Monday, August 22, 2005

"Sprawl" or "Growth" ?

There was an interesting article in today's OD about Whitestown's Growing pains.
There seems to be a tacit assumption that "growth" is "good" among our politicians.


"Growth" is good depending on where and who you are. Growth in cities or villages is usually good because those areas already have the infrastructure in place to support it. If more people move in to pay fixed costs, costs per person will go down -- making such areas attractive to even more growth. Growth is also good for developers and the landowners in the path of growth. These people will make money through construction and land sales. For other people in other areas, however, "growth" will produce more harm than good.

While it is true that "growth" from the new Judd Road will likely bring in more tax revenue to Whitestown, it also will create a demand for additional infrastructure and services -- which come with significant costs. Will there be a need to build more water and sewer lines? Will police and fire services be adequate? Can the school system handle an increased student load?

While some of these costs will be paid for by Whitestown residents, perhaps to be picked up by an "expanded tax base" others will be paid for by persons getting no benefit from the "growth." People who live further away from the population centers should be paying more for water and sewer services because of the greater distances water and sewage need to be transported. However our local service providers have not implemented this concept in their rate schedules -- meaning that the population centers (Utica and the Villages) are actually subsidizing this "growth." Additionally, greater burdens will be placed on the Sheriff's department -- and taxed to the villages and cities which get little to no service from the Sheriff. What about the cost to plow the new roads that will be needed? The list can go on and on ...

There are also environmental and "quality of life" issues to consider. Growth in the rural sections of Whitestown can be expected to downgrade wildlife habitat. Agricultural land will be lost and the productivity of what remains will be impaired. Undoubtedly, the community's character will change.

One only has to look at the congestion that has accompanied the massive growth along New Hartford's commercial corridor to know that significant changes can be attached to 'growth.' I can't say these have been positive. According to my tax bills, I can't say that the "expanded tax base" has had a significant impact on my taxes. Sitting in traffic waiting to exit Consumer Square, I can't say that my shopping experience has been enhanced. Even though it is several miles farther, I actually prefer the Wal-Mart in N Utica to the one in NH because I don't like getting stuck in traffic exiting the parking lot. While the additional shopping choices are nice, these would eventually have been located in Utica had the region not adopted policies that actually subsidize development of pristine land.

While our politicians bandy the word "growth" around easily, what is "growth" from a small local perspective is really "sprawl" from a regional perspective. For all the talk about this being a "region," the politicians who should be thinking of the "region" are taking the small local approach. In this regard, I was glad to see that Rolf Pendall's work Sprawl Without Growth: The Upstate Paradox got a mention. This is an interesting piece that should be required reading for our politicians who think they have all the answers. Pendall documents that urbanized acreage in the Central New York (Utica-Rome-Syracuse) region increased an astounding 45% between 1982 and 1997 while the population decreased .

You need no degree in urban planning to know that our "sprawl without growth" partially explains why our taxes have reached outrageous, non-competitive, job-killing levels: we simply have spread ourselves too thin to be economically efficient.

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

S.O.S. (Save Our Schools)

Before you start hitting up your friends and neighbors for money for a PUBLIC school, you need to ask yourself: What would more money accomplish?

If you are unhappy with the quality of education your daughter is getting, I suggest to you that the problem is NOT a lack of money. Teachers, even in Utica, are already well paid for their work - paid almost as well, if not BETTER, than attorneys and engineers in Public Service - professions that require more rigorous training - when hours actually worked are taken into consideration. This is even more true for administrators. Class sizes also are significantly smaller than 40 years ago (when students actually were able to leave 8th grade with life skills, and when there was no such thing as a teaching assistant/teacher aide). There is also no shortage of money for constructing schools since 90+% of the cost is reimbursed by the state. How would you spend the money you want to raise?

Quality in education results from HOW money is spent, not How Much. Unfortunately, much of what passes for "education" these days is more akin to group therapy, social engineering and "attitude adjustment" than education. Ineffective methods result in too many students graduating who are functionally illiterate and computationally inept.

