Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Talking Down Downtown . . .

I couldn't just let Sunday's OD op-ed piece, Revive Focus on Utica's Gateway Area go without comment here.

While it was nice to see recognition given to the new signs of life in the Uptown, Varick, Bleecker-Mohawk areas of Utica, the complaints about Downtown were a reprise of similar complaints last September when the lack of a drug store was seen as a problem.
What downtown Utica needs to create is something similar to downtown New Hartford. A few pubs and restaurants, some women’s clothing stores, a pharmacy and maybe a tailor and a shoe-repair shop. None by itself will draw visitors seven days per week, but in combination, they likely would.
Downtown New Hartford???? At best "Downtown NH" is four-and-a-half corners and is really a neighborhood center for the Village of NH and for South Utica -- much like the other areas that the OD identified above. In fact, the entire village of New Hartford could probably fit within the area regarded as Downtown Utica. It is absolutely ridiculous for the OD to try to compare the two.
In the longer run, downtown might need more. A modernized Aud. A youth recreation center with ice and turf similar to one proposed by hockey star Robert Esche a few years back. And, someday, maybe a well-built and modern downtown stadium to serve high school, college and even maybe a pro baseball team. Dreaming for the long term is something Utica needs to do a lot more of.
I hate it when the OD preaches to Utica leaders about what they should do, especially when it requires Utica residents to spend money that they do not have. Why should anyone in Utica listen to the OD? It has undermined the health of the city at every possible opportunity. OD has the nerve to tell Utica to dream while it has stomped on Utica's dreams for years.

A modernized Aud? Youth center with ice? Or a Stadium? Where does OD think Utica will get the funds from? The OD didn't write one word in support of then-mayor Julian's idea of SUNYIT putting its new field house downtown, even while other SUNY campuses were locating facilities to revive their nearby downtowns. In fact, it immediately wrote to squelch the idea.

I don't remember hearing any support from the OD for putting the Homeland Security Center or the State Data Center in Utica even though a large tax-exempt state campus sits in West Utica with half the buildings boarded up. Where's the push for Utica? Where's the outrage at the State-Slumlord?

Professional sports? What about professional hockey that the OD discouraged back in 2002, and discouraged again in 2005?

The OD pontificates, preaches, and points fingers at Utica, but, when it comes to Utica needing a hand, it does not lift even a pinky. . . . But it insists that Utica residents have to support regionalized sewer and water systems where Uticans lose more than they get back -- that Uticans must do this to enable the suburbs to grow their tax bases (while it erodes Utica's tax base). Where has OD ever told Uticans that Uticans are supporting through County tax breaks the very suburban developments that only draw more businesses out of Utica?

Over and over when the subject at public meetings turns to what Utica needs most, invariably someone mentions a new newspaper.

Utica's Downtown got the way it is over a period of many years. Downtown Utica's fabric was ripped apart by past 'improvement' projects that only made things worse. Can anyone remember 'Urban Renewal Project #1' 40 years ago and all the buildings that were demolished -- with many properties remaning vacant even today? How about the E-W Arterial, N-S Arterial, and all the 'improvements' to Oriskany Blvd that, to be sure, got traffic to flow better but which (1) ate up valuable land, (2) made some places harder to get to and (3) (poison for any 'Downtown' ) harder to walk to? It's OK to rip a city apart to shave a couple minutes off a suburban commute but what about the people and businesses nearby?  They were invisible. Where was the OD when these decisions were made? Was there any analysis? Now the OD seems to think that government can create grocery, retail or drugstores out of thin air -- but it can only create environments that will hopefully lead to these things settling in.

If the OD is not going to contribute to Utica's well being with balanced in-depth analysis and reporting on its news pages, and sincerely advocate for Utica's well-being on its editorial pages (instead of taking cheap shots like the stupid comparison with New Hartford), OD should keep its mouth shut.

Uticans are tired of the OD biting the hands that feed it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Western Whitestown Water . . .

"Be careful of what you ask for" is one of the messages in today's OD piece "Water Woes in Whitestown."

