Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Few, and the Rich . . .

... At least that is what the end result will be if current trends continue, based on today's OD article "Fewer people, pricier homes in N. Hartford."

“We’ve got to make room in our community for people in the moderate income range,” Planning Board Chairman Jerome Donovan said. . . .

Donovan said he’s hoping the report will foster new zoning laws and other policies that allow for some smaller, less expensive building lots, and even provide for more mixed-use areas with apartments and storefronts.

Smaller lots? Mixed-use areas with apartments and storefronts? That's starting to sound like . . . Utica(!) . . . or the Village of New Hartford . . . or the Village of New York Mills . . . ALL of which are seeing population loss with vacancies in their smaller-lot, mixed-use neighborhoods.

Rolf Pendall of Cornell University, who specializes in regional planning, said it is possible for governments to foster diversity through zoning laws.

Smaller building lots and more areas designated for duplexes or apartments could help, he said.

“It will help build a stronger region,” he said, pointing to New Hartford’s good schools. New Hartford routinely shows up on lists of the nation’s top schools.

Allowing students of different types of backgrounds to receive such a quality education would be a plus for everyone, Pendall said.

It's nice to see the OD finally talking to Mr. Pendall . . . But the OD editors and reporters need to read and digest his paper "Sprawl Without Growth: The Upstate Paradox" to fully comprehend our local situation.

Our dwindling regional population is still sprawling, raising the cost of government. Trying to intentionally create more affordable housing or diversity in New Hartford by manipulating the zoning ordinances will not stop sprawl. New Hartford leaders still confuse sprawl with growth because they can only deal with what is within the boundaries of their Town.

Our organization of municipal governments has contributed to sprawl. They are simply too small in an age were almost everyone has an automobile. When the wealthy move to New Hartford to get their larger lots, they take their taxes with them, leaving the municipality left behind (whether Utica or one of the Villages) poorer, and less able to support its infrastructure. Meanwhile, Town of New Hartford taxpayers must build and support new infrastructure for the new developments.

Taxpayers on both ends of the move lose.

If both ends of the move were within the same municipality, then more taxes would be available to clear, prepare, and make attractive some of the older, left-behind areas for new uses (such as business parks, retail centers, fancy condos, or middle class housing). That would reduce pressure to build in the suburbs in orchards and on farm land, reuse precious public infrastructure, reduce sprawl, and arrange our population and activities in a manner where services could be delivered more efficiently and at a lower cost -- producing lower taxes. Lower taxes, in turn, might attract people into the region, or allow more of our children to stay, producing some real growth.

People rightly fear big government, believing that smaller jurisdictions give them more control over their well-being. But there is such a thing as being too small.

People in Utica and New Hartford need to have a voice in what goes on on both sides of their municipal boundary to effectively deal with sprawl, crime, pollution, storm water, and a myriad of other issues.

The public should ask itself: Why does that municipal boundary continue to exist?

Think about the answer to that question long enough, and we might learn some things about ourselves that we would not want to admit.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A SLAPP In New Hartford???

The OD reports tonight that New Hartford is considering filing a civil lawsuit -- discussed at a Town Board meeting in executive session this week. Although officials refused to reveal the target(s) of the potential lawsuit, the article mentions that the co-founders of Concerned Citizens for Honest and Open Government had found themselves locked out of Board meetings and that one of them had been accused by the Town Supervisor of screaming at a town employee. The juxtaposition of this information suggests that Mr. Wiatr and Ms. Lawrence may be the Town's targets.

While the Town alleges that employees have been intimidated, the Town admitted in an earlier OD article that "public safety was not in jeopardy." It is clear from Ms. Lawrence's blogpost "Using Scare Tactics," however, that it was she who felt intimidated.

Concerned Citizens has been in the forefront of getting New Hartford information out to the taxpayers and voters and exposing the workings of Town government, sometimes with embarrassing effectiveness. They forced public votes on issues that the Town Board rubber-stamped when they had a petition drive that successfully placed several bonding proposals on the ballot. They used legal processes when necessary to get the Town to "do the right thing," such as when they filed a Notice of Claim against the Stormwater Group, which forced its meetings to be opened to the public after a year behind closed doors.

In sum, Concerned Citizens has been a royal pain in New Hartford's governmental butt. . . But they were clearly working for the people, not themselves, because there is no personal gain from their activities.

The same cannot be said for Town Government. Meetings continue to be held behind closed doors, deals that appear to favor private interests continue to be made . . . and now retaliation may be in the offing.

