Tuesday, June 09, 2009

What's the Fix for Upstate?

Our little part of the country would seem to have everything going for it. We are blessed with a beautiful countryside of fields, forests, mountains, valleys, lakes and streams – abundant with water, wildlife, and other natural resources – and capable of nourishing people, agriculture and industry. Our climate rarely produces the hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, floods, and earthquakes that seem to plague and harm people elsewhere.

Anchored to the world port of New York City, and strategically positioned on the favored route to the West, Upstate's natural assets only needed the leverage provided by the Erie Canal to become productive. Following the canal, people came and found things to do, supported by the canal's ability to inexpensively transport raw materials and finished products to where they had to go. Fruit, vegetable, and dairy farms flourished in the fertile landscape. Readily available hydropower turned wheels in mills where all sorts of products were manufactured. Jobs became plentiful, and the population increased. Cities grew along the canal like pearls on a string, becoming centers of wealth, culture, commerce, and education. The Erie Canal, and Upstate's growth, in turn, spurred more growth in New York City, turning it into the world's financial capital.

Although the canal declined in importance following construction of the railroads, Upstate continued to grow and do well because its long-established institutions and infrastructure provided amenities not available in many other places. Even our own Greater Utica area was growing at such a rate that there were fears that our natural resources, especially water, would be unable to sustain the growth. In 1968 Oneida and Herkimer Counties, with the New York State Department of Health, commissioned a study of all of the water resources in the counties and planned how those resources should be developed and distributed to serve a population expected to grow from the then-approximately 335,000 to about 568,000 in 1990 to well over 700,000 by 2020.

However, our population did not grow. The trend reversed, and our two counties have lost population, now holding less than 300,000. This change was not confined to our area. Like elms succumbing to the dutch-elm disease, other Upstate areas also became economically sick, with declining populations, businesses and jobs leaving, taxes increasing, and, incongruously, development taking up more acreage, replacing farms and orchards. Now, for businesses to come into the region, we feel obliged to bribe them with various taxpayer subsidies. Our natural and man-made assets no longer are attractive. Why? Examination of what happened to two of Upstate's biggest assets, cheap transportation and cheap hydropower, suggests the source of our problem.

The canal was superseded by the railroad, and the railroad by the Interstate Highway System. Other places had railroads and interstates, too, so Upstate lost its transportation advantage. But New York State's maintenance of a toll on the Thruway, Upstate's principal east-west commerce artery, placed Upstate at a distinct disadvantage, when compared to other parts of the country. Considering that the federal government paid New York a large sum of money in the late 1980s to make up for the state having used its own money to construct the Thruway, and considering that the bonds used to finance the Thruway were paid off in 1996, there was no need for the toll to remain, but it did. To add insult to injury, the legislature turned maintenance of Interstate 84, a toll-free Downstate highway, over to the Thruway Authority, and removed tolls from Downstate portions of the Thruway including the New England section, burdening Upstaters, through their tolls, to pay to maintain several free Downstate highways. This smacks of the colonialism that existed between America and England in the 1700's which led to the Revolution. Clearly, a different standard is being applied to Upstate, and state government has turned Upstate's transportation advantage into a disadvantage.

Although hydropower (which is cheap) is abundant in Upstate New York, Upstate still has some of the highest electric rates in the nation. This is because the power is being shared with Downstate. The NYRI power line would have made it even easier to send more power from Upstate to Downstate and was expected to increase Upstate rates further. Although we are fortunate that this proposal has been taken off the table, the New York Power Authority is proposing a line under the Hudson that will do essentially the same thing. Meanwhile, Downstate shut down the Shoreham, Long Island nuclear power plant before it even became productive, hopes to do away with its Indian Point nuclear power plant, and is planning on doing away with its coal-fired generation plants. New York State now wants a significant percentage of power to come from renewable sources, which includes hydro. Essentially, Upstate will become New York City's power generation station. Again, a different standard is being applied to Upstate, and state government has again turned an Upstate advantage into a disadvantage.

Cheap transportation and cheap power, both essential to Upstate's manufacturing economy, have been done away with to satisfy preferences of people living in a part of the state where the economy does not depend on them. The Upstate perspective in state policy-making has been lost. When and how did this happen, because up until the 1960s both parts of the state had worked together and were doing well?

The change may be traced to the reapportionment of the New York State Legislature. Prior to the mid-60s the State Senate was usually controlled by Upstate, and the Assembly was controlled by Downstate. This was the case regardless of which party controlled which house or the Governorship. For anything to get done, Upstate and Downstate were forced to work together, to accommodate each other, and to look out for each other's interests. They did -- and a symbiotic relationship developed that worked incredibly well for over 150 years, turning New York State into the Empire State, the most populous, powerful, and wealthiest state in the nation.

