Thursday, August 31, 2006

Buying Windowdressing . . .

A Million State Senate $$$ are now available to fight the NYRI powerline! While some may welcome this as good news, is it really? Is it money well spent?

People should know exactly what they will get for their money. But no one knows what the result of a lawsuit will be. Spending at lot of money on one does not guarantee success. The money could be spent and the suit still be lost. Then what will be left to show for the spending?

This is a million that could have gone into something tangeable -- like fixing up the crumbling historic aquaduct at Ft. Hunter... or fixing crumbling abandonned buildings at the Utica State Psych Center.

Instead, it will go to pay lawfirms (most likely politically well-connected law firms) to fight a problem that should never have even existed had the State Senators done their job of policy-making. (Is this a case of creating a problem/allowing one to develop and then rewarding your friends with money to solve it? Will the money really be used to buy competent representation against the powerline, or will it buy a "performance" ? Who knows? It's "Senate Republican" money -- suggesting that it is controlled by "leaders" whose true positions may or may not reflect their public statements.)

The Assembly, meanwhile, is looking into making more money available to intervenor groups. More of the same type of thinking.

Our state legislators have no hesitation over spending money -- after all, it's not really theirs, but OUR money they are spending. Offering up huge sums of cash is an easy way to impress some people, and an easy way to deflect from the fact that they have not done their job in establishing a viable state energy policy that is fair to all regions of the state. Again, we should not even have come to the point where we have to fight a NYRI.

The Senate and Assembly have allowed large corporations (even foreign companies) to, de facto, make "energy policy" for us by defaulting in doing it themselves. Instead of policy being set by elected representatives, it will be set by litigation before administrative agencies and the courts. The $ million expenditure represents legislative laziness.

Unless government starts doing what we pay it to do, decisions that affect everyone will increasingly be made by private entities that have the money to get things done themselves -- either by acting within a legislative void or by buying influence. Individuals will have less and less control over their lives because everything that gets done will be from the prospective of what is good for these businesses, not people.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Syracuse Schools Lovefest . . .

While the City of Utica is being asked to kick in $$$$ to the Utica City School District for a new school, Utica's old Superintendent, Daniel Lowengard, and Syracuse City officials were having what the Post Standard described as a "love fest" during Lowengard's "state of the schools" address. A construction project will start (!) with rebuilding 7 schools for $225 Million. The first project will be to convert a vacant old high school building into a new "career and technical" highschool. [Shades of Utica's Millenium Project, perhaps?] Lowengard is thanked and praised for his "leadership."

It is easy to earn thanks and praise if you bring home goodies on someone else's dime. In poorer school districts such as Utica or Syracuse, it would not be uncommon to see the State kick in 90-95 % of the cost of construction. So while Superintendent Lowengard may be viewed in Syracuse as some sort of savior by producing a $225 million project at a cost of perhaps $25 million to Syracuse taxpayers YOU the NEW YORK STATE TAXPAYER in Utica, Binghamton, Watertown, Old Forge, etc . GET STUCK WITH PAYING THE BALANCE without even realizing it! (Just think of all the local businesses that will benefit from the construction and the numerous opportunities for people to take advantage of the spending. Everyone will have their hand out to grab a piece of the action. No wonder they are all falling over each other in the Salt City. Of course, 4 years ago, it was Utica's turn -- with similar fanfare -- and now we suffer the consequences.) If you could build your house by paying only 10% of the cost and have a rich uncle pay the rest, wouldn't you indulge yourself a bit? Now multiply this by the myriad of school districts across NYS. Is it any wonder we are driving jobs and people out of the state? We cannot afford the taxes required to support this scheme.

School districts are encouraged to build Taj Mahals, overbuilt for actual needs. Taxpayers will incur significantly increased maintainance costs down the road. Experimentation (a/k/a risk of taxpayer money) is also encouraged.This seems to have happened in the physical layout of the Millenium Project with its themed "houses" (at Utica's Proctor H.S.) under Supt. Lowengard. The school now requires administrative staff in quadruplicate and will cost the Utica taxpayers for years to come. Contractors, construction unions, teachers' unions, administrators, building supply venders, etc. etc. all get benefits -- but the taxpayers pay and pay -- and the students? What about the students? Let's just say that we don't hear of Utica being held up as a model for other communities.

The problem isn't Mr. Lowengard -- he's only taking advantage of the system. THE PROBLEM IS THE SYSTEM WHICH HAS A DISCONNECT BETWEEN THOSE DETERMINING BENEFITS AND THOSE PAYING THE BILLS. School funding may be a reverse of the usual Albany mandating and Locals paying -- but either way, waste is the result. It's as if those who would benefit lobbied for a system that would encourage high levels of spending.