If the Town files suit against these individuals, it would be a SLAPP -- A Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation -- per Wikipedia:
. . . a lawsuit that is intended to intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition. Winning the lawsuit is not necessarily the intent of the person filing the SLAPP. The plaintiff's goals are accomplished if the defendant succumbs to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticism. A SLAPP may also intimidate others from participating in the debate.

According to New York Supreme Court Judge J. Nicholas Colabella, "Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined."
Is that what the Town of New Hartford is proposing to do? That would not be just a SLAPP against Concerned Citizens, it would be a slap against every Town resident.

4/24/09 Update: Looks like Concerned Citizens won't be backed down.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

School Choice . . .

An OD editorial to agree with: Our view: More school choices better for everyone supports the idea of a charter school in the area that is being proposed by Dr. Anthony-Lopez Williams to integrate education therapy for students with special needs or behavior issues.  The response from the Utica Public Schools, of course, is to oppose it because money would be taken out of the public school system budget and put into the charter school.

The basic concept of charter schools should raise taxpayers'concerns because their duly elected school boards will be required to fund the charter schools in their areas, but will have no authority to control how that money is spent since charter schools are answerable only to the state.  This sets up the possibility that individuals with good Albany connections will use them to obtain charters to benefit themselves at local taxpayer expense. 

Meanwhile, taxpayer oversight of regular public schools has NOT ensured that taxpayers get value for their dollars.  Public Schools take more money than ever to produce unacceptable results.  This has happened because those with vested interests in public schools (teachers, their unions, administrators, their unions, other school employees, their unions, school architects, school construction firms, textbook publishers, computer manufacturers, and other special interests) have gerryrigged the system with rules, regulations, licensing certificates, PERB, "best practices," "higher" standards, ruberics, etc., that the taxpayers have no effective control.

Charter schools at least will give parents another choice, increasing parental control if not taxpayer control.  

But why stop there?  If a set amount of public dollars were simply made available to parents to spend on educating their children, don't you think that they would seek out the best value for their bucks?  That, in fact, has happened in the District of Columbia, which has some of the worst public schools in the nation, but also has a voucher program giving parents choice.

Of course, the "vested interests" have asserted their power and Congress recently voted to end the program.

It's time for people to demand that their  government serves them rather than the special interests who are profiting.  Demand more school choices.  Demand charter schools.  Demand school vouchers.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Renewing Rutger St.

There is an interesting article in the Utica Daily News that reveals that a Rescue Mission program brings released prison inmates into a Utica neighborhood.

The neighborhood is the area abutting Rutger Park -- a place of historically significant structures, the center of a an ambitious renovation project by the Landmarks Society, and the hope of many in the region as the beginning of a revival of the City of Utica itself.

How will the Rescue Mission's program affect the success of a revival? Apparently significantly. The UDN article reports that there has been a "disinvestment of the neighborhood" and a lot of "transient activity."

What is happening is exactly the opposite of what we want for Utica.

While most would understand the need for halfway houses and facilities to transition former prisoners back into society, there are too many questions in the UDN article that have yet to be answered by public officials. Because of the secretiveness of those responsible, one is left with the impression that the local facility is being used to transition dangerous prisoners who are not from Utica into our local society. This does not benefit Utica.

Who benefits? The Rescue Mission's Form 990 tells us about the organization. It is a good organization, and a needed one. However, it is also one that is run primarily by people who do not live in Utica and are not directly impacted by the organization's activities. The five corporate officers are ALL from New Hartford. The highest paid employees are from Washington Mills (New Hartford), Barneveld, and Deerfield. Of the 7 addresses listed for Board Members, only 3 are in Utica, 2 of which appear to be office addresses rather than residential ones. Perhaps the residences of those running the organization explain the lack of sensitivity to the negative impact that is being caused to Utica.

Those that do public good must also acknowledge when their activities may cause public harm, and either refrain from or relocate those activities that cause harm.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Smell the Coffee . . . It's TEA Time . . .

April 15th . . . Time for the Nationwide Tax Day Tea Party! Taxed Enough Already!

They're going to revolt in Rome 4 to 6 PM Wednesday, April 15th at Ft. Stanwix National Monument.

They're going to revolt in Utica 11AM to Noon Thursday, April 16th at the State Office Building.

They're going to revolt all across New York State.

It's time to get back to some basic principles.
  • We don't need the government to run our businesses.
  • We don't need the government to run our lives.
  • We don't need the government to take increasing amounts of our money to give to well-connected cronies.
  • We don't need the government to pick society's winners and losers.
  • We don't need the government to steal the value of our savings by printing more money.
It's time to remind Government that it serves US, not the other way around.

See you at the party!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Don't Confuse Sprawl with Growth . . .