Then came the US Supreme Court decision in WMCA, Inc. v Lomenzo, 377 US 633 (1964), which held that the NY Constitution's apportionment scheme (which ensured that Upstate's perspective would be heard) violated the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution's “equal protection” clause - the Court equating "one man - one vote" with "equal protection." The reapportionment of the state legislature that followed gave Downstate control of both houses. Upstate, and, to a lesser extent, New York State as a whole, have declined in importance ever since.

The Court's decision was split 7-3. As the Dissent pointed out, there may be good reasons for a state to ensure that particular geographic areas have a voice, and it is a violation of State Sovereignty for the US Supreme Court to second guess the reasons why a particular arrangement was chosen.

I happen to believe that New York's Founding Fathers over 200 years ago knew what they were doing, which was not unlike what the country's Founding Fathers were doing when they gave every State two senators regardless of population. We need to renew an appreciation for their wisdom in designing a Senate based on geography and an Assembly based on population. Then we need to get the Supreme Court to revisit its old decision.

Perhaps with the "new evidence" represented by Upstate's 40-year decline following reapportionment, the outcome will be different. . . the symbiotic relationship between Upstate and Downstate will be restored, and New York will rise again as one state -- the Empire State.

[This article was originally published in the May, 2009 "Utica Phoenix." Be sure to pick up this month's "Phoenix" to read "Water, Water Everywhere, But Not a Drop to Drink?" ... available now in a newsrack near you.]


Scott Moon said...

This is an outstanding article, it made me stand up and cheer that someone gets it!!!

Cheap Energy should be our advantage, and it is our state government that keeps prices high, as I have said over and over.

I could not agree more with reforming apportionment, it should be a part of any reform agenda. But, of course, for any reform to take hold, upstate NY politicians must be united and that is not yet the case.

If the federal system does not violate equal protection how could a system that gave each of the 62 counties a Senator, for example??

There is always talk of reform that ends up as hot air. Your post points out the route of true reform.

Bravo, now if we could find some leaders to get the job started.

Greens and Beans said...

Great job. This article should be required material for all civic classes. Not just New York State civic classes, but for all of the civic classes through the nation. This would enable students to learn from New York’s mistakes.

Anonymous said...

The decline of the area is the result of high labor cost, over regulation which drives up business costs and the loss of Griffiss due to political impotency. It is highly doubtful if any of these factors can be reversed.

Confused said...

High Labor Costs???? Are you kidding us????

Anonymous said...

The higher labor cost is a reference to the past loss of significant numbers of jobs resulting from companies fleeing south for cheaper labor. It is a historical reference which notes one of the first significant periods of job and population loss the area experienced.

onjeesun said...

This area is known for it's cheap labor and low cost of living/ affordable housing. Those are not the issues. Strike's article is right on the money. Upstate New York has become little more than an ATM for downstate to withdraw from at will. It's like a joint account where we make the deposits (sacrifices like supplying cheap power at an increased cost to us,Thruway tolls etc.) only to have our "partners" downstate take advantage by sucking the account dry. We need to bring back some balance. Good stuff Strike!

Anonymous said...

looks like anonymous got schooled again! oh snap! lol and lol again! :-*

Anonymous said...

Onjeesun is absolutely incorrect. This area is NOT low in it's cost of living, nor does it have affordable housing... in comparison to Atlanta, Colorado Springs, Austin...
Kiplinger rated Utica with a cost of living index at "100" which is average for the nation. Atlanta, Colorado, and Austin were rated almost 92, which meant it was cheaper to live in those cities, PLUS their average pay was several thousands higher than Utica.
People look at Utility Rates and think it's cheap (which it's not). They also fail to take into account the rate at which we consume these utilities. Sure, our gas prices might be cheaper than say NJ or CA, but we also have to drive farther, so we burn more gas per car than automobile owners in other regions with more developed mass transit. And I haven't mentioned our problems dealing with cars int eh winter... Mechanical rust damage, burning MORE gas during the winter, inevitable accidents driving in the snow, etc.
Same with heating. Natural Gas and Oil rates might be "okay" but we burn more in heat than other states use electricity for Air Conditioning.

Affordable housing is a farce too... when put in comparison with other regions, our "bang per buck" ratio is horrendous here. The houses in Utica are old and low-quality! Lead paint, Asbestos, leaky roofs, are all expensive and timely to fix in our 120-year old houses. Leaky roofs. Old or retrofitted insulation. Inefficient heating systems. Hard water. Radon. Polluted soil. On and on.
For the same price of a 20 year old, double-wide, modular or a mobile home in Oneida County (all 29 of them in a 20-mile radius), you can buy a REAL house in the city limits of Austin, TX (All 130+ of them!) that is less than 10 years old... Imagine if you expanded to a 20-mile radius search from the city of Austin!

