January 31, 2008

Making It Right

Kudos to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who is giving charity more than $40,000 in past political contributions linked to Chicago real estate developer and fast food magnate Antoin "Tony" Rezko. Rezko is facing federal corruption charges.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement, "It is the policy and practice of the campaign to review all such new information and dispose of questionable funds that campaigns must address as new facts emerge".

We must extend the same kudos to Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, who have also encountered fundraisers who have been charged of making illegal contributions. Clinton returned more than $800,000 in contributions linked to Norman Hsu, who is facing federal fraud charges in New York.

One-time Edwards fundraiser Geoffrey Fieger was indicted last year on charges of conspiring to make more than $125,000 in illegal contributions. The Edwards campaign has said it is waiting for the outcome of the case before deciding how to proceed.

None of these candidates did anything wrong, that much is clear. To their credit, they have each taken the appropriate steps to cleanse themselves of these donations. So what about our local delegation? Do the same standards not apply locally?

In case you missed it, a North Tonawanda couple accused of operating a prostitution ring out of four massage parlors in Niagara and Erie counties received help from politically connected people. Che Ngan Tsui, his wife, Len Wah Chong, and two relatives were arrested on allegations of importing Asian women to work as prostitutes in massage parlors in Niagara Falls, Lockport, Wheatfield and the Town of Tonawanda.

The assistance included:

* Tsui, his wife and his brother-in-law purchased three properties through auction from the City of Niagara Falls after meeting Mayor Vince Anello while approaching city leaders with plans to develop the city's struggling entertainment district.

* Tsui and one of the massage parlors, Golden Accupressure in Wheatfield, made political donations to Niagara County Democrats totaling $1,000.

* Other elected officals, including Anello and Town of Niagara Councilman Bob Clark also took political contributions.

So why the double standard? Why, after learning what we now know, would these elected officials and political organizations not try to right this wrong?

These crimes are an affront to women. The victims were brought to this country and forced into sexual slavery. Those who offered political assistance or took money should be begging for a way to make it right. Make a donation to the YWCA of Niagara Domestic Violence Program or whatever organization you wish. If it's good enough for Obama, Clinton and Edwards, it's good enough for you.

January 30, 2008

Spitzer Ally Critical of Budget

One of Governor Eliot Spitzer's closest legislative allies yesterday criticized the governor's $124.3 billion budget as too much. "I think we're spending much too much and we have to look at ways to sort of attrition our expenses," Senate Democratic Minority Leader Malcolm Smith told reporters after addressing a statewide group of county officials.

Smith said Spitzer's budget, which increases overall spending by 5.1 percent, "is more than generous," particularly in light of a $4.4 billion deficit.

"I and my conference are still looking at other ways in which we can bring that number down a little bit," Smith said.

He said the state can find about a half a billion dollars in unused funds from the state's public authorities and another $600 million through attrition of non-essential jobs.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, addressing the county leaders after Smith, said Spitzer's budget "taxes too much, spends too much" and doesn't have its priorities straight.

January 29, 2008

Medicaid Contradiction

The highly publicized financial crisis at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center (NFMMC), as well as the loan request by two Niagara County Legislators to help bail out the facility, exposes what is a massive contradiction in health care.

In case you missed it, Niagara Falls Democrats Dennis Virtuoso and Renae Kimble plan to ask the Niagara County Legislature to loan NFMMC $3.5 million from county coffers to bail out the hospital from its current financial woes. The financial crunch at NFMMC stems from, according to the hospital’s President and CEO, Joseph Ruffolo, the high level of uncompensated care provided by the health care facility to uninsured patients and the way the county processes Medicaid applications.

The contradiction which this situation exposes is this: For years, we have heard one County Legislator after another talk about the massive Medicaid burden on the county. Former Legislator Lee Simonson was on the Medicaid expense bandwagon 20 years ago. When you look at the single biggest expense that Niagara County faces, Medicaid at about $41 million, the argument seems to hold water. But what about local hospitals, like NFMMC, that are completely reliant on Medicaid to exist? That is the double-edged sword of Medicaid. Without proper Medicaid reimbursement, these hospitals will close, or at least cut services. Meanwhile, the taxpayers of this county must continue to shoulder the burden of a massive Medicaid bill.

On a recent trip to Lockport Memorial Hospital, I happened to ask the woman who takes the preliminary information in the Emergency Room what percentage of ER patients are on Medicaid. Her response? 80%. Eighty percent of LMH's ER patients are on Medicaid!!! That, to me, was a stunning discovery. Another reinforcement of the contradiction of Medicaid. They need Medicaid to survive, and we keep hearing about the skyrocketing costs of Medicaid.

Ruffalo stated that this is a county problem. Now, I don't claim to have any statistics related to the demographics of NFMMC, but to me, this is not a county issue, it's a Niagara Falls issue. I would venture that a minimum of 90% of patients are from that city. Another 8-9% may be tourists visiting the area.