Five years ago, Rolf Pendall of the Brookings Institution published a paper entitled "Sprawl Without Growth: The Upstate Paradox." It contained some disturbing statistics: Between 1982 and 1997 425,000 acres of Upstate New York became urbanized (a 30 percent increase) while the population grew by only 2.6 percent. Population density of the built up area fell by 21 percent. Cities and Villages were losing people and businesses to the immediately adjoining Towns. For Central New York (the area around Syracuse and Utica/Rome) the story was much worse: 100,000 acres became urbanized while the population fell by 6,500 -- causing a 32 percent decline in population density. You know from your area travels that this trend has continued for the last 12 years. Mr. Pendall warned that "Continued decentralization of people and jobs away from Upstate New York's cities and villages is undermining the economic health and quality of life of the region."

More disturbing statistics were published in December 2008 by the Tax Foundation. Oneida County was 24th on a list of the counties with the highest property taxes in the nation, when calculated as a percentage of home value. With the exception of three counties, all the others higher up on the list were also from Upstate New York.

Are these statistics coincidence? Unlikely. If Upstate New York's urban population spreads itself over a greater area, it will require more roads, sewers, water lines, and police and fire protection to service itself. That costs money, and requires higher taxes and fees. The higher taxes and fees make it more difficult for businesses to make a profit and for people to make ends meet, encouraging them to move out of Upstate to lower-cost places like the Carolinas. People leaving reduces Upstate's population and population density further, which, in a vicious cycle, leaves fewer people to pay for the increased infrastructure requiring even more taxes and fees. Is it any wonder why our local and state governments seem to find themselves in an ever deepening hole?

Have we learned anything since Mr. Pendall's paper was published? Have our local officials seen the light? Apparently not. A county legislator was recently heard on the radio looking for funding to extend water and sewer lines into rural areas, hoping for "growth." Our water authority -- and certain state legislators and local officials -- are still pushing to extend water lines through Whitestown and Westmoreland to Verona to encourage "growth." A year ago Oneida County gave a sales tax exemption for building materials and supplies to a developer to build a 180 unit apartment complex on undeveloped land in Kirkland supposedly to keep local people in the area (as though someone would move out of the region just to have a new house). If you believe the local daily newspaper, the State constructed the new Route 840 to create a corridor for "growth." Certain local officials still think it is appropriate to place another stop light on 840 to promote "growth."

All of these projects or proposals encourage one thing: the location of people and businesses ever further from the centers of population, which are our city and villages. The development that takes place is not growth, but only an illusion of growth, because the regional population continues to decline. What many assume is growth is really "sprawl" -- exactly the phenomenon that Mr. Pendall warned is undermining the economic health and quality of life of our region.

Unfortunately, it is not only our public officials who have mistaken sprawl for growth. Recently, voters in New Hartford contributed to more sprawl by approving bonding for improvements to the New Hartford Business Park - a privately owned development. The money will be applied toward road construction, public utility improvements, land acquisition, sidewalks, curbs, gutters, landscaping, etc. Under a scheme cooked up by Mohawk Valley EDGE, the Oneida County Industrial Development Agency (OCIDA), the Town of New Hartford and the New Hartford Central School District, payments in lieu of County, School, and Town taxes will not be remitted to those taxing authorities for use in their general budgets, but, instead, will be used to pay off the bonds. Assuming everything goes according to plan, the payments in lieu of taxes will cover the cost of the bonding.

Doesn't this scheme sound like your being able to direct your property taxes into improvement of your own property instead of shouldering your fair share of government costs? Clearly the developer is being given a subsidy by the taxpayers -- including taxpayers outside of New Hartford -- that will encourage development of formerly undeveloped land. Development at this location will require extension of police and fire protection, maintenance of water and sewer lines and roads, and other services, increasing taxpayer and rate payer costs.

Supposedly the development will save jobs at The Hartford Insurance Company, but a close examination of the agreement reveals a commitment to maintain fewer jobs than are presently there, for fewer working hours, and only for a limited period of time. Instead of the manufacturing facilities that were originally promised when the Town first proposed the business park, what is being built now is simply more offices and a hotel -- things that the region already has plenty of.

A recent study ("An Assessment of the Effectiveness and Fiscal Impacts of the Use of Local Development Incentives in the St. Louis Region" by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments) concluded that public financial incentives such as those being used at the New Hartford Business Park primarily act to redistribute spending and taxes. "While distribution effects might yield broader economic benefits when used to redevelop economically distressed communities, when incentives are used in healthy and prosperous communities the regional effect may be to destabilize the fiscal health of neighboring areas."

