Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Sales Tax Extension Slipped By . . .

At least WUTR was paying attention: Legislators Vote to Keep Oneida County Sales Tax 8.75% 

But was anyone else?  

Here are the relevant documents:

The underlying state legislation authorizing sales tax extension . (Note the dates this legislation was acted upon.)
Letter 8/17/15 (for distribution on 8/24/15) by County Executive requesting special meeting. (Note that action was deemed "time sensitive" and had to be taken before September 2, 2015.)
Notice of 8/24/15 Special Meeting with the county's legislation attached. (Note the statement at the end of the legislation "This enactment shall take effect December 1, 2015" (emphasis suppled).)

Do you wonder if any of the County Legislators feel that they are being manipulated . . . or do you wonder if they even care?

Nothing like scheduling a "last minute" meeting to ensure maintenance of the status quo.

Update: Rome Sentinel



Friday, August 21, 2015

WTG New York Mills!

Interesting article in the Syracuse paper today: 5 things parents did in one CNY district to get so many to opt out of state tests
In New York Mills, a small school district in Oneida County, 77 percent of students opted out of the state's Common Core math test and 74 percent opted out of the English examination. The district had the highest percentage of students to opt out of the exams in the six-county Central New York region, according to a syracuse.com analysis of state Education Department data.
The article interviewed local parent and organizer Kate Despins who described five things parents did to get students to opt out.
5. Used the small community nature of New York Mills to their advantage. They talked to each other and to their children, so they all understood the issues.

"We are a small community and we talk to each other,'' Despins said. "If someone sneezes in New York Mills, we all know it. We see the same people at sporting events, at the grocery store and everywhere else, and we talk. We stick together, and we inform each other."

Despins said the high opt-out rate is because parents there understand the issues.
Small school districts are often looked down upon because they do not have the population to support all the offerings found in larger districts.  This story, however, exemplifies an advantage that a small school district offers over a larger one:  greater parental control.  It is easier for parents to organize themselves for action in a smaller district because they all know each other.

Who knows better what children need? Albany/Washington bureaucrats or their parents?

I'll opt for the parents any day!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Fab-ulous!

Per Syracuse.com: GE, Austrian company to invest $2 billion, bring 2,000 jobs to Nano Utica.

GE is coming back to Utica!  Willkommen to a new company from Austria, AMS!

Listening to the governor explain how Upstate got into its economic problem, he got it!

Now it is up to us to make the best of this good news.

----
More from the Sentinel, Times Union, and the OD.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

FD Post Mortem

The proposed Whitestown Fire District went down to defeat, being approved by both villages but soundly rejected by the township.  Why it was defeated will be the subject of speculation for the next few weeks.  Here's my take:

1) The case for "consolidation" was not credible . . .  not transparent.

  • "Pros" and "cons" for the project would be different for each community, but only the "pros" from the perspective of Oriskany and Whitesboro were presented.  Proponents completely missed the fact that the Town residents would be exposing themselves to potential liabilities they now avoid by being mere "customers" of village services.  
  • If you disagreed with the "pros,"  you were called a "liar" and had your motivations questioned rather than being civilly asked why your perspective was different.
  • The makeup of the Board of Commissioners (Town vs Villages) had yet to be decided -- i.e., the plans were still a work in progress.
  • Proposed tax rates and budgets were presented with no supporting documentation/explanation that public members could use to verify what they had been told.  
  • Since the public was not told of any specific equipment or personnel cuts, the financial benefits of "consolidation" were not evident. 
  • Since most service within the FD would be done by 2 rather than 4 units of firefighters, the "safety" benefit was not evident. 


2) "Consolidation" from the perspective of a fire department was not a "consolidation" from the perspective of the taxpayer, who would be faced with paying an additional unit of government. 

3) A board of appointed commissioners is not as accountable to the public as a board of elected commissioners.

The public is open to the idea of consolidation . . . but it must be real, transparent, and accountable.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Half-Baked Fire District

Per WKTV . . . 
"Whitesboro Fire Chief Peter Sobel . . . says the town could not have less votes than a village, but he says the ultimate makeup still has not been decided upon. He says Whitestown could get three commissioners . . ." 
The Villages will give up their equipment and their contractual payments from the Town, but don't even know how they are going to be represented on the new commission? They sound desperate to offload their FDs.

I guess the people will have to vote for the fire district to find out how they will be represented in it. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Fire District "Consolidation" . . .