So the question beckons: Why are two county legislators looking for the county to bail them out? Why not look to the state delegation representing Niagara Falls? Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte has been excruciatingly silent through this ordeal. Where is Antoine Thompson? Could someone please remind him that he represents Niagara Falls? Oh, maybe someone could send him a map as well.

As we know, the party in power has the final say. As our local periodicals have pointed out, Virtuoso and Kimble are in the minority in the County Leg. But the Dems have Dem Guv. Spitzer, Dem Sen. Thompson, Dem Ass. DelMonte and Dem Mayor Dyster. How could the local state delegation NOT be able to come up with the cash for NFMMC? Are these local state representatives that impotent or is it just easier to go ask the county?

I for one do not want one more dime of my taxes going to subsidize this mismanaged facility. Run your facility within the guidelines that every other business works within or close your doors.

January 28, 2008

Pay Raises for State Legislators

A lot of negative stuff has been written about the governor floating the idea of pay raises for state legislators. The visceral action is predictable and at some level I agree....but then I started to think more.

Do we need to pay elected officials better to attract better candidates for office? I mean, working in the Legislature in Albany is a grind....the travel back and forth, the constant commitments that keep a legislator away from friends and family when they're back in their districts.

And even local office...is $15K a fair wage for county legislators? Are we attracting the best and brightest? Would $30K for this part-time gig attract a whole new class of legislator?

I think I fall on the side of pay more for current officeholders but end the legacy perks (I'm talking to you Sean O'Connor) that jack up the bill on taxpayers long after the "service to the public" has ended.

Nothing is more disgusting then watching some person serve in local government for 30 years part-time and then take a gig with the state for three years to get their high three in and then have a SWEET pension for the rest of their lives.

fyi: 30 years of service gets you 75 percent of your high three years as a pension. So, if I was a county legislature for 30 years making $15K, I got 75 percent of $15K for a pension, not much. But if I can land a $100K patronage job for three years, I know receive a $75K pension for the rest of my life...nice work if you can get it. (Again, I'm looking at you Mr. O'Connor.)

So, pay them more know when their serving the public and when their time is up give them a nice plaque and a gold watch and that's all.

January 25, 2008

What is all this "WE" when it comes to Niagara Power

I'm not overly parochial. I'm not one of these old-line Niagara types who think we are in some sort of war with our friends south of here in Erie County. I believe we are essentially one region and need to act that way. So, with that disclaimer, I'm always amazed at editorials like the one in today's Buffalo News that says rethink Niagara power.

The point of the editorial is a legitimate debate over whether we are getting the most bang for our buck out of allocations of power from the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston. Too few companies seem to get too much power for too little jobs.

But then there's this paragraph that catches my attention:

"This is an exciting time in Western New York. Important projects seem to be cropping up everywhere: the Buffalo waterfront, the Southtowns Connector, the Niagara Greenway, the Richardson Towers, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and others envision a more robust economy not many years away.

But the feather in that cap, in some ways, would be to finally make the best use of the inexpensive power that belongs to this region. That is the key that will open the doors to a new economy. Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, who has emphasized redevelopment of the upstate economy, should take advantage of this chance to help Western New York without impacting the state budget."

Not one solely Niagara project is mentioned in the list (the Greenway is region-wide) and the sublte implication is that Niagara power should be used to help support these projects. And the power belongs to the region?

Now, someone explain to me exactly why Buffalo has any claim at all to the power. I understand the 30 mile radius in legislation for allocations that touches essentially all of Erie, Niagara and part of Orleans. I'm not looking for a technical argument, I'm looking for a moral argument.

Clearly, Niagara County is impacted by the presence of the power plant. Land is off the tax rolls, there is enviornmental impact, etc. How is Buffalo impacted any more than Rochester or Syracuse? If Buffalo has a claim, why not those areas?

If we're going to talk as one region, then let's see some action. I'll never forget the News opposition to moving the Buffalo Zoo to Oppenheim Park, which would have made great sense. Where was the regionalism then? How about their opposition to the Niagara Falls Terminal Project? How about choosing to support the Huntley Project expansion in Tonawanda over the expansion of AES in Somerset?

I said in the beginning I'm not parochial, but I'm not stupid either. Acting as one region is the right thing to do....but it has to be a two-way street.

January 24, 2008

Bailing Out Niagara Falls Memorial

The behavioral unit at Niagara Falls Memorial is important. Let's all agree on that. The hospital is threatening to close it because the county won't process Medicaid applications fast enough and the hospital can't continue to take the hit.

Legislator Renae Kimble wants the county to loan the hospital $3.5 million. I'm not sure how the rest of the county will feel about this, especially the other hospitals.

Before we go to far, I have some questions, some of which may be urban legends that can be dispelled:

1) NFMMC Chief Joe Ruffalo opened the Heart Center a few years ago to great fanfare. I've heard this is a white elephant that is losing money hand over fist. What is the truth about the heart center?

2) Rumor has it the hospital is down to a few days cash on hand. You're telling me the reason for all of this is a behavioral unit?