Instead of thanks and praise, there should be anger and demands from weary New York taxpayers that our laws be changed to require that the people determining government benefits also be the ones responsible for paying for them.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Dogs and Ponies?

A "Public Hearing"("Oral Testimony by Invitation Only") re NYRI is scheduled for tomorrow evening at SUNYIT by the NY Assembly Energy Committee to examine:

"how the proposed transmission line will address the State's current energy needs and is consistent with the state's energy policy; public participation opportunities in the Article VII application review process; the potential impact on electric consumer bills; effect on homeowners and business in the proposed area; and environmental and health concerns associated with the proposed transmission line, including the impact on areas of special environmental significance such as national park designation."

WHAT'S THE POINT? The Assembly Committee does not say in its announcement what it hopes to do with the information it will get at the hearing. Close the Barn Door after the horse escapes, perhaps?

The issues to be examined duplicate to a large extent what will be examined in the Department of Public Service certification process -- the very process our Assembly (and Senate) set up under the law .

Does the Assembly (which employs a lot of advisers) really need to hold a public hearing to find out whether or not the NYRI proposal is consistent with the state's energy policy -- the very policy the Assembly (and Senate) fashioned?

It was almost predictable you would see these market forces dominating the scene, rather consumer interests," says Assemblyman Tonko. If it was predictable, Mr. Tonko, then why did you allow it?

To be fair to Mr. Tonko, he is only one Assemblyman and cannot stop anything by himself. The Assembly is a body dominated by Downstate Democrats -- like the Senate is dominated by Downstate Republicans. Upstate must expect that whatever legislated "solutions" to electric power or other problems will be based on the Downstate perspective, i.e., impacts on Upstate simply go unnoticed.

Don't expect anything productive to come out of this "public hearing" because the hearing has no clear objective. The "invitation only" requirement ensures that what is heard is carefully managed. Do expect plenty of photo-ops, sound-byte-ops and "BS" calculated to impress voters that their representatives are "fighting for them."

Remember, these are the "policy makers" -- the very same people (including the Senate) who have already set the stage for a NYRI to happen with their laws allowing deregulation of the electric industry, delegating decisionmaking to the DPS/PSC, and setting the standards (or allowing a lack thereof or vagueness therein) by which the administrative decisions must be rendered. They can't credibly point fingers at the other party because each party controls one legislative house in New York State. They can't change the rules in midstream. The meeting will be a convenient deflection from their own culpability.

Speaking of the Senate, speculation continues on who NYRI really is. It is not comforting to read of the connection between Mr. Joe Bruno's press secretary and the law firm representing NYRI. Utica area residents are well aquainted with Mr. "Marcy is not in the running for the Chip Fab" Bruno. We also know that the NYRI powerline would split the Marcy Chip Fab Site in two, rendering it useless for that purpose, even as a backup to Mr. Bruno's Luther Forest site. How convenient for Mr. Bruno. It also is not comforting to read of the connections with Mr. Giuliani and a former Pataki administration official.

We've previously asked "Who is NYRI?" and explained why the State should ask for and has a right to this information. The Public Service Commission has a right to ask for this information under its own regulations, but has yet to do so, at least not publicly. The State Attorney General could get this information, but we see the same lack of interest. How about the State Senators and Assemblymembers who now display such public concern over NYRI's proposal? What are they doing to get this information? Most of our area representatives are "Active Parties" in the PSC proceeding. As long as NYRI continues to hide behind its corporate veil (and veils within veils) and those with the power fail to get answers, the public's imagination will fill the voids.

Meanwhile, the Public Service Commission decision process is perking along with its latest Procedural Ruling. One aspect helpful to the pro se litigants is the determination that service by e-mail is acceptable as long as 5 hard copies of papers are served on the Secretary of the Commission. With the latest service list containing 12 pages of addresses of parties, mere postage for an individual party could be a significant expense. This ruling helps make the process more available to the public participants. Another helpful aspect is the availability of a mediation-trained Administrative Law Judge to assist parties in coordinating their efforts -- again, particularly important for the pro se litigants who likely don't have the time to duplicate something that another party may have a better handle on. [The contrast between the way career civil-servants and elected officials handle the public is interesting.]

A bit concerning is the determination to allow NYRI to reply to the responses by other parties to NYRI's request for waivers, which apparently is allowed only in "extraordinary" circumstances. This could lengthen the process. While the Ruling is certainly correct that NYRI must be permitted to reply to Utica/Sherburne's request for more information, it is not understood why the request for information could not have been handled separately. Also concerning is the Ruling's reference to the possibility of the federal government pre-empting state decisionmaking if the state does not act in a timely fashion. While this is a true statement, what the federal government does technically should have no role in the state's process. Hopefully the federal "threat" will not result in an incomplete hearing record or hurried decision-making.

