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."

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?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Utica Harbor: Living Up to Potential?

They began with the best of intentions. They took old sections of the city that were showing their age, took down what was there, and built new buildings. The idea was to breathe new life into old neighborhoods. . . . The buildings are now the legacy of our leaders of the 1960s and '70s. . . but did the results meet their goal?

Utica produced some notable buildings and public spaces during that era: New City Hall, Clock Tower, Plaza and Parking Garages; Hanna Park (with the now-defunct waterfall); Kennedy Plaza Apts.; State Office Building (with the now-defunct public plaza to the east which sat atop the now-defunct parking garage) and County Office Building.  These visible signs of "progress" (and decay because they could not be maintained) were largely funded by taxpayer dollars.

In spite of the new buildings and public spaces, the hoped-for private investment -- and a renewed vibrancy -- never followed. Stores never occupied the storefronts built facing Columbia Street and the space is now occupied by a medical supply company with trailer trucks often stopping downtown traffic. The 6-story office tower intended to sit atop the garage next to City Hall never materialized. The large parcel of land surrounding the apartment tower attracted a couple of cheap metal buildings that were totally out of character with both old and new neighboring buildings -- but otherwise remained largely empty space (grass or parking lots) even to this day.  The high rise apartment tower, which might have been designed to attract a well-heeled clientele owing to its views, contains "Section 8" housing.  The "renewed" area was and is a far cry from the active, densely developed space that it replaced. What went wrong?

We now know that projects such as Utica's Urban Renewal project failed, at least in part, because they were inconsistent with and destroyed the "walkability" of the neighborhoods they were placed in, isolating people from amenities they want.  Cities, such as Greenville, SC, learned this lesson and have recreated downtown vibrancy by making them pedestrian friendly. Successful private developers, even locally (eg. Landmarc, New Hartford Shopping Center), have learned the lesson, too, and are designing projects that are "walkable" in the sense that occupants will not have to walk far to find things they want.

Now compare the proposed Harbor Point Plan with Utica's failed  '60s Urban Renewal area.  Both plan(ned) a few key "trophy" buildings with uses pre-designated by local leaders (which may not be what "the market" would be interested in), in a low-density environment (which reduces "walkability"), with no requirement to "fit in" with each other or their surroundings, and with public "amenities" which require taxpayer maintenance.

Waterfront acreage should be the most valuable property in the city. Why is it being wasted on ball fields, an "interpretive center," a farmers' market, trails, and an outdoor amphitheater which will (1) not generate any tax revenue, but also (2) burden the taxpayer with additional things to maintain, and (3) duplicate amenities the City already has?  (We commented on the ball fields back in 2010.)

Nicky Doodles at Harbor Point, which offers first rate products in a first rate facility, now seems overshadowed and oddly placed with the hulking Fairfield rising next door. If both are being touted as part of the Harbor Point "project," why do their designs detract from rather than enhance each other? Wouldn't a good master plan for the project avoid incongruities and protect the value of private investment, by imposing design requirements to ensure that buildings "work" together, e.g., as in a  "form based code?"

Harbor Point not only has waterfront acreage, it has a "million dollar view" of Downtown. Can you find anything in the Harbor Point Plan that leverages this viewshed to the advantage of the development?

Does the plan erase the boundary between governmental function and private effort? The plan talks about all the possible things that could go into Harbor Point, and even locates specific activities in specific places, but is there a market for these things?  Maybe we do not really need another ethnic restaurant, another farmer's market, or another place for people to go and sample locally crafted products. Are artists inspired to complete canvases someone else has started?  Isn't that what happened with Urban Renewal?  Shouldn't it be up to the developer to decide what goes into the project? And where?

The City's interest should be limited to providing the regulatory and  infrastructure framework calculated necessary to ensure development of sufficient density to increase net revenue to the city.  If this is not possible, perhaps Harbor Point's time has not yet arrived.   Regardless . . .

The Harbor Point Plan does not seem to reflect the site's potential.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Customary Fantasy . . .

According to the Rome Sentinel: With new customs agent, Griffiss can accept international arrivals.
A permanent customs presence is seen as a value-added service for the aircraft maintenance and overhaul facilities whose customers sometimes send planes to Griffiss from foreign starting points.

Additionally, it is hoped that having a customs facility will help attract more international flights, boosting fuel sales. More than a million gallons were sold last year. The county is paid 8 cents for every gallon of aircraft fuel sold by ground services provider Million Air.

Boosting fuel sales?  Is that Oneida County's objective? The County would be much better off operating a 7-11.

Attracting international flights? Do people fly in from other countries just to meet with a customs agent, or because they have business locally?  Just how much international business is there locally? 

Of course, Griffiss had already been accepting international arrivals with arrangements made as needed for an agent to come out from Syracuse to meet the plane.  So now, to avoid the bother of having to make those arrangements,  per the Observer Dispatch Oneida County Taxpayers are on the hook for almost $150,000/year in pay and benefits for the agent... i.e., almost $3,000/week! Additionally, the agent is on duty only 8 hrs./day 5 days per week, so it looks like calls to Syracuse will continue when a flight comes in outside of the scheduled shift.  