The "poster child" used to justify MVWA's expansion to Verona was Camelot Village. For some reason, the needs of these people for water somehow justified a 16 mile pipeline. When MVWA got tied up in court, the people looked to Rome which had mains only a short distance away.

Now some of the people in Whitestown who are passed by the water line want to get water from that line, but government bureaucracy is in the way.

They and their town should know that Transportation Corporation Law §42 provides that water-works corporations 'shall supply each city, town or village through which the conduits or mains of such corporation may pass, or wherein such corporation may have organized, and the inhabitants thereof, with pure and wholesome water, at reasonable rates.' With the mandatory 'shall,' it would appear that under this law, Rome, which is acting as a water works corporation, can be compelled to supply these Whitestown residents. Of course, these people should expect to have to pay a fair share of the cost of the pipeline.

Now that the water line is in use in Camelot Village, people there have soggy back yards because they aren't drinking the water beneath them.

So be careful of what you ask for ... and make sure to do a thorough environmental review of your project.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Partnership, Linking, Collaboration, Leveraging . . .

"Partnership," "linking," "collaboration," "leveraging". . . all positive sounding buzz words that can be found in the Sentinel's coverage yesterday of the big announcement of ... What was it that they call it???
The cross-regional partnership will develop a state-of-the-art high tech business incubator/technology accelerator at SUNYIT.
The words being used to describe this venture should be red-flags that taxpayer money is about to be blown, and that it will be a lucky break if anything of lasting value results.

It is not just the (partial) string of broken promises listed in yesterday's post that makes many skeptical.

A First cause for skepticism is the conflicting sizes given for the new building presented in various press accounts: 60,000 square feet in an Albany Business Journal article and the initial OD posting, and 200,000 square feet today. That is a pretty significant difference to not know which -- a signal that maybe this is just another half-baked "pie-in-the-sky" announcement like we've heard before.

A Second cause for skepticism is that it's not clear exactly what they will build at SUNYIT. What is "a state-of-the-art high tech business incubator/technology accelerator" anyway? The Albany Business Journal describes it this way:
The 60,000 square foot facility at SUNYIT will act as a commercialization center and business incubator to attract chip suppliers and contractors. It will also house class labs, faculty offices and other support space for the college’s School of Information Systems and Engineering Technology.
While even that description is vague, the part about the class labs, faculty offices and support space for the college at least gives a partial picture. Per Today's Sentinel (thank heaven for the Sentinel getting some details!):
the center will include a coveted "clean room" facility that provides a specialized environment for developing chip technologies ...
That could be encouraging because it sounds like it is something relatively unique in the region (which might attract business users) -- but is that really the case? What is the market for a "clean room" and where are competing "clean rooms?" Can companies use clean rooms but be located elsewhere? And if this is an "incubator," of sorts, isn't that what Griffiss Institute turned into after its "world class" research facility amounted to zero? About the only things that seem to hatch from "incubators" around here are jobs for our industrial development officials.

Per today's Sentinel:
The partnership also creates a joint educational and training curriculum between the SUNYIT School of Information Systems and Engineering Technology and the Albany college that would prepare workers for careers in computer chip integration and deployment.
. . . And That is the Third cause for skepticism: We've seen "educational partnerships" before in the "Griffiss Institute" and the "Center for Brownfield Studies" and a "joint curriculum" with the latter. While "partnerships" and "joint"-anything may sound good, they ignore the reality that educational institutions DO compete with each other. In the case of Griffiss Institute and Brownfield Center, they never worked out.

It seems that we are being led down a well trodden path -- again.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

You Can Depend On Oneida County . . .

. . . to piddle away your tax money. "$5,000 grant to help Verona complete firefighter training complex."
"The Verona Volunteer Fire Department has been awarded a $5,000 grant to complete the Western Oneida County firefighter training complex, County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. announced Tuesday."
The WESTERN Oneida County training complex?

Whatever happened to the 'Eastern' Oneida County training complex . . . and what is it that makes it unusable to those in 'Western' OC? Come to think of it, Boonville would seem to be one of the furthest points in the county . . . Is there a 'Northern' OC complex? If not, maybe there should be one of those too . . .