I'm sorry, but I had the past 9 years to analyze this, and I'm finding that the politicians and the Utica Apologists have been lying to myself and to other young adults for everything... cost of housing, cost of living, crime rate, things to do, economic trends, etc.
Proof this area stinks? Look for any Second-Generation Asian Americans in their 20s living in the area. There aren't any. Just ask the president of the Mohawk Valley Chinese Association.

onjeesun said...

Another Utica basher. What a surprise. That's a part of the problem with this area. People with a defeatest attitude, always quick to point out the worst. National magazines that rank this area amongst the most affordable places to live must have forgot to check with anonymous first. (not sure where you got the index of 100, last one I saw had us at 83 point something.) Not to mention all the area has to offer from the Stanley, MWPI , all the golf courses, lakes, fishing, the four seasons, our central location, close driving distance to NYC and also the Adirondacks. Some of us actually like the place. Instead of constantly finding fault with the area many of us chose to live, why not look for and expound upon the positives(and there's plenty)? Why not get involved. Complaining never solved anything. How about offering up some positive ideas instead of going on an illogical rant? Better yet, move to Austin! I hear they're looking for someone to bring down their national ranking.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons the area does not improve is the inabilty of people to think in longer range terms. The decline of the area and of upstate in general started after WW2 when high wage union jobs could not compete with the south. Even later, check where and why industries like Chicago Pneumatic went. Once the jobs left, the population started to follow. Once the population severely declined, it is near impossible to attract it back no matter how your government is restructured. The restructure may help keep people here by lowering cost but it would not result in in migration.

Anonymous said...

Actually, there are a few ways to regrow the population. You clearly can't think of any in your absolutist views.

One of the biggest improvements would be to reduce the tax burden on everyone. You would think that with so many Empire Zones the state would get the hint... This is accomplished through many facets from consolidating and reducing bloated parts of government to actually spending within the budget. Other ways of achieving this is by eradicating failed programs and services.

The next important item is to reduce all the red tape one must swallow before being able to do anything. For example, in New Hartford, to even put a pool into your backyard or put an addition onto your house, you need several permits and the town board's approval. How is any business supposed to operate with all that red tape? There are simple ways to reduce the ridiculous regulation without sacrificing the environment.

Next important issue is that we have to accept the fact that gone forever are the days of the high-priced low skilled manufacturing jobs.

Realize and accept the fact that we have converted into a college region. We have several of them: Hamilton College, SUNY IT, Utica College, MVCC, HCCC. We need to embrace this and start using it to our advantage. There is a great talent pool of college graduates we lose every year because there is literally nothing in the area that can hire them and pay them a sustainable salary ($8/hr is not good for a college grad). Start creating more partnerships between the local businesses and the colleges.

With the above obstacles realized, people will be more free to set up shop. That, in turn, will create some jobs. That, in turn, will attract more people to the area.

But it has to start with those people willing to make the unpopular decisions (the ones that will change the status quo). It has to start with people supporting those people, i.e. the voters. Just give me a candidate willing to make the unpopular decisions and you know my vote!

Anonymous said...

Nice thoughts but extremely limited. The primary focus of companies and business is the existing labor pool available. This overshadows everything including taxes. We have a relative minimal labor pool particularly in the middle mangement category. As a result, the area is in a very poor competitive position to attract business. All incentives ought to be centered on creation and innovation from within. An essential ingredient is venture capital availabilty. This area ranks in the lower 1% in the nation in this category. How to create a venture capital fund is a lot more realistic than the pie in the sky, long term consolidation dream.

Anonymous said...

And what you said will happen AFTER what I stated occurs.

Anonymous said...


This is the latest data, so it's not some old data.

Utica/Rome NY:
Cost of Living index: 100
Median house income: $42,105

Colorado Springs:
Cost of Living index: 91
Median house income: $55,064

Altanta, GA
Cost of Living index: 94
Median house income: $57,307

Austin, TX
Cost of Living index: 94
Median house income: $54,827

So not only is it more cost-effective to live in these other cities, but you get paid more too! Of course it doesn't matter to the apologists, because you'll end up making excuses about how it's not accurate and etc.

Onjeesun: Actually, complaining solved EVERYTHING. SOMEONE complained about the Nazis committing genocide. SOMEONE complained about Japan bombing Pearl Harbor. SOMEONE complained about the lack of color on B&W TVs. SOMEONE complained about how slow it was to calculate missile trajectories by hand, and invented the calculator. SOMEONE complained about the inflexibility of calculators and invented the computer so that algorithms could be electronic. SOMEONE complained about the disparity in civil rights in America, and got us on the direction of equality. SOMEONE complained about NYRI, and how that would raise our already sky-high rates and destroy our land value.

Do I have to go on?

Also, why do people always assume I don't "get involved?" Maybe it's because I DO get involved (more so than most people here...) that I notice all these problems, and want to talk (excuse me... COMPLAIN) about it so we can get them fixed???

