BELMONT — This year, it didn't take a grinch to steal Christmas in The Bronx.
The Belmont Business Improvement District has had to forego its annual Christmas tree and tree lighting ceremony this year, after an influx in homeless panhandlers forced them to hire a full-time security guard, they said.
“We aren’t doing it this year because it’s very expensive and we have had so many problems with vagrants that we had to hire security,” said Frank Franz, the treasurer for the Belmont Business Improvement District.
The guard — who was hired in July specifically to address the increase in panhandling along the popular strip of Italian restaurants and shops — costs $65,000 a year, a large chunk of the BID's $340,000 annual budget, they said.
The tree lighting usually runs about $15,000, including a 30-foot tree plucked from a farm in New Jersey, as well as a ceremony featuring music, entertainment and warm beverages, they said.
“The tree alone costs three or four thousand dollars,” said Franz. “And then Santa Claus was there, we had Christmas carolers, a stage we rent, a cleaning crew and security.”
Their annual ceremony — the only outdoor tree lighting in the area — has taken place for at least the past five years in the Vincent Ciccarone Playground, just off Arthur Avenue.
Last year's ceremony happened on Dec. 6 and drew hundreds of local residents and visitors, they said.
The BID held a meeting over the summer with their board members to discuss whether to opt for the guard or stick with the tree, according to BID Director Phil Marino. They ultimately decided to go with the guard, he said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has come under fire for his administration's handling of the rise in homeless in NYC, including from his own Police Commissioner, William Bratton. The number of 311 complaints about homeless individuals in the city skyrocketed in the time since de Blasio took office, even as he and his team denied that it was a problem.
The mayor has since acknowledged that he and his administration could have done more to openly address the ongoing surge.
The Arthur Avenue strip consistently draws crowds of tourists — and, recently, an increasing number of panhandlers, BID officials added.
“Our sidewalks are more affluent than other parts of the Bronx,” said Franz. “So panhandlers know they get tips.
“Plus, Fordham University students tend to be, I don’t know, more generous and giving.”
Earlier this year, streams of complaints by merchants about panhandlers flowed into the BID.
Angelina Lavali, who works at Madonia Brothers Bakery, said that she’s lost patience with beggars coming into her store.
“One day I said to one of them, ‘Get out of here, you are making more money than I do and you are acting like a bum,’” she said.
She says that for the most part, the BID’s new security guard has helped keep the homeless off of Arthur Avenue. “It’s gotten better because we have security. A guy walks every day here and it’s very good for the merchants,” she said.
Some panhandlers still linger, locals say.
“There is one crazy lady who asks for money all the time... She bothers customers,” said Orazio Carciotto, owner of Casa Della Mozzarella. “But now, most of the time it’s OK. It’s better than before.”
Even without the tree and the ceremony, the BID has still done its best to keep the area festive — spending between $35,000 and $40,000 to decorate about 25 blocks with lights.
They'll also have carolers, a roaming Santa Claus making the rounds, and warm beverages that will be offered to patrons waiting on long, cold lines.
“The lights are up and it’s very festive. The neighborhood is packed,” said Michael Teitel, whose father owns the Teitel Brothers specialty food shop, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year.
And they say there will be plenty of other Christmas trees, albeit indoors.
This year for the first time, the Arthur Avenue Retail Market will host an indoor tree lighting on Dec. 3, where “Sopranos” star Dominic Chianese will sing and sign autographs.
The Lucia Brothers Funeral Home will also sponsor a tree lighting at Our Lady Of Mount Carmel Church.
Carciotto of Casa Della Mozzarella said he won’t attend either of the indoor ceremonies, however.
“I think in the park it’s better because it’s a public place,” he said. “I think it’s a big deal. I think the tree looks nice in the middle of the street.”