That, in fact, is what has happened locally. There are plenty of vacancies in the Utica Business Park, but EDGE's marketing of properties in Utica is almost unheard of. While New Hartford may be forgiven for being myopic and acting out of self-interest, the involvement of EDGE and OCIDA, to which Utica taxpayers contribute, is inexcusable. Government rather than the market has picked the "winners" by subsidizing one private development over another. What will happen will be simply more of what we have already seen: people and businesses will move out of the population centers to the newly subsidized area.

In an ironic and fitting twist of fate, The Hartford's old offices are being taken over by one of our local hospitals -- a tax exempt entity. So the Town, County and School District will not only have to wait 15 years before taxes flow to them from the New Hartford Business Park, they will immediately lose taxes on the offices that were left behind. This is the lesson of sprawl.

Sprawl must not be confused with growth. Encouraging sprawl is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic -- and will result in the same fate.

[This article was originally published in the March, 2009 "Utica Phoenix."
Be sure to pick up the April, 2009 "Utica Phoenix" to read "Pernicious Pensions" --- Now available in a news rack near you]

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Dare We Celebrate?

NYRI quits; Power line project dead.

But what about the next project, and the next one?
NYRI also said it “remains committed to transmission development in New York State,” and that it is “suspending its current participation in the New York Public Service Commission Article VII process.”
This clearly will come up again. . . And if not from NYRI, then, perhaps, from our own New York Power Authority which may dust off some old plans to run a line under the Hudson River to bring Upstate power to NYC.

Per the Utica Daily News version of the story:
Former Utica Mayor Timothy Julian challenges the state legislature to “get off their behinds” and put an energy plan in place with other viable options.

“They have to put an energy plan in place,” Julian said, “so we don’t have to deal with this every so many years.”

Julian is absolutely correct. But even assuming an energy plan is put in place, it will likely be forged from a Downstate perspective given the constituencies who control the state legislature. It would be easy for Downstate to push the business of power generation onto Upstate hillsides and require lines to bring the power to them.

Upstate needs to agitate for the power it needs to control its own fate -- and I'm not talking about electricity.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Corporate Welfare & Municipal Welfare . . .

. . . . paid for by those who can least afford it. That is what we read about in the news today.

We've all seen statistics from time to time that tell us that Herkimer County is one of the poorer places in the country. But what does it do? It gives $2 Million away to a private corporation in a desperate hope to retain jobs. That's about $33 for every man woman and child living in Herkimer County . . . or about three or four meals each (more if you do your own cooking).

Aside from the fact that this donation violates the State Constitution Article VIII, it raises a couple questions. If Herkimer county has to give Remington Arms an incentive to stay here, what does that say about the company? What does that say about the community and the state?

If Herkimer County needs to bribe companies to stay there, then there is something really really wrong. The donation to Union Tools may have delayed, but did not stop, its jobs from being sent to China. It is better for Herkimer County to address the root of the problem than to, in effect, give an aspirin to a dying patient (itself).

- o - 0 - o -

Meanwhile local officials in the Villages of New York Mills and New Hartford are worried about the cost of fixes to their sewer systems. And so are home owners in these places who, apparently, will be required to institute fixes on their own properties by the County Sewer Gestapo. Where does the welfare come from - and who gets the benefit - here?

Assuming arguendo that the municipalities will be required to pay for the fixes within their borders as alleged by the O-D (there has been no sign of that happening so far), it looks like the welfare will come from the residents of the Villages (to fix issues within the villages) and the sewer users in general -- the bulk of whom reside in the City of Utica.

The recipient of the welfare will be the TOWN of New Hartford and Oneida County, because it was the County allowing illegal sewer connections in New Hartford that brought about the entire Consent Order mess. The vast growth in tax base that was nourished by the violation of environmental laws occurred in the Town of New Hartford, which allowed more money to flow into the New Hartford TOWN's coffers, NH School District's coffers, and Oneida County's coffers. Interestingly, these are the same entities who are ripping off the taxpayers to pay for roads in a private development in the New Hartford Business Park.

New Hartford Town's tax base exceeds that of Utica. The Town should be paying for all this.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

On the Bottom . . . And the Top

Per the O-D, Forbes Magazine confirmed what we already knew: Area at bottom of Forbes list for business -- Taxes cited as an issue.

And the Utica Daily News also confirmed what we already knew: Utica, NY - We Have It All

Greater Utica is a great place to live -- IF you have a decent job. . . which are becoming harder and harder to find.

We also already know that our economic and business problems are all centered on how we govern ourselves -- and the resulting tax burden.

The question is, are we ready to do something about it?