy, citing boroughwide inequities

John Bonizio, secretary of the board and former chair, said the decision to step down is “not about the homeless shelters,” but rather about “the city’s position to force the BID to indemnify the city from liability.”

“By taking this population that would be populating these homeless shelters and putting them in Westchester Square, what the city is doing is it’s increasing the potential liability for the BID and for its board of directors,” Bonizio said. “And for that reason, I decided that I cannot put my family and myself in harm’s way financially by allowing myself to be a target here in this situation.” 

The proposed contract between SBS and the BID states, “Except as otherwise expressly stated herein, the [District Management Association] hereby assumes liability for, and hereby agrees to indemnify, protect, defend, save and keep harmless the city from and against any and all liabilities.” Those fees may include, legal, and investigative fees and expenses, which may be imposed at any time on the City.

The executive board refused to sign the city’s new contract after legal council said each member would assume liability and could be personally sued under the new contract, according to Sheppard and Bonizio. 

“You know you would say, ‘Wow, that doesn’t usually happen.’ Well, it already did happen,” Bonizio said. “Somebody fell into a tree pit, one of those tree pits with the guards around it, and fell into that, and sued the city, sued the BID, and sued the property owner, personally.”

In a statement to the Bronx Times, SBS said the Westchester Square BID “is no exception” to the city’s other BIDs.

“Each of New York City’s 75 Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are required to meet a set of common criteria and assume certain liabilities – the Westchester Square BID is no exception,” SBS said. “SBS will work with the remaining board members of the Westchester Square District Management Association to ensure the continuation of services in the Westchester Square Business Improvement District. SBS is committed to ensuring that the current staff are paid for work conducted and are supported during this period, and that there will be no interruption of services to those operating within the district.”

Sheppard and Bonizio have both served on the board for more than a decade. The board’s decision to step away follows months of raising “a four-alarm fire” with city officials at SBS, according to Sheppard.

The future of the Westchester Square BID remains uncertain. While the BID will continue to exist as a nonprofit, it’s unclear how the BID will operate moving forward. 

“I feel sad for the neighborhood. I feel sad for the people that live there,” Sheppard said. “I’m sad that those in charge are not taking a step back and looking at what the issues are, really looking at them.”

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