I'm tired of all this waste of my tax dollars.

Update: The Sentinel reports:
"Oneida County has at least four existing training facilities. "
"AT LEAST ????!!!"

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

You Can't Depend On Oneida County . . .

... to do what you should be doing for yourself. At least that is the message that you should get from today's OD headline story "Whitestown business park tenants ‘frustrated’." Apparently the infrastructure and other things at the old Oneida County Airport Industrial Park are being neglected.
Among the concerns is that the park has received little attention compared to the Griffiss Business and Technology Park in Rome since 2006, when the county airport was moved from Whitestown to Griffiss, said Frank Giotto, chairman of the Oneida County Industrial Park Association. . .
Apparently the Whitestown park can't be found on the Mohawk Valley EDGE homepage.

“It’s like they’re deliberately excluding us in any of their plans and development,” Giotto said.

Welcome to the club, Mr. Giotto. Herkimer County felt that way some time ago. Utica should feel that way, too, but its leaders seem to be too preoccupied with getting around civil service laws to notice. EDGE will favor whatever municipalities are favored by Oneida County leadership -- which are not necessarily the municipalities of the residents who are paying most of the bill. This is the problem when services become "regionalized" -- the people paying the bills aren't necessarily the ones getting the benefits.

Since Whitestown would get a boost to its tax base from any development at the old airport, shouldn't Whitestown take on this responsibility? Probably not -- Whitestown is likely not big enough to take this on financially.


Today's story is an example of what Greater Utica gets from Utica and its suburbs continuing to move in their own directions rather than as one. They insist on maintaining separate existences, depending on the County whenever a 'Greater Utica' area solution is required. The County, of course, cannot be depended upon because it answers to interests that are outside Greater Utica.

This is the root of the problem with EDGE, the root of the problem with the Sewer District, and the root of the problem with the Water Authority. If Greater Utica were unified, EDGE would be a 'has been,' and the reason for the existence of the sewer district and water authority would be eliminated.

A consolidated Municipality of Greater Utica could take on a lot of what has been kicked up to the county level: Water, sewer, marketing of industrial sites -- maybe even the airport! Things might even be better managed because there would be less incentive to expand services into new areas (creating too much infrastructure to be supported by a dwindling population).

Mr. Giotto, of course, knows all this because he literally "wrote the book" on consolidation of Greater Utica -- "Medievil Madness." I hope he doesn't mind, but I'm posting it here because his former website is down (fortunately I thought to make a copy). It is an excellent, entertaining read, and proposes a roadmap for consolidation.

Now may be the time for this plan or something similar. . .

The residents of all the little burgs, hamlets and boros that make up Greater Utica should wake up to the fact that they CAN take control of their destiny -- if they only merged.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Water Water Everywhere . . . .

“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink?” That is the question some people are probably asking themselves following Judge Hester's recent ruling in the water fight among the Mohawk Valley Water Authority, the State of New York, and others, that places a limit on the amount of water that the Authority can take out of the Hinckley Reservoir. With all of our lakes, streams, and snowy and rainy weather, why is this even an issue? Why should there be a limit at all? What are the ruling's implications for our region's future? A bit of law and history help the ruling make sense.

In New York State, rights to water are private property associated with ownership of land bordering a stream, which cannot be taken away without just compensation. The landowner has a right to the full flow of the stream, undiminished in quantity or quality by others, whether or not the landowner actually uses the water in any manner. These so-called “riparian rights” allow the landowner to fish, swim, boat, use the water to turn a mill wheel, and use the water on his or her property for various purposes, including domestic and agricultural uses, as long as the flow and quality of water in the stream are left substantially unchanged for other riparian landowners downstream.

Diverting water for use as a municipal water supply is not a riparian right because it diminishes the amount of water remaining in the stream for others. A company or municipality wanting to do this must first acquire the right to do so from all of the riparian landowners downstream that are likely to be affected. The landowners may agree to sell all or part of their riparian rights, or agree to diversions only under certain conditions, such as their always having enough water for crops or livestock, or that diversions may take place only when the flow in the stream is above a certain level.