Strikeslip said...

Great Discussion!

Thank you, Anonymous, for the cold hard facts. We need to hear them. . . . More important, our leadership needs to hear them and figure out what to do about them.

Benchmarking ourselves against our competitors is what we should be doing -- and where we don't compare well, we need to figure out the cause. But no one is doing this.

Anonymous said...

More accurately, someone complained about those listed problems and DID something about it to fix 'em.

"SOMEONE complained about the Nazis committing genocide. SOMEONE complained about Japan bombing Pearl Harbor."

World War II DID something to fix those problems.

"SOMEONE complained about the lack of color on B&W TVs."

Someone DID something, like invent technicolor.

"SOMEONE complained about how slow it was to calculate missile trajectories by hand, and invented the calculator."

someone DID something.

"SOMEONE complained about the inflexibility of calculators and invented the computer so that algorithms could be electronic."

Someone DID something.

"SOMEONE complained about the disparity in civil rights in America, and got us on the direction of equality."

Some people DID something, like passed American Civil Rights Act.

"SOMEONE complained about NYRI, and how that would raise our already sky-high rates and destroy our land value."

Again, someone DID something.

Complaining alone has done NOTHING to solve the problems complained of. Someone had to DO something to resolve it!

onjeesun said...

You gotta love a good debate! I have always said that it is conversations such as these that we can all learn from and I appreciate the facts too. I would not argue the facts here but.. if one looks hard enough you can find data to back up pretty much anything you want to prove. I also do not want to get into a tit for tat here but.... It has never been the complaining that accomplished any of those things (or anything else for that matter). It was the actions that were taken after the complaining was done. Perhaps enough complaining can help start an action that eventually moves towards solving things but complaining in and of itself does not solve the problem.

For the record, I would still prefer to live here than any of the places on your list and it's nice that we all have that choice. I just choose to be a more positive person. In general when I do have a complaint (words) I simultaneously offer up potential solutions(action).


onjeesun said...

Unfortunately there is no way to tell the difference between one anonymous and another so… either the first one realized their error with regard to complaints accomplishing things or another anonymous beat me to the punch. Either way the post pointing this out prior to mine was not up when I wrote mine. In the end it is nice to see the enthusiastic debate. Nice discussion you have started with this blog Strike. Nice job on the Water, Water article too. There was enough new information and insights for those of us who have been involved and are informed on the subject, yet it had enough background and was thorough enough for reader’s that were not. Knowledge is power.Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Good. I think we all agree then... Yes, "things" need to be done, but no action can be taken unless complaints are reported and taken seriously by people in power and with influence.

Unfortunately in this region (I'm sure we can all agree on this) the problem when some of us DO present solutions... nobody with influence listens. Also, when we try to do something about it, we encounter opposition because people want to "keep things the way they are" and stick another historical society sign in your front yard.

So what can we do? Vote and campaign differently next time around. :)

Truthfully, this is where complaining makes a difference. Staging demonstrations. Writing letters to politicians. Writing articles in newspapers. Calling your local radio stations. Complaining to your neighbors, your churches, your town halls, schools, etc. And of course it all should start by presenting the truth to fellow citizens and building up a passion to fix these complaints.

Also, sometimes we don't know how to fix the problems (or we're powerless to do so), so we need to keep talking until someone with a solution can give us answers or can do something about it. That's why I voted for Hanna the last election, because he heard my complaints about the region and offered to fix and do something about it if he got elected. I liked the fact that his entire campaign was almost based on letting us know that he heard our complaints, while his opponent (Arcuri) was based on ignoring us!

But anyway, sorry for being so hostile, but I was just strongarming a point across. I'm a nice guy, really... I am!

Anonymous said...

You people are idiots. The anonymous poster above is correct, and you're all missing the point. Complaining is much more fruitful for your situation than to "drink the county government koolaid" and pretend that everything is okay by "being positive."

He/She is far more helpful to your community by pointing out the faults. You say that he/she's not doing anything... You're wrong. He/She is doing SOMETHING to better your community. Calling him/her a "Utica Basher" should be a badge of pride in this case, because YOU are the one that is causing social/economic regression be repressing good complaints and constructive criticism.

Nothing in history was improved by ignoring the problems around you.

Wake up, Uticans and Utican Neighbors. You want "Young people to stay there" but you do nothing about it. Young people actually pipe up and tell you what to do after they return from colleges in great towns, and you ignore them, telling them to be "more positive" and everyone votes and campaigns to keep things "the way they are" claiming either noise ordinances or "ruination to the beauty of Utica."

No wonder Utica is in the pits that it is and younger folks are leaving in droves.

Good luck. You'll need it just to maintain your population. Maybe you'll have more single mothers pumping out more infants in order to stave off the population decrease.