3) I've heard Ruffalo makes $500k. Isn't this a bit much for a small hospital in a poor town bleeding money? Has he caught his own lavish salary at least as a symbolic gesture?

4) Ruffalo got cut in for a very nice slice of casino revenues. Where has all that money gone?

5) Ruffalo is attacking the county for not working with him. The "county" in this case is Social Services Commissioner Tony Restiano. Tony and the whole Restiano clan are institutions in Niagara Falls, almost iconic status. It stretches the believability curve for me that Tony wouldn't already being doing everything WITHIN THE BOUNDS OF LEGALITY AND REASONABLENESS to be helping the hospital.

Bottom line for me: I think NFMCC is in big financial trouble and Ruffalo, who was once hailed as a white knight, is looking to blame anybody but the hospital for its troubles. I hope I'm wrong and that a workable solution can be found.

Because, as the first sentence says, the behavioral unit is important.

Message to Trollers

We've always been pretty open to any posts, letting people say what they want on a topic and it's not uncommon for a thread to head in a different direction from the original topic. That makes for good dialogue.

I've noticed a few recent posts apparently coming from both sides of the aisle that show up in a few threads. I'm not going to police speech, but if someone keeps posting the same rhetoric in every post we do here at NiagaraTimes to try to drive their own personal agenda, I will step in.

It's not something I want to do, so check yourselves and let's keep the conversation going. We are reaching record numbers of hits each week so clearly people are interested in our community dialogue.

January 23, 2008

Spitzer's Three Card Monte

The Buffalo News has shed some light on Governor Spitzer's plan to fund upstate development, increase aid to schools and provide tax relief for the middle class. The Governor's proposed budget includes the following:

1. Back away from the promise to provide $500 million in additional property tax rebates;
2. Increase debt by over $3 billion;
3. Triple the fee imposed on auto insurance premiums;
4. Increase fees paid by small businesses;
5. Require counties to pay more for public assistance; and
6. Cut State aid to community colleges.


The most troublesome part of this proposed budget, though, is that although the taxpayers and local governments are being asked to contribute more, there is no plan to decrease the size of State government and there is no plan to implement any real Medicaid reform.

Increased debt...increased fees...no reform.

January 21, 2008

This Just Doesn't Seem Right

Below you will seen an excerpt from a Buffalo News article regarding the Greenway Commission approving some grants. These grants will be used on a bunch of projects to spruce up the Niagara Falls State Park. The local state parks representative, Mark Thomas, is quoted as calling these grants a godsend.

Here's my problem. First, the Niagara Falls State Park rakes in a ton of dough from Niagara Falls that gets sent to Albany to underwrite the less desirable parks that quite frankly no one bothers to visit. That pisses me off, but has been going on for a while.

Second, the Greenway was part of the New York Power Authority's settlement agreement with our community for the right to continue to run their big powerplant in Lewiston. The settlement is basically NYPA saying, "We are loaded because of this powerplant in Lewiston which generates cheap hydropower from the Falls. We know we took lots of land and basically are robbing your region of a great natural resource to send power outside the area, but if you let us keep running it for 50 years, we'll give you this basket of goodies including Greenway money." That's all well and good.

Now, the punchline: Why does one state agency (Parks), which already is already taking money out of our community, getting money from another state agency (NYPA) that was supposed to fund LOCAL initiatives in our cities, towns and villages? Why does State Parks get one nickel of NYPA settlement money? Why doesn't State Parks just send a little less of what it rakes in from 8 million visitors each year and use some of that cash to do its own repairs?

My friends, this is how state government continually screws this region and it doesn't matter which party controls the Governor's Mansion. You wouldn't need a special State of Upstate address and lots of promises if state government would just let this region use its own resources for ourselves.

I know Senator Maziarz has a bill that would require Parks to spend money it takes in from Niagara Falls Park on upkeep for these parks. It's the morally right thing to do and this page calls for its passage.

Below is part of the article from the Buffalo News:

A committee consisting of the Power Authority and the office of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation awarded nearly $2.6 million for five improvement projects in state parks along the Niagara River: The committee issued these awards:

• $700,000 for Three Sisters Islands in Niagara Falls State Park. The money will be used for a new pathway system, bridge rehabilitation, new signs and various ecological restoration efforts.

• $675,000 for improvements to stairways and the gorge trail between Whirlpool and Devil’s Hole state parks.

• $650,000 for restoration of Luna Island and Stedman’s Bluff in Niagara Falls State Park.

• $500,000 for an overlook and trail improvements in Whirlpool State Park.

• $70,000 to complete a restoration plan for Goat Island in Niagara Falls State Park.

Mark W. Thomas, director of the state parks office’s western district, called the awards “a significant blessing” for the agency, which normally receives $1.5 million annually for capital improvements in Niagara and Erie counties as part of the state budget.

And, with the agency recently asking the governor for $650 million for park improvements statewide, Thomas was optimistic.

“Three million dollars a year available for the next 49 years is a significant investment in our parks. And we’re just very grateful for this funding,” Thomas said.