Utica and its suburbs get their water from the M.V. Water Authority, which gets its water from Hinckley Reservoir on the West Canada Creek. At the time the water system was set up in the early 1900s, the private water company that eventually became the Authority purchased various riparian rights from the landowners along West Canada Creek. While many agreements were short and written to the company's favor, others protected the special interests of the various landowners such as agriculture. A few went into great detail to spell out that the company would only be allowed to draw water when flow in the creek was above 333 cubic feet per second (cfs) and that, if water was to be diverted when flow was below this amount, the company would have to release water from its own storage reservoir upstream in an amount equal to its diversion. This would restore the flow in the creek to what it would be under natural conditions.

Complicating this set up was New York State's simultaneous need for water from the West Canada Creek, and damming of the creek at Hinckley to create a 25 billion gallon reservoir, making a reliable supply for its Barge Canal. The conflicts and lawsuits that arose between the water company and State were ultimately settled by an agreement signed in December, 1917. Among its terms, the agreement reserved a water flow of 75 cfs for the water company's use, permitted the company to use the State's reservoir as a transporting agent and settling basin for water, and permitted the company to put its water intakes in the State's dam. However, the company's right to draw water from Hinckley was conditioned upon the company both maintaining water storage capacity upstream of Hinckley and releasing water from storage into Hinckley when flows in the West Canada Creek were low, defined to be 335 cfs (or slightly greater than the trigger flow in some of the company's agreements with private land owners). To ensure that the company had enough water to add to Hinckley to make up for what it was removing, the agreement required that upstream storage be increased in stages as the company's withdrawals increased. At the maximum withdrawal rate of 75 cfs, the company was required to have 6 billion gallons of storage (or almost one quarter of the design capacity of Hinckley Reservoir itself). The agreement stated that the provisions were intended to protect the State from any claims and demands of lower riparian owners which might arise out of the water company's diversions. In essence, this was both parties' acknowledgement that the riparian owners along the creek below the dam still had rights that had to be respected. The agreement also stated that if the company did not comply with the requirements, it had no right to take water from Hinckley.

History happens. In the late 1930s, the water system was purchased by the growing City of Utica. Withdrawals from Hinckley increased. At mid-century with a population of 100,000, Utica was essentially at “full build out,” with little room for growth. It was also at this time that withdrawals had reached a level where the upstream storage capacity required by the 1917 agreement should have been increased. It was not, in perhaps the earliest example of how the city-suburban municipal boundary stands in the way of Greater Utica's progress. With suburban areas unwilling to be annexed to the City of Utica, there was simply no benefit for Utica residents to take on the substantial cost and risks of expanding the water supply to enable growth, expansion of tax bases, and attraction of development in areas outside the city. Utica had already paid for an expensive water supply system that was adequate for its own needs.

In spite of this, growth in the suburbs continued, causing increased withdrawals and the missing of another storage milestone. Fear that increasing population in Oneida and Herkimer Counties would cause water shortages led to a 1968 comprehensive study which concluded that Hinckley Reservoir (with the prescribed expanded upstream storage facilities) should be reserved for Utica and environs and parts of Herkimer County. It also concluded that central Oneida County should be served by the Rome supply, and that western Oneida County should be served by Lake Ontario and other western sources.

In the mid-1980s, disputes arose between Utica and its suburbs over water rates, which Utica lost. Suffice it to say that Utica residents' status as the owners of the water system vs. suburban residents' status as mere customers, and the burdens associated with bringing water over greater distances to less densely populated suburban areas, went unrecognized. The owners of the system were denied a return on not only their investment, but also on the risks they were taking as the operators of a complex regional system. If an incentive was lacking to make changes that would benefit the suburbs before, the rate disputes made the situation worse.

With the pressure of the cost of a new federally-mandated filtration plant, and a local press that incessantly painted Utica as being 'tight-fisted,' uncooperative, and unwilling to think regionally, the City of Utica threw in the towel in the 1990s and sold the water system to the newly created M. V. Water Authority for a quick buck. Although Utica residents' burden of being sole owners of the system was now shared with others, they still bore half of the cost of buying the water system from themselves, and of maintaining it because they used half of the water. While Utica residents make up 50% of the Authority's 12-member governing board, two of them are picked by the county legislature, and two of the non-city members are picked by the County Executive. Since only a small portion of the county is served by this water system, the county involvement tilts the board toward an expansionist “pro-developer” philosophy with blind spots on issues of urban sprawl and proper allocation of water supply.