So far since the agent has been on duty, international traffic has been about 1 -- that's One, Uno, Un, Einer, Jedan, один, ένας, واحد -- flight per week!
“Our hope is that if you take a longer view, it will more than pay for itself,” Majority Leader George Joseph said. “It takes a while for the word to spread. It’s just another tool in our toolbox we can offer as we promote the airport.”
That's an Expensive Tool!
The county Board of Legislators’ Democratic Minority Leader Frank Tallarino said he never supported the installation of a Customs facility, and it’s no surprise business there hasn’t been more brisk. “At this point in time we did not need that expense,” he said. “We need a carrier first.” 
Tallarino said until airport fees levied by Million Air, the company that operates the terminal, are lowered, the carriers will keep away.
Mr. Tallarino raises an important point. Back to the Sentinel article . . .
Here’s a look at the number of takeoffs and landings between January and April over the last five years: 2015: 6,356; 2014: 7,964; 2013: 11,269; 2012: 18,570; and 2011, 17,120.
Why are those numbers dropping? Why is that not a clear signal that Oneida County is doing something wrong? How do the airport fees levied by Million Air compare with airports elsewhere in comparably sized markets? Who can answer these questions?  Why isn't the Board of Legislators asking these questions?

Are Board Members letting their party politics or personal animosities get in the way of listening to each other and getting answers to logical questions?

The Customs agent was the subject of a posting here back in 2012 when we were told that a customs agent would help "a lot" and we asked the question "How much is 'a lot?' "
One suspects that we'll build another Taj Mahal facility that will be mostly empty -- and have Customs Agent "Tatoo" sitting around most of the time waiting for "the plane, the plane."  
Fantasies sometimes do come true!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sacrificing Our Values on the Alter of Free Trade

Per his Facebook page yesterday, Rep. Hanna "voted 'yes' on H.R. 2393, the Country of Origin Labeling Amendments Act of 2015."  
Country of origin labeling provisions were enacted in 2002 to require certain meat retailers to inform consumers of the country of origin on the product’s label. Shortly after the law was implemented, Canada and Mexico challenged it at the World Trade Organization (WTO). After years of appeals, the WTO issued a final ruling saying that the country of origin rule has a trade distorting impact by reducing the value and number of cattle and hogs shipped to U.S. markets. As a result, Canada and Mexico plan to subject certain U.S. markets to more than $3 billion in retaliatory tariffs . . .

This bill repeals country of origin labeling requirements for retailers of beef, pork, and chicken, at the final point of sale in order to prevent the imposition of these harmful tariffs.
So,  a law intended to inform the AMERICAN consumer is swept away because some Canadians and Mexicans don't like it? 

Who does Congress represent? Americans? or Canadians and Mexicans? 

It seems that our Congressman finds it appropriate for our country to change or debase its own values based upon reactions and threats from abroad. And, apparently, he is willing to subject our own sovereignty to a "world" organization's judgement! What will be next? 

Today "Fast Track" will be considered . . .  a protocol to subject future trade agreements negotiated by the administration to quick "up-or-down" votes with no opportunity for changes . . . and little opportunity for scrutiny.  I.e., that's why it is "fast track:"  These lengthy agreements with the potential to significantly affect everyday American life (like NAFTA has done since the 1990s) will go by so fast that there will be insufficient time to digest their contents.  

There are several "Free Trade" agreements pending that will be "Fast Tracked" if Fast Track goes through.  But there is a big problem with "Free Trade." It presumes that the world shares the same values when it does not. 

It is "Free Trade" notions which have allowed American companies to take advantage of the American Marketplace while avoiding costly American Laws (expressions of our values) by exporting American Jobs to overseas where goods ultimately destined for American consumers are made. 

"Free Trade" is not really "free" if we have to sacrifice jobs and values.

It will be interesting to see how Mr. Hanna and the other Congress Members vote on these issues.  If the vote on HR 2393 is any indication, Fast Track and the various pending agreements will be approved.  And then it will be clear that Congress does not represent Americans . . . nor even Canadians or Mexicans. . . .

Rather, it will have proven itself to be a mere functionary of the global corporatists who are the real beneficiaries of these agreements.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Top Metros for Advanced Industries...

Brookings Institute just released its list of the 15 hottest  metros for advanced industries.

A couple surprises: 1. Utah contained three of them. 2. Albany, NY was nowhere to be seen.

So, in spite of Billions of NY taxpayer dollars being spent in the Albany metro area on nano, it does not even register a mention. In fact, no place in New York State was mentioned.

Perhaps Utah does so well on this list because, Per CNBC, it is the third best place in the country overall and the number one cheapest in cost for doing business.

New York could learn a thing or two from Utah!

Monday, June 01, 2015

An Artificial Economy Fueled by Taxpayer Dollars . . .