January 18, 2008

Niagara County Marketing Efforts

Earlier today Niagara Times emailed the Niagara County Department of Economic Development and asked them if they would provide us a one-page synopsis of their marketing efforts and successes. Much thanks to the NCDED for their quick turnaround. This is what received:

Business Growth and Retention Efforts:
• 58 companies in Niagara County contacted in 2007; 42 site visits
Business Growth and Retention Successes:
• Led to 5 approved projects

Canadian Marketing Efforts:
• Marketing consultant hired to assist with aggressive marketing campaign
• 2,000 Canadian companies contacted and 60 companies visited
Canadian Marketing Successes:
• 19 acres in V.I.P. sold to Canadian companies

Vantage International Pointe Efforts:
• Continued marketing available development sites
Vantage International Pointe Successes:
• Land sales reduced special district taxes paid from $1,000/day to $90/day
• Asking price per acre within the park has increased to $15,000/acre
• 67% of the park is either developed, sold, or pending

2007 Outreach Program Efforts:
• Free business workshops and educational seminars held
• Business Ambassador Newsletter mailed to over 700 businesses every quarter
• Economic Summit for Success held to discuss key economic initiatives
• Assisted in making recommendations to NYPA regarding hydropower allocations
2007 Outreach Program Successes:
• 11 power applications approved by NYPA in 2007 to 8 existing and 3 new companies
• Power allocations helped retain 835 existing jobs and create 210 new jobs
• Power allocations translated into $45.2 million in new capital investments

Niagara County Industrial Development Agency Projects Efforts:
• 26 projects were approved in 2007
Niagara County Industrial Development Agency Projects Successes:
• IDA projects in 2007 created 511 new jobs, retained over 1,660 existing jobs, representing over $172.2 million in new capital investments in diverse industry clusters

Niagara County Department of Economic Development Projects Efforts:
• Participated in Explore Buffalo Niagara event
• Supported Niagara County assets in development of the Niagara River Greenway Plan
• Business Retention Team continued its efforts in 2007
• Worked with partners to support development at Niagara Falls International Airport
• Continued restoration efforts for the Cayuga Creek watershed
• Continued to develop and market Brownfields Program
• Finalized Solid Waste Management Plan to NYSDEC
• Continued pursuit of cross-border ferry between Niagara-on-the-Lake and Youngstown
• Worked with partners to pursue funding for the Olcott Harbor Breakwater
• Implemented GIS updates through work with Niagara County’s GIS Steering Committee
• Developed a planning process for the Niagara Communities Comprehensive Plan
Niagara County Department of Economic Development Projects Successes:
• Explore Buffalo Niagara event attracted 30 CEOs from 8 foreign countries to the region
• Niagara River Greenway Plan project review is underway
• Business Retention Team worked to ensure retention of Delphi and Niagara Falls Airbase
• $800,000 secured for Cayuga Creek watershed
• Completed site assessments and secured hundreds of thousands of dollars for Brownfields Program
• Submitted Final Solid Waste Management Plan to Dept. of Environmental Conservation
• Niagara Communities Comprehensive Plan is underway
• New NFIA terminal construction to begin in 2008
• As a result of the final Solid Waste Management Plan, NYSDEC released funding to municipalities
• $2 million authorized for Olcott Harbor breakwater project with $200,000 likely secured in 2008

2008 WORK PLAN HIGHLIGHTS

• New marketing campaign targeting fresh water-starved states
• Canadian Marketing campaign capitalizing on continued strength of Canadian dollar
• Continued relationships with economic development partners to market the region
• Continued outreach and support to businesses and municipalities for economic development projects

January 17, 2008

Bumper Sticker of the Year

Time To Deliver

Although we've been critical of Governor Spitzer, we are cautiously optimistic about his ambitious agenda for upstate revival. What we're concerned about is the fact that nearly all of it is dependent on an agreeable state Legislature and a state not crippled by deficit.

The fact that a governor came upstate for the first time to deliver a speech to address the concerns of this economically troubled region and to propose remedies, cannot be underestimated. Spitzer said in an interview with upstate editorial boards last month that his legacy rides on his ability to turn upstate around. If that's not so, it ought to be. He was elected in part on his promise to reverse upstate stagnation.

If the state does not move this year to infuse upstate with more capital and policy reform, the looming recession could deepen the problems. Now is the time.

But the governor and lawmakers will have to prioritize. The state is facing a deficit pegged at $4.7 billion. It could be larger if the mortgage crisis continues to roil the financial community. Spitzer's apparent answer is to borrow some or most of the $1 billion proposed for an upstate revitalization fund. Unfortunately, he did not use his speech to provide more detail.

Adding to New York's already towering debt only delays the pain. The right approach is to cut spending and to invest wisely with what's saved. The key is to have goals — restore broken cities, a jobs-creating environment, lower taxes on middle-class property owners — and to move resolutely in those directions. Local consolidation is vital, as Spitzer said, to reduce government.

Spitzer touched all the bases Wednesday. His review of upstate's needs was comprehensive. All that's missing now is action.