Here is a Question for proponents of the proposed Whitesboro-Oriskany-Whitestown Fire District "Consolidation" that creates a new unit of government not directly answerable to voters: 

Will the new Consolidated Fire District pay the Village of Oriskany and the Village of Whitesboro for their respective fire department assets (stations and equipment)? 

If so, how much will each village be paid, and how was the price determined? 

If not, then is not the Town getting something for nothing (a vote over use of village assets)?

I do not live in any of the jurisdictions involved so I'm ... 

Jus' askin.'   :-) 
----------------------------
More Thoughts . . .
 

Links: 
Village Whitesboro
Village of Oriskany 
Town of Whitestown
Joint Fire District Propaganda 

From the above links the Oriskany link is most informative.   It appears that the Villages will be GIVING their equipment to the new FD, and the FD will lease the stations. What is the value of the equipment to be given away?  What assets, if any, will the Town give -- and what value? What will be the terms of the leases?  How will the rents be determined? Which village gets the better deal? What happens if down the road the FD and a village cannot come to an agreement on a lease?

This OD article from June points to another issue . . . 
Whitesboro Mayor Patrick O’Connor presented figures obtained through the government-transparency group See Through New York of the Empire Center for Public Policy that indicated New York Mills’ revenue from contracts for fire control exceed its expenses by as much as $266,390 over a five-year period. 
[Mayor] Bialek appeared taken aback.
If NYM is making a "profit" from its fire operation, are not the Villages of Whitesboro and Oriskany doing the same? If so, what "profits" are these villages giving up in this deal?

If they are not making a profit, you have to ask yourself "Why not?"

[The word "profit" is a bit misleading. It actually is a "return on the Village's investment" in real estate, equipment, and personnel PLUS A RETURN FOR THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH RUNNING A FIRE DEPARTMENT. (If you do not understand the risks, ask the Village of Prospect)].

Have these Villages overspent on their FDs? Is this deal a quick way for village officials to cover up their mismanagement or poor negotiation skills?

The OD's tone in the article [the note about Mayor Bialek being taken aback] reminds me of another regionalization that the OD pushed 20 years ago: The regionalization of the Utica Board of Water Supply. [Utica readers should note who was mayor when the ball got rolling on that one, and who is again running for mayor this year.] The dynamics of that effort look similar to this one. Except for suburban developers, I do not think you can now find anyone paying MVWA's exorbitant cost for water who thinks that regionalization of the water system turned out well.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Hinckley, West Canada Creek Juggling Act . . .

In the middle of last month, a rapid drop in the level of Hinckley Reservoir left a number of boats "high and dry." Per the Herkimer Telegram . . .
On July 16, the state Power Authority was directed by the state Canal Corp. to begin releasing a total of 1,350 cubic feet per second from the reservoir, which made the water level drop around 5 feet overall. . . . 
Shane Mahar, deputy communications director for the Canal Corp., said the water released was to make up for a lack of released water so far in 2015. “Recently, we have been providing compensating flow to Erie Boulevard Hydropower because less water was released out of the reservoir earlier this year at the request of the Mohawk Valley Water Authority,” Mahar said.
By the end of the month, however, the problem had shifted to low water levels in the West Canada Creek below the reservoir.  Assemblyman Marc Butler and campground owner Mike Papp appeared on the WIBX Keeler Show and expressed concern over the lack of water in the West Canada Creek, with Mr. Papp commenting that normal flows at that time of year would be 800 to 1000 cfs, resulting in a creek level about 1 1/2 feet higher than it actually was (listen at about 4:00 in the interview). Further along concerns were expressed over how the creek would be impacted in the future by (1) withdrawals for Nano and (2) withdrawals by MVWA to serve western Oneida County.

Mr. Butler knows this issue better than any other public official in the region. His concerns are well placed and are not about a lack of water resources in the region, but over how those resources are managed.

The lack of a properly functioning Gray dam (destroyed by MVWA in 2002) contributes to the problem with water management, but how much needs to be calculated with reference to particular places, times, and purposes because the nature of the "problem" differs with place, time and purpose.

Hinckley Reservoir was built solely to supply the canal for navigation purposes. Riparian landowners along the West Canada Creek had no legal basis to object to diversion of creek water away from them for navigation purposes because that was always the state's right as sovereign under common law. Fluctuating water levels in both the reservoir and Creek would reflect the needs of the Canal for navigation.