Go to your school and see how things are done. Are the students sitting in rows facing the front or are they in groups? (Which arrangement do you think lends itself to discipline problems?) Does the teacher relate his/her knowledge directly to the children, or do students work in groups to "construct" their own knowledge with the teacher "facilitating"? (Which approach do you think leads to confusion and numbers of children falling behind their peers?) Are the classroom walls and ceiling covered with colorful posters and hanging things, or are displays low key and simple? (Which do you think is distracting?) Are students repeatedly drilled on their math facts and required to do math in their heads, or are they handed a calculator? (Which approach do you think leads to students graduating who are unable to make change, balance a check book, or unable to comparison shop?) Do students spend time learning the intricacies of Microsoft Word or learning the rules of grammar? (After 5 years when the software has completely changed, which students do you think will be better able to write a gramatically correct paragraph?)

Teaching reading and math is NOT rocket science, but the educrats will have you believing otherwise because they are justifying their jobs. Unfortunately, such people populate our administrative staffs, state education departments, and teaching colleges. The education business is constantly beset by "fads" that come and go -- usually making someone rich -- but do damage along the way. In the 70's it was the "open classroom" where entire schools were built without interior walls. You don't need a teaching degree to know that this created distractions for students and did nothing for achievement. In the 80s it was "racial balance," "magnet schools," and doing away with neighborhood schools. This not only failed to accomplish the well-intended social goals, it led to students spending time on buses rather than studying or playing, greater discipline problems, reduction in parental involvement, all of which led to reduction in education achievement -- harming EVERYONE. Now it's "higher" standards -- but if you look beyond the noble sounding standards and try to discern exactly WHAT students are expected to KNOW, you will be totally confused. Take a look at the threads posted on the Millenium Project and on Safe Schools to see how the latest "fads" are wasting our tax money and your childrens' time.

Rather than wasting time raising good money to throw after bad, ask questions on how your children are being taught, know exactly what they are being taught, don't accept the answers you get without doing some independent research of your own, and, most important, DEMAND SPECIFICALLY IDENTIFIABLE RESULTS.

Good Luck!


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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Metro government vs regionalization

Metro government vs regionalization - These words could be used to mean the same thing, but in Oneida County they are different. Here regionalization has meant taking certain City of Utica assets (water supply system, Auditorium, transit system) and purportedly making them available to suburban areas by placing them in the hands of Authorities whose boards are made up of appointees from the various jurisdictions, with "representation" defined by the laws creating them ("one man-one vote" style of representation based on population does NOT apply). Metro government, as I understand it, would mean consolidating smaller municipalities into a larger one. The difference is that Metro government is ultimately answerable to voters through an elected governing body while Authorities, practically speaking, are not answerable to anyone. Eg, the anticipated water rate hike is whatever the Water Authorty wants. Had the Water Board remained a city department, the rate hike would have to receive the approval of the elected common council -- and the rates to suburban areas would have been subject to DEC rate hearings in the event the suburbs disagreed. Had the water board remained a private company, the PSC would have had jurisdiction over rates. If the WB were part of a Metro Government, the elected legislative body would have the control over rates. Its the loss of control (or responsiveness to needs) that has given regionalization a bad name here.

Metro Government Is Interesting, and could represent a savings to the taxpayer due to elimination of duplicative efforts or "economies of scale." However, there is a downside as well. Think of Which is better: BIG government or SMALL? Which do you think would be more responsive to people's needs: a LARGE government serving a large and diverse area with many specialized departments or a SMALL government serving a limited area and few specialized departments? Its like the difference between Cities and Villages. I'm willing to bet that the level of satisfaction and the sense of getting value for every dollar of taxes paid is much higher in villages than in cities. Which is more efficient? Decisionmaking in Large Organizations becomes a collaborative effort between many specialized people. In small organizations one person may make all the decisions. The Smaller form of government in some respects may be more efficient. Where do you think you will be more likely to find waste, a Large or a Small organization? You see where I'm going . . . . Metro is a nice idea, and was trendy 30 years ago ... but I'm not sold. Duplicative efforts could be eliminated by assigning particular services to a particular level of government and allow for NO overlap.

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