January 16, 2008

Sky High

Congratulations to the Barker School District on the makeover at the high school. The renovations include a new science wing, renovated classrooms, new chemistry, physics and biology labs and a redesigned earth science room.

In addition, the classrooms were also supplied with interactive whiteboards, which are dry erase boards that connect to a computer. Anything that is written on them can appear on the computer screen. Computers can also be connected to a projector, which makes displaying information in front of a large audience easier.

Each classroom has more storage space for the required chemicals and supplies for the high school curriculum. Desks and science workstations have enough space to allow teacher supervision. Along with the classrooms, a locker area was also redesigned for security and supervisory purposes. The area is now known as “The Commons,” and has more space and better lighting.

At this point, the only thing left to do is give proper recognition to those who made this massive renovation possible. Would a name change from Barker High School to AES High be too obvious?

January 15, 2008

Getting To The Heart Of the Matter

As we alluded to previously, Governor Spitzer is planning to create a commission to study the possibility of capping school taxes. One of our readers saw that and emailed what turns out to be some fascinating information about one Niagara County school district. The information is quite lengthy so we will try to provide a synopsis. From what we have learned, this information came from a FOIL request of the Lockport City School District (LCSD) in 2005.

In the 1988-89 school year, the LCSD had 481 full-time employees. In the 2004-05 school year, the district had 728 full-time employees. That is an astounding 247 more full-time employees, or 51% more employees over that period.

In contrast, the number of students in the district in 1988-89 was 6,271. In 2004-05 the district's enrollment was 5,664. That is a decrease in enrollment of 607 students over the same period.

Over this span, the district received an astounding $411,312,462 in state aid. For those of you, like me, who don't like big numbers, that's over $400 MILLION in state aid.

There is much more to the information, but I think those numbers pretty much say it all. Enrollment has gone way down, the number of employees has gone way up, and over $400 mil in aid has flown into the district. Let us not forget that the $400 million does not include the millions the district pulls in from local school property taxes every single year.

So one has to ask: Where on earth is all of this money going? Where is the accountability for our tax dollars? Why is there not outrage over this? Is this the type of fiscal management that is rampant in our county school districts?

Tom Christy runs that joke of an organization, FAIR, that is supposed to be looking into budgets, costs, expenses, etc of local governments. Well, here you go, we've handed this one to you on a silver platter. This information is available to anyone and everyone who puts in a FOIL request from any district.

Even more disconcerting, where is the local print media? With this information readily available, why not do some investigative reporting. Tim Marren loves to hammer other governmental bodies over taxes. Send a reporter out to FOIL this information from every school district. If we're going to have a conversation about taxes, let's get to the heart of the matter and stop dancing around it.

Of course, that's only if we don't have to read more quips like "it's politics at its worst". In the meantime, I may start a fundraising effort for a billboard on Transit. Who else is in?

January 13, 2008

Tastes Great, Less Filling, Costs More

An influential Democratic lawmaker from Brooklyn is proposing legislation that flies in the face of Governor Spitzer's pledge to resist any new taxes.

Our old friend Felix Ortiz, whom we mentioned in a recent post related to proposing legislation to license strippers, has another brilliant idea to turn the state around. Ortiz now wants to add a 25-cent tax on every alcoholic beverage sold in New York State. What would that mean to you and I? It means a 24-count case of beer would be $6.00 higher.

Ortiz, who is Chairman of the Assembly Alcoholism Committee, says tacking a 25-cent tax on every alcoholic beverage sold in New York will help tame what he calls an epidemic of underage drinking.

It's good to see that Assemblyman Ortiz has his priorities in order. First licensing pole dancers, now taxing alcohol on the people of New York who legally purchase and responsibly consume alcohol. Why stop there Felix? Why not toss a massive tax onto the fast food industry? Everyone knows that fast food significantly contributes to obesity in this country.

Why stop there? Why not tax MA-rated video games? They're hazardous to the mental well-being of kids, aren't they? Hell, how about taxing the entire Internet? It's chock full of things that are bad for us.

Come on, Felix, get back to Albany and offer some legislation that addresses the core concerns of the people of this state: Jobs and taxes. That is, of course, if you can pull yourself away from conducting further "research" on the licensing of pole dancers.

January 11, 2008

Agri-what?

During his State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Eliot Spitzer overlooked one of New York's biggest industries: Agriculture.

In his 7,604-word speech, Spitzer mentioned "agribusiness" once. He never said the word "agriculture."

"That's the number one industry in New York state. It strikes me as a little strange he didn't mention anything about it. Maybe it just wasn't in his mindset when he was preparing his speech." said Assemblyman Will Barclay, R-Pulaski. Assemblyman Bill MaGee, D-Nelson, echoed the same sentiment.

Not only is agriculture the number one industry in New York State, it's the number one industry in Niagara County. It makes you wonder how Spitzer can travel the state visiting areas such as our with any credibility whatsoever. How can he look to spark the Upstate economy when he doesn't recognize what makes the economy tick?

In his defense, Spitzer seemed to make up for the omission by stopping by the state Agricultural Society's annual meeting in Salina.