Gray Reservoir existed to negate the impacts of MVWA's withdrawals. Under an old agreement with the State, Gray was supposed to store 120 days worth of water useage by the Utica area, with water to be released into Hinckley during dry weather to replace any water removed. The State originally required Gray to protect itself from claims by riparian landowners of infringement of their property rights because the State had no right to divert water  for non-navigation purposes. 

A couple years ago to settle a lawsuit, the State entered a new agreement with MVWA which removed the water storage requirement and ensured MVWA the right to withdraw about 48 Million Gallons of water per Day (MGD) from Hinckley.   It is believed that the State did this to guarantee enough water for Utica area Nano projects, which were not only a priority for local officials, but for the governor himself. While the new agreement accomplishes this objective, it also exposes the State to liability to riparian property owners for any damages caused by withdrawals for non-navigation purposes.

To avoid being sued, the State must now operate Hinckley to not only supply the canal (its original mission) and ensure MVWA's right to 48MGD (a new mission), but to also mitigate MVWA's withdrawals to the extent necessary to keep riparian owners from suing (Gray's former mission). So far, the power company has successfully sued the state -- which explains the rapid draining of Hinckley in mid-July to make up for power lost to the power company earlier in the season. 

The State will take the path of least resistance in juggling its rights with obligations to others. That juggling act will become ever more difficult as more water is diverted to the MVWA. 
  
Whether or not other riparian landowners have retained sufficient water rights, have sufficient incentive, and have sufficient funds to sue the State themselves remains to be seen.  Suffice it to say that if other owners do nothing, in the future, as more water is diverted to MVWA, the West Canada Creek will more frequently be reduced to only the lowest flow needed to sustain aquatic life.  That will interfere with the Creek's recreational uses.  If other landowners do successfully sue, then the State may have to reduce the water available to its Canal.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Whitestown FD: The Regionalization of Oriskany, Whitesboro Assets

People throw the word "consolidation" around a lot when it comes to local government, implying efficiencies and savings due to so-called economies of scale. Sometimes it works out that way, but other times it does not.

The latest "consolidation" under consideration is consolidation of the Oriskany and Whitesboro Village Fire Departments into a Whitestown Fire District which will serve the entire Town of Whitestown outside the Villages of New York Mills and Yorkville (which Villages decided not to participate in the scheme).   A list of alleged "pros" and short description of how this scheme would work was recently published in the Rome Sentinel. Some things stand out:
A potential decrease in the fire tax. . .

Equality of fire tax within the joint district — all pay the same fire rate. . . .

The new fire district would be run by five commissioners who are to be appointed by the town and village boards.

No doubt costs will be reduced to residents of the Town who live outside of the Villages.  Currently, the Town must negotiate contracts with the Town's Villages (Oriskany, Whitesboro,  NYM and Yorkville) for coverage in areas outside the Villages.  The Villages, which must maintain sufficient equipment to serve their Town "customer," no doubt ensure that their costs are covered during the negotiation process. These costs not only include equipment, but also transporting equipment and men the longer distances to Town locations relative to covering fires "around the corner" in the Villages.  Simply put, the cost to protect spread-out Town territory has to be more per home than the cost in densely developed Villages because greater distances must be traveled.  Town residents currently pay these additional costs associated with their service through the rates negotiated with the Villages.

But negotiations with Oriskany and Whitesboro will be eliminated by this plan. If people in Oriskany and Whitesboro will have an "equality of fire tax within the joint district," if "all pay the same fire rate," then . . .   

THE VILLAGE RESIDENTS WILL BE PICKING UP THE ADDITIONAL COSTS ASSOCIATED WITH SERVICE TO TOWN RESIDENTS.

Voters in Oriskany and Whitesboro, beware.  Your fire assets are being "regionalized."

---------------
Update: Fault Lines: Fire District "Consolidation" . . .

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Oneida County Voters: Choice Challenged!

The petitions are in for Oneida County elected positions! However . . .
There are no challengers for county Executive Anthony Picente, Comptroller Joseph Timpano and District Attorney Scott McNamara. And 12 of the 23 Oneida County legislators won’t face a race this fall, either. . . .
Oneida County Democratic Party Chairman Mitch Ford said this could be the year the balance shifts.
But when Democrats challenge only 4 of the 13 (or less than 1/3 of the) Republican incumbent legislators while Republicans challenge 7 out of the 10 (more than 2/3 of the) Democrats, how likely is that?