Judges are MIA re the Utica v NYRI case in local Supreme Court. According to WKTV, "Three out of the four supreme court justices in Oneida County are rescuing themselves from hearing the case" (emphasis supplied). He he he -- That is one way of putting it! :-)

With too few puzzle pieces available to the public, the public is forced to speculate on what the final picture will be. One gets the impression that the important decisions have already been made, that the power line will go through, and the only thing left is to determine how the ultimate decision will be presented. Will it be the State saying the project is justified, or will it be the Federal Government, with NY State officials blaming the Public for delaying the process and causing a Federal preemption?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Observations this past week . . .

Bomb Shelters are being auctioned off by NY, but China is building huge new ones. What do the Chinese know that we don't?

A "Light Calendar" is noted at the new security training center located in the former terminal building at the soon-to-be former Oneida County Airport. This kind of news is not unexpected. We hate to say we told you so.

Not-for Profits are now a $1 Billion "industry" in the MoVa? This shows just how downtrodden we've become. They're not "industry," they're LIFE SUPPORT -- good only until those of us remaining either leave or die off.

Weird Politics. Its funny how the Oneida Dems on their website only give a little window to Leon Koziol (scroll down most of the page to see it) their endorsed candidate for State Senate, while giving John Murad virtually an entire page to himself. Makes one wonder who is the real endorsed candidate?

Don't Be FOILed . . .

What is it that government in the Utica - Oneida County area doesn't get? Government is there to serve (and is owned by) the public, so the public has a right to see its documents. But our local governments act like private clubs and apparently think otherwise. The latest example was this past week involving the Utica School Board's denial of records to the Observer-Dispatch on after-school programs.

The state's Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) has been on the books for many years. It should not be too much to expect Superintendent Skermont, who is paid well to know these things, to understand what the school district's obligations are under FOIL. And there simply would be no excuse if the School Board attorney did not know how the process should work.

In a nutshell, THE PUBLIC IS ENTITLED TO SEE ALL RECORDS HELD BY THE GOVERNMENT, unless it can point to a specific exemption in the FOIL (listed under §87 subdivision (2)) that allows a particular kind of record to be withheld. If a document is withheld, the person requesting the document is to be told (1) what the document is and (2) the provision of the law under which it is being withheld.

The response from the Utica School District is insufficient. The response also does something that is all too common in government responses to FOIL requests: it implies that one must pay $0.25 per page to access the documents. This is misleading. The charge is allowed for a COPY of the document. You pay nothing TO INSPECT the document (with, perhaps, the rare exception where a redacted copy must be prepared in order to make the disclosure). Government agencies are not permitted to charge for their time to gather and assemble the documents. (Remember, the Government, and its documents, belong to you).

Fault Lines' tip for FOIL inspections: bring a digital camera, and photograph the documents. Photography has already been determined to be "an inspection" under FOIL by the Committee on Open Government. Use the "macro" setting and practice at home with newspapers or magazines before making your inspection.

Don't be FOILed. Know your rights. The Committee on Open Government is responsible for overseeing and advising regarding FOIL and has a wealth of information on its website, including advisory opinions describing a variety of situations, its regulations, and a "FAQ" sheet.

Something for Government Officials to remember: The FOIL specifies those documents that may be withheld - - it does not require them to be withheld. In yesterday's O-D article, Mr. LaPolla got it right:

" "Just because information is not FOIL-able, it does not mean we should not provide information to taxpayers regarding the Laino case," LaPolla said. "When you're dealing with public money, whether it be tax dollars, federal grants or state grants, everyone who receives that money must be accountable." "

Isn't it interesting that a majority of school board members talk like they want full disclosure, yet the documents are still not disclosed? Ms. Ebbeling did a nice job of reporting!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Cure for Congestion . . . Ditching the Grid

The dreaded (by Upstate NY) NATIONAL ELECTRIC TRANSMISSION CONGESTION STUDY was released today by the U.S. Dept of Energy. As expected, it shows southeastern New York (NY City, Long Island, lower Hudson Valley) and southward along the coast to the Washington, DC area as "one continuous congestion area" that will require billions of dollars in transmission, generation and demand-side resources to protect grid reliability and ensure the area's economic vitality. The study notes that NY State depends on oil and gas for 35% of its power production (while the US average is 21%), and that power moves across the state from the northwest to the southeast and that all such flows must pass through a central set of transmission facilities located between western and downstate NY. [Could they be talking about Marcy?].