In a short speech, Spitzer highlighted policies implemented during his first year in office that helped farmers. And state support will be even more noticeable for farmers in 2008, he said.

Let's hope so. While we continuously look to new projects to spark economic development, we cannot allow the agricultural aspects of our economy to go overlooked.

free page hit counter

January 10, 2008

School Property Tax Relief

In his second State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed a commission study putting a cap on school property taxes.

Spitzer is changing course from when he rejected a cap during his run for governor in 2006. Last year, he hinted that he was changing his mind. But he said during the speech that a cap may make sense because property taxes continue to climb. Aides said that the governor has been disheartened that despite increases in state aid and tax-rebate programs last year, school taxes have soared by an average of 7.3 percent statewide for each of the last five years.

"In the end, it's a losing game for the taxpayer if the state gives you a rebate check on Monday and then on Tuesday your local government takes it away," Spitzer said.

Hallelujah, Eliot. After a year in office, you've finally seen the light. Let's hope this isn't more rhetoric.

free page hit counter

January 9, 2008

"Free" Health Insurance

I must admit, I am bit perplexed. I cannot seem to grasp why two experienced reporters who cover Niagara County politics continue to state that Sean O'Connor will be getting free lifetime health insurance. Buffalo News columnist Tom Prohaska, in his most recent column on the issue stated, "As Republicans sought legal fine points that might be used to deny Niagara County Legislator Sean J. O’Connor free lifetime health insurance". GNN reporter Mark Scheer, who has quickly become the least biased of the two, wrote "He (O'Connor)resigned at the end of last year to circumvent a Republican-led rule change that would have barred him from collecting free coverage".

Newsflash! The "free" lifetime health insurance benefit that O'Connor may get is paid for by taxpayers. I'm not sure if the word "free" is meant to divert attention away from the fact that O'Connor has found a way to manipulate the system, or if it's designed to make O'Connor look like a victim.

The taxpayers are the victims here, not O'Connor. Now that he's back from another vacation, he's all over the news saying how this has been so traumatic for him and his family. Boo hoo, Sean. I hope you're not going to go Hillary on us next time you have a camera stuck in your face.

That's not to say that Prohaska isn't doing his part to make O'Connor out to be the victim. Prohaska stated that "O’Connor said he changed his mind about leaving public office altogether after talks with his family and out of loyalty to his constituents despite GOP harping on the insurance issue". Really? Taking the position that "if somebody was paid for work he did not perform, that money should be returned. I think the taxpayers would agree with that", as Majority Leader Rick Updegrove stated, is "harping"? And using the word "harping" is editorializing, Tom. Leave the big words to the Editorial Staff.

The bottom line is that O'Connor knowingly took funds he was not entitled to and took no measures to prevent this situation from occurring.

Not once has any reporter covering this story done an analysis of what the shenanigans pulled by O'Connor will cost the taxpayers of this county. Once again, it's easier to talk about "politics at its worst" - it makes for good soundbites.

free page hit counter

January 8, 2008

Observations

Wal-Mart continues to be a lightning rod for controversy. The retail giant is fighting opposition to building & expansion plans in both Lockport and North Tonawanda. As is usually the case, a very vocal minority is attempting to sabotage the the projects. If you don't like Wal-Mart, don't shop there.

Wegman's Supermarkets has made the decision to stop selling tobacco products because they care about their employees. They will also offer smoking cessation programs to employees. Danny Wegman said the company respects a person's right to smoke, but they understand the destructive role smoking plays in health. Major kudos to Wegmans in initiating what will hopefully be a trend in retail. Of course, since we have one huge tobacco outlet in Niagara County, the Tuscarora Reservation, smoking won't be on the decline around here anytime soon.

The stress of the Presidential campaign has gotten to Hillary Clinton. While addressing some folks in New Hampshire, Clinton was asked how does she keep up and who does her hair? The question was apparently an emotional trigger for Clinton as her eyes welled up with tears as she answered the question. If that's all it takes, how is she going to handle it when someone asks here whether of not we should drop a bomb on North Korea?

Within the past few years, there was talk of creating a public benefit corporation for the Mt. View Health Facility. Fortunately, the county did not finalize any plans for such action. In light of the scathing audit of the Erie County Medical Center by the Erie County Comptroller, we see know public benefit corporations are short-term solutions and long-term nightmares.

I had to laugh when 97Rock's number one clown, Larry Norton, stated that the Bills need to stay in-house for the new GM to maintain consistency for the franchise. Oh, by the way, the Bills haven't made the playoffs since 1999, the longest current streak in the NFL. Not sure that's the consistency we're looking for. Stick to your bad jokes, Larry.

Best wishes to Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster who was hospitalized Sunday with sharp pains in his side.

free page hit counter

January 7, 2008

The Human Factor

In Sunday's Buffalo News, Tom Prohaska did a thorough piece on the Mt. View Health Facility, and the ramifications of its closure.