It actually might be nice to see the balance on the board shifting once in awhile because it would mean that the votes people cast are making a difference, potentially injecting fresh new ideas into local governance.

But where races are uncontested, voting won't make a difference. 

Uncontested elections lead to the conclusion that "the fix is in," discouraging people from voting on election day.

The major party leaders, even when they might like what the opposite party is doing, should be cultivating and encouraging challengers for each office up for re-election, even if only to produce a field of more experienced candidates for future races.

Their not doing so suggests that party leader allegiances may be neither to their parties nor to the voters but to the existing ruling class. . . . and that would be a shame.





Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Regional Hospital: Why Downtown? Why Not the Former Psych Center on York?

Ahh, Money!  Lots and Lots of Money!  If it comes in too easily or unexpectedly, there is a tendency to get "crazy"  - to "splurge" --  to spend it quickly without thinking of all the consequences.

We've seen this craziness at the O.C. Airport, where the availability of $10's of millions of Federal dollars caused us to abandon a perfectly good airport for one that has become a costly nightmare to maintain, and an excuse for $10s of millions of additional local taxpayer "investments."

Now we may be seeing craziness again with the proposal of a regional Downtown Hospital due to a surprise "gift" of $300 million from the Cuomo administration. While we should be grateful to Whomever had the Governor's ear after years of the State ignoring us, we should not take leave of our senses when determining how or where to spend the money. . . The sidebar to the OD article gives the politicians' positives of the hospital being located Downtown.

How about the negatives?

1) Removal of multiple parcels of properties from the tax rolls.  Can Utica taxpayers really absorb more loss of taxable properties after about 70 parcels were taken for the Arterial expansion plus more for the Centro "hub" and a new County parking lot?

2) Further disruption of the street grid. To get a large enough parcel, some local streets will have to be discontinued. It will be like a large urban renewal project. Street eliminations will make what remains in Downtown less "pedestrian friendly," less "auto friendly," and, therefore, less likely to be redeveloped by tax-paying private interests.

3) The probability is that locating a large number of hospital employees Downtown will NOT spur private development.  People will go to work, then go home. A large hospital will have its own cafeteria. Did the State Office Building create a "boom" over what was previously in the neighborhood?  Did the new downtown Utica Mutual office spur development? Do you see a lot of private development around St. Luke's Hospital? The answer to all these questions is no.

4) The decreased use of the three current hospital sites.  This is unavoidable no matter where the new hospital is located.  Looking at what has happened in the neighborhood of the last hospital site so treated, the Psych Center on York Street, should give pause to those thinking that the sites to be left behind will not create new sets of problems. It should also make people question whether a $300M "gift" will be worth the disruption.

Regardless, if we must proceed with a Regional Hospital, a Downtown site presents significant risks as noted above.

Another potential site that has been mentioned is the Murnane Field area.  While placing the hospital on what is now a recreation area might decrease impacts to the City's tax base, it would destroy the current use of the site -- a use consistent with the Olmstead vision for Utica's Park System,  a vision that has worked very well for City residents for more than a century.  (Moving Murnane to the Harbor area as some have proposed may fail.  Why was McConnell Field, formerly at the harbor, abandoned?)  Why should Uticans have to give something up to get the $300 million gift?

The good thing is that the politicians seem to agree that the hospital should be in Utica where it would be closest to the center of the regional population.  So is there a Utica location that minimizes negatives and risks? 

The former Psych Center site on York St. between Court and Noyes seems to fill the bill: 

(1) No taxable property will be lost.
(2) The site is large enough, requiring no streets to be discontinued.
(3) No current uses of the site would have to be discontinued.
(4) The site is accessible, being easily reached via the street grid, on existing bus routes,  and only a few blocks from the new Court St. Interchange under construction. (A reopening of the York-Burrstone intersection could improve access.)
(5) The site's new use would be institutional healthcare, which is consistent with the old use.  That makes the site consistent and non-disruptive to the neighborhood which grew up around it.
(6) The blight on the former Psych Center site would be removed.

If there are any negatives to this site what are they? The only impediment would seem to be getting state agencies to give up some turf --  but this would be an easy way for them to off-load the burden of maintaining abandoned facilities.  Are there any other negatives?

Why not the York St. Psych Center site?