This became evident in 2003 when the Authority applied to the Department of Environmental Conservation to expand its water service to areas in Westmoreland, Kirkland, Frankfort, and Schuyler; agreed to supply water to the Town of Verona; and announced an intent to sell water to the City of Sherrill and Village of Vernon, which were customers of the City of Oneida system. Most of these areas were outside the Authority's service area and had alternative supplies available that were identified in the 1968 study. Verona's own engineers essentially concurred with the study, concluding it made more sense to get water from Rome, or from the Onondaga County Water Authority (L. Ontario). Camelot Village in Westmoreland, which had contaminated wells, was used to promote the need for the M. V. Water Authority's proposed cross-county pipeline – all while City of Rome mains were only one quarter mile away! The Authority's plans were contrary to the recommendations of the 1968 study, and, per that study, could leave the Utica area short of water, if the mid-century growth rate were to resume.

Meanwhile, in 2002, the Authority had destroyed its only storage reservoir upstream of Hinckley to avoid costly repairs, not seeing it as essential to operations, and, apparently, not comprehending its planned role in allowing mixed uses of the West Canada Creek to co-exist. The combination of the destruction of the storage reservoir with planned system extensions got the State Canal Corp.'s attention. However, instead of moving to ameliorate the potential impacts of the Authority's faux-pas, the State used the situation to attempt to extort a per-gallon charge from the Authority (and us ratepayers). It was strictly about money. The Authority responded with a lawsuit. In the meantime, the nature of the developing problem began to sink in with landowners along the creek, fishermen, boaters, camp operators, and others who derive a living or pleasure from its flows. Old agreements surfaced. It became apparent that the Authority was not playing by the rules, and that its plans were a threat to continued mixed uses.

Finally, we receive Judge Hester's ruling that the State's inaction for many years would stop it from preventing the Authority from continuing to divert water consistent with its use and practice over the years, which the judge defined to be “not to exceed 35 cfs,” which converts to 22.6 million gallons per day (MGD). However, the Judge rejected the Authority's claim to 75 cfs, saying that the Authority “is not entitled to divert a flow in the amount of 75 cfs of water without providing compensation flow according to the terms of the 1917 Agreement.”

True to its expansionist philosophy, the Authority spins the judge's limitation on withdrawals as an authorization to further expand the system. It cites its “average daily demand” (ADD) of 19 MGD, rounds the judge's limit up to 23 MGD, and concludes it can add 4 MGD worth of new users. The Authority fails to tell the public that it estimated in 2002 that its actual withdrawals from Hinckley were 21 MGD, with the difference from ADD attributed to production water uses at the Water Treatment Plant and leakage in the reservoirs and transmission systems. It also fails to tell the public that its “Maximum Daily Demand” is 25 MGD, and already exceeds the judge's limit.

The Authority also fails to tell the public that the higher historical demand occurred when the system was smaller than now, before industries left town. If the Authority spreads out even more to add 4 MGD of new users to reach the limit, what happens if some of the older properties revert to industrial use? Will the Authority deny them water? Ration water? Increase rates? Or simply violate the judge's limit and hope no one is watching? The judge's limit was merely to preserve the status quo, to buy time, and not to authorize an expansion.

The practical effect of the judge's limit is that this region's growth is now capped where it stands. The Marcy “Nanotech” site becomes useless for its intended purpose because the 3 MGD needed by a “chip-fab” is not available.

Obviously, the help of all stake holders is needed to solve our water shortage, but the search for a solution must not be orchestrated by the Water Authority. It is only interested in growing its business.

[This article was originally published in the June, 2009 "Utica Phoenix." Be sure to pick up this month's "Phoenix" to read "Last Exit for West Utica" ... available now in a newsrack near you.]