We've always believed that the county should not be in the health care business, nor should it be in any business that competes with the private sector. Unfortunately, the county's sale of the facility was derailed by the Berger Commission.

In the story, Prohaska states that with the closing of Mt. View, "the county sheds more than 200 jobs, which is equal to a good-sized plant closing, something Niagara County has seen its share of in recent years. But in this case, the workers losing their jobs were paid by the taxpayers". This is where things venture into a gray area.

We've all read the stories, Niagara County is the second highest taxed county in the country when taken as a percentage of home values. We also know that, as with virtually all counties in New York, the cost of personnel is the single most controllable expense. This is the quandary that all counties, including Niagara, must face.

If, as we have been told, nearly 80% of our county budget is mandated by the state and federal governments, how does the county efficiently maintain services while keeping costs in check? It would seem to come down to employees, as the 200 or so that no longer work at Mt. View have learned.

On the flip side, those of us who watch the Leg meetings have seen many public speakers demand that the Leg operate the county as effectively as can be. When public speakers make that demand, when listeners call WLVL to vent about the county, do they realize the human cost of what they are asking for? They're advocating that the county reduce the single biggest expense that they can control - personnel.

We're going to see the fact that the county reduced its work force by 200 employees on every incumbent Leg candidate's campaign literature in a year and a half. Why? Because that is what the public has demanded. It's ironic. I've seen AFSCME President Ed McDonald cavorting with gadfly Edwina Lusksch. The irony is that Lusksch has been the most vocal advocate in the county for reducing the number of county employees while McDonald serves as the president of the union that used to represent most Mt. View employees. What possible common interest could these two have?

But, as Prohaska stated, the county just shed 200 employees, the size of a small factory. Is that subtle editorial designed to elicit sympathy? Is it written to commend the Leg, and provoke further action? Why not eliminate Niagara County Sheriff Department road patrol? It's not mandated, and I'm sure it would save millions a year. Is that unfathomable? If I lived in any of the municipalities that have a police department, I'd have no problem with it whatsoever.

That, in a nutshell, is the conundrum that faces any governmental agency that must maintain services while keeping costs in check. Regardless of the proposed cut, there will always be someone who will fight against it. Unfortunately, its the county employees themselves that are getting played in this chess game.

free page hit counter

January 5, 2008

Assembly To Hold Hearings From Pole-To-Pole

No, we're not talking about the North and South Poles. A bill that would license exotic dancers has been bumping and grinding its way ever so slowly through the legislative hopper in Albany - but the "sin-tax" in the measure may leave legislators poles apart.

The bill, sponsored by Brooklyn Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, would require strippers to register with the state and get special permits to perform in clubs. And real names - not Candy, Lolita or Miss Lollipop - would be required.

Dancers who can't whip out a permit - it's unclear if they would have to carry them, somewhere, at all times - would face fines of up to $20 for a first-time violation and $50 for further violations. Clubs that employ them would face even stiffer fines.

Ortiz (D-Sunset Park) introduced the bill in May, and it's been languishing ever since in the Assembly Economic Development Committee. Ortiz said he expects committee Chairman Robin Schimminger (D-Erie, Niagara) to schedule hearings sometime in February.

"We're now giving more detailed information to committee members to, if you will, get them more educated," said Ortiz, who, yes, has checked out such clubs "to see what my constituents were complaining about."

Now that's true constituent service. Taking the time from his busy schedule doing the people's work, Assemblyman Ortiz is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to address his constituent's concerns. Those long, hard hours spent in clubs certainly goes above and beyond the call of duty.
It's refreshing to know that our Democratic Assembly has their priorities in order. Never mind that state government has come to a virtual standstill over the past year due to the plague of idiocy that has invaded the governor's mansion. Never mind that the last four times the Senate has met, the Assembly hasn't even been in Albany.

Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari counters, "It really makes no sense to return to Albany, spend the time and the money to get here, when there are no parameters of an agreement on the major issues."

That's great, Eliot, things have really improved under your watch. Way to bring consensus and cooperation to Albany. In the meantime, let's stay focused on our priorities - licensing pole dancers is right up there with job creation and tax reduction.
free page hit counter

January 3, 2008

Breaking News-O'Connor Takes Full Pay, Despite "Resignation"

In a stunning development in the Sean O'Connor saga, Niagara Times has learned from confidential sources that O'Connor has not only received, but cashed the final check paid to Niagara County Legislators. The final check O'Connor received covered the entire last two weeks of the 2007 calender year, 10 days of which he was not in office.

O'Connor had "resigned" from his seat on the Legislature on December 21st. Three days later, he took his oath of office for the 2008-09 term. The maneuver allowed O'Connor to circumvent a prior Legislature resolution that would have required him to contribute 50% of the premiums towards his lifetime health insurance coverage.

What now becomes the burning question is this: Since O'Connor collected his entire salary, despite submitting a piece of paper that says he "resigned", is the resignation in fact valid? And if the resignation is not valid, is O'Connor's attempt to avoid contributing the premium percentage nullified?