Last September we noted Oneida County's deal with Solar City to install solar panels. In October we discussed the State's "trophy project" deal with Solar City to make solar panels in Buffalo. By January we noted the secrecy surrounding the Buffalo project which continued through May.

The story now continues:  Per the L.A. Times over the weekend:  Elon Musk's growing empire is fueled by $4.9 billion in government subsidies.

Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars, sell solar panels and launch rockets into space.

And he's built those companies with the help of billions in government subsidies. . .

Tesla and SolarCity continue to report net losses after a decade in business, but the stocks of both companies have soared on their potential; Musk's stake in the firms alone is worth about $10 billion. . . . 
Musk and his companies' investors enjoy most of the financial upside of the government support, while taxpayers shoulder the cost.
Regarding the New York project:
New York state is spending $750 million to build a solar panel factory in Buffalo for SolarCity. The San Mateo, Calif.-based company will lease the plant for $1 a year. It will not pay property taxes for a decade, which would otherwise total an estimated $260 million.
An accompanying article gives this breakdown of government benefits to Solar City:
$750 million — New York State cost to build solar panel factory 
$1.5 billion — Estimated value of 30% subsidy for solar installation since 2006, including at least $497 million in Treasury grants 
$5.6 million — Oregon tax credits and rebates
         $260 million  — New York local property tax exemptions

You have to ask yourself two questions: (1) If solar panel installation and manufacture were such a good deal, why was this not financed by private investors?  (2) How long can taxpayers keep subsidizing government-approved technologies?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

And the Next Raleigh-Durham is . . . Utica?

Yes, you can feel it in the air. There is a new sense of hope in Utica for a brighter future. It has been a long time coming . . . and it is a good thing!

Per the OD today, a HUD official says that Utica could be the next Raleigh-Durham!  The official, Mr. Forero out of the Albany HUD office, pointed to Utica's population statistics and noted that they were similar to Raleigh-Durham, NC, one of the country's fastest growing cities.

Comparing ourselves to our competitors to see how we measure up is a good thing. It shows us where we are strong, and where we need improvement.  The fact that Utica has a young demographic like Raleigh-Durham gives hope for the future.

But will these young people stay here?

How does Utica compare to Raleigh-Durham by other measures?  Are its taxes as low as Raleigh-Durham? Are its utility costs as low as Raleigh-Durham?  Does a "Right to Work" law prevail like in Raleigh-Durham? Are Utica's demographics the product of people flocking to Utica for employment opportunities like in Raleigh-Durham, or are they due to the importation of people from areas of strife in other parts of the world?

Utica needs to be able to answer these questions honestly, to know some of the changes it needs to make to actually become the next Raleigh-Durham.

In so far as listening to Federal HUD officials, if the Federal Government was not spreading around millions of tax dollars (OUR tax dollars), should anyone actually listen to these people?  The Federal Government is the source of the "20% Affordable Housing" requirement for new housing developments found in the Utica Master Plan . . . a requirement in a city already known for the affordability of its housing stock . . .  and in a city that desperately needs Upscale housing to bring in tax revenue to sustain city services.

Utica is turning around through private efforts . . . and does not need Big Government to mess things up!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Hotel Utica: Change the Management!

The Utica OD had been asking its readers for suggestions on what to do with the Hotel Utica now that a $million in back taxes is owed and a potential sale of the facility has recently fallen through.

How about this:  Run it as an hotel!

The hotel was beautifully restored during the last decade.  But the ability to bring about a successful restoration of an hotel does not mean there is an ability to successfully run an hotel.  A different skill set is involved.

The Utica Phoenix has an article this month that makes a strong case that the Hotel Utica's problems are due to poor management -- in particular by a family member of the hotel's owner.

Most people can understand that if you have a business, you want to take care of your kids. . . .

But here, the Taxpayers have been on the hook for this facility.  The City should use its creditor status to either leverage the owner to fire current management and hire someone with expertise and success in running a large hotel . . .

Or foreclose on the facility, hire the expert, and run the facility itself until a buyer can be found.

The fact that new hotels are going up in the vicinity establishes the market for hotel rooms. The City controls the hotel's environs (which could probably use some sprucing up).  The City has the power to fix this.

Taxpayers deserve movement on this issue.

Baby Killer!!

The headline in the Syracuse paper says it all:

House passes bill banning abortions after 20 weeks: Hanna splits with GOP


- - - - - -
Noon Update:


There is more than just the woman here -- there is another person. There is virtually no difference in that person before and after passing through the birth canal or being removed via C-section. The person is viable. Courts have long recognized wrongful death claims for babies in utero. Because abortion at early stages in pregnancy has been found legal, someone has to draw the line as to when personhood rights under the US Constitution attach. Like the abolition of slavery, that job properly belongs to Congress. And contrary to Mr. Hanna's assertion on his Facebook page, exceptions are provided for the mother's health and in other circumstances. See Section 1532 (b)(2)(B) at https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/36/text .