Being a Federal Study, other pathways for power into the NY Metropolitan area are also examined, including from New Jersey and up the Delaware River. There is currently under construction the "Neptune" Line that will move electricity from New Jersey into Long Island, easing LI's needs but creating problems for New Jersey. The study recognizes that some "parties" are looking into routing through New Jersey as a way of accessing "low -cost" generators in the Midwest to support NYC, but that it could increase wholesale power prices in New Jersey and elsewhere. (This sounds like the effect that NYRI would have on Upstate, but this effect on Upstate does not appear to be recognized by the study, with Upstate somehow being invisible within New York State.) The study notes that improved transmission lines would allow access to cheap Canadian hydropower and windpower.

As Fault Lines previously noted, part of Long Island's problem is the fact that it was unwilling to allow, and had the political muscle to prevent, the Shoreham Nuclear plant from opening even though it was built at a cost of billions. Now, because of that region's economic importance to the Federal Government (i.e.,politics) the Mid-West and Upstate New York may have to tolerate higher electric prices to keep Long Island in power inspite of the fact that people living in these other regions do not have Long Island incomes. The study ignores the fact that we are not beneficiaries of the same economy.

A cure for congestion is more power generation closer to where it is needed. While Long Island and New York State politicians may have created part of the problem by shuttering Shoreham, there are some Long Islanders who may have come up with a solution using fuel cell technology.

Verizon (VZ, no fly-by-night outfit) has been using fuel cells to power one of its facilities in Garden City, generating electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms, giving off water and heat (which could also be used) as byproducts. Seven fuel cells generate power for a 292,000-square-foot facility that provides telephone and data services to some 35,000 customers on Long Island. VZ wanted control over its own power supply. While expensive to deploy (which cost could be reduced if done in volume), VZ's cost savings of $680K from its new facility far exceeded its predicted savings of $250K. The facility is also good for the environment and decreases dependence on foreign sources of fuel.

Instead of more large scale transmission facilities and large scale generation facilities (with large scale impacts) as presumed by the Federal Study, a more decentralized system (like the internet) using fuel cell technology might make more sense and be more secure. Those old enough will remember that there were no major blackouts until large regions became interconnected into a grid. (The first time that it happened in the early 60s was quite shocking -and it was the first time most heard about the "grid.") Municipalities might now consider their own power systems using fuel cell technology, giving them greater control over their economic futures and security -- like VZ is striving for.

Of course, if a lot of people followed VZ's lead, the obvious losers would be the big power generators and transmission facility operators. These interests are already plugged into the state and federal policymakers' circuits and are being heard. They are the ones setting energy policy, and naturally they will favor themselves. But there are alternatives that are starting to prove themselves now, and the key is for people to demand them.

The high electric prices on LI gave VZ the incentive to develop the new technology that could be used elsewhere. The Federal Plan to take from one region to give to another through national interest electric transmission corridors only preserves the status quo among generators and operators, removing the financial incentive for change and wedding everyone to 20th century practices and 20th century companies.

Maybe that is the Federal Plan's real intent because the current players are the ones who will most benefit from it.

Controlling demand is another way of relieving congestion. This is where government (state and local) needs to take responsibility. "Growth" for one region isn't "good" when it burdens neighboring regions or limits their growth. "Growth" is of no benefit to the people of a region if its infrastructure is already operating at capacity -- but it will benefit certain business interests. Unfortunately, it is politically easier to take from those who are outnumbered than to provide for oneself.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Downstate plays while Upstate pays . . . and No Comment from Meier

The Rome Sentinel reveals that on this dog-day (when the car thermometer read 100 degrees), people in the New York City area were given free access to the State's Long Island Beaches to beat the heat - - - but NOT SO for us Central New Yorkers at the State's Beaches in Verona or at Lake Delta. We got to fork over another $7 per car to Albany. While Sen. Valesky was on the phone trying to get equal treatment for CNY, Sen. Meier's office (where Delta and Verona State Parks are located) had nothing to say about the issue.

Another case where Sen. Valesky seems to be looking out for the average Central New Yorker but Sen. Meier is missing in action is in regards to NYRI. Although Meier was given an OD headline where he criticized a Federal energy commissioner's remarks, and he solicited names of those opposed to NYRI in a recent mailing, the Senator's office is curiously absent from the Active Party List (scroll to pages 8-17) in the NYRI PSC proceeding. Were the senator's public statements against NYRI just window dressing? This proceeding is where "the rubber meets the road," where things really count. Sen. Valesky is there, Sen. Bonacic is there, Assemblymembers Destito and Townsend are there - - but Meier is not.

Interesting . . .

Was Qana Staged?

Craig Howard at North Coast provides a collection of links and quotes on Hezbollah tactics which suggest the possibility that the Qana massacre may have been staged -- bodies from elsewhere moved to where they were "found." Interesting reading.