This situation, though a black eye for O'Connor, most likely would have passed in due time. But now, with this coming to light, this matter could take a serious turn for the worse for O'Connor.

The county attorney will need to issue an opinion on this matter. If in fact wrong doing is found to have occurred on the part of O'Connor, i.e. receiving county funds that he was not entitled to, our new District Attorney may have one heck of a case on his plate to start the new year.

free page hit counter

Tom Christy's Vulgarity

I must admit, sometimes I am a glutton for punishment. If I wasn't why else would I subject myself to watching Legislative Journal with Tom Christy? I can't blame it on the egg nog, I didn't have a single drink this Christmas season. Maybe it was the delirium of being off of work for a week. Whatever the reason, I did tune in for the latest mind numbing drivel from Christy. I believe the show was taped a week or so before Christmas.

I had hoped that Christy might start cleaning up his act. Apparently, that was wishful thinking. Watching the show, I heard Christy call, not one, but two callers a "bastard". Yes, on two separate occasions, Christy labeled two of his callers with this colorful euphemism. The unfortunate targets of Christy's spectacular vocabulary were Brian from Kenmore and "Pothole" Lou from Niagara Falls.

I guess one could try to rationalize what he may be thinking with the use of such vernacular, but if there's a reasonable explanation, it's beyond me. Was it meant to be a cute, affectionate way of addressing the callers? Because "bastard" is hardly a term of endearment that I'm aware of.

Once again, we have to ask, what on earth is going on at LCTV? Why is he being allowed to continue? Is there no one there with the courage to see that this guy is destroying the reputation of this organization? What about the City of Lockport Common Council and the Town of Lockport Board? They're funding this organization, and their reputations are also on the line.

It's time to get Christy off of the Government Channel. If he wants to make personal attacks and use vulgarity, Lockport COMMUNITY Television is certainly not the place for it.

free page hit counter

January 2, 2008

Updegrove To Retain Leadership Role

Niagara Times has learned that the Niagara County Legislature's Majority Caucus has scrapped plans to change its key leadership position. Current Majority Leader Rick Updegrove was previously rumored to pass the seat to Niagara Falls Democrat Jason Murgia.

From what sources have told us, the Majority Caucus had sought an opinion from the county attorney as to the legality of having a Dem as the leader. Apparently the attorney told the caucus that such a move would be a violation of county rules because the Majority Leader legally must be from the majority party, thus Murgia would be ineligible to hold the position.

At this point, Updegrove will retain the Majority Leader's position, while Murgia will continue to Chair the Administration Committee.

Gazette Nails It with O'Connor Editorial

Major kudos for the Niagara Gazette for getting it right with its editorial on Sean O'Connor's game to bilk taxpayers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in free lifetime health care.

What's surprising is that Sean has always been known as a pretty reasonable guy, so all of this scheming seemed out of character. But sources have told us that O'Connor is willing to take these lumps to his reputation because he will hit a milestone in service to the state (30 years) some time next year that will enhance his retirement payout greatly. He doesn't care about the bad press because he simply won't seek re-election. We're checking into that rumor. If it's true, then O'Connor has truly disgraced his record of public service.

Niagara Gazette editorial:
OUR VIEW: O’Connor resignation breaks public trust

Sean O’Connor, the veteran Democratic Niagara County lawmaker from Niagara Falls, has resigned.

But he won’t stay inactive for long. We learned late Friday that he plans to return to the Legislature next week for his 21st year in office.

O’Connor announced abruptly last week that he was resigning from the Legislature — allowing him to preserve his lifetime paid health insurance benefits. The tactical maneuver allows him to be eligible for lifetime health insurance and retain his seat in the Legislature.

To be certain, there are political motivations surrounding this situation. Nearly a decade ago, the Legislature voted to restrict full health benefits to those with 20 or more years of service. More recently, under Republicans, it opted to force senior legislators taking office in 2008 to pay 50 percent of their premiums if they were sworn in Jan. 1. By resigning when he did, O’Connor becomes immediately eligible for free coverage, while retaining his ability to return to office next year.

He charged in a statement that the tactic by Republicans to threaten his free health insurance was aimed at getting him to retire, increasing their chances of gaining a seat and decreasing the number of minority Democratic lawmakers.

The Legislature’s new Majority Leader Jason Murgia shot back that several senior Republicans will likely face the same decision O’Connor did this election and that the move wasn’t based on partisanship but trimming county expenses.

We applauded O’Connor for deciding to run despite the personal cost. By resigning to keep the benefits then taking the oath of office, he will have misled voters in his district. He has, in effect, gotten his cake and eaten it too — then went to the doctor to have his cholesterol checked.

And by doing so, he is guilty of playing the same games he’s accusing Republicans of undertaking.

There’s a bottom line here: Whether the circumstances are fair or not, by deciding to run again, Sean O’Connor made a promise to his district and to Niagara County taxpayers that personal wealth was less important than public service. To renege on that now sends yet another message to voters that legislators are more concerned with their personal status than honoring a public trust.

January 1, 2008

Happy New Year

"Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man."

- Benjamin Franklin