Monday, August 30, 2010

Massive . Government . Failure

We read about Canajoharie today, how its residents are facing a $2,700 annual increase in fees and taxes now that the Beech-Nut plant, through a heavily taxpayer-sponsored "economic development" program, has left town for a new site 20 miles away.
An audit released earlier this month by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that Beech-Nut used 86 percent of the village’s water and wastewater treatment facilities, and provided 11 percent of its general fund tax revenues.

To offset Beech-Nut’s loss, auditors said each household could see an increase of $2,700 in taxes and water and sewer bills for years to come.

DiNapoli called that “unsustainable,” adding the village has sought help from larger levels of government with no success.

The amazing thing about this is that significant impacts on Village water and sewer rates were forecast at least two years ago when the move was still being discussed.  Why was this not taken into account and dealt with when the State and Montgomery County officials were putting together their package of incentives for Beech-Nut to move  to near Amsterdam?

Earlier, why was this situation even allowed to develop where an entire village became enslaved to providing water and sewer facilities to such a large user?  Those services are under State supervision, where there are "experts" who should be looking at these issues.  Using 86% of the water/sewer plant capacity, Beechnut should have been the owner of those facilities, not the taxpayers.  Ownership would have been an incentive for them to stay put.    

There are two lessons to be learned: (1) Government and businesses should not be partners.  (2) Government ineptness creates most of our economic problems.

This is a massive failure of government ... a village government that should never have been expected to provide water and sewer services for such a large user, state government which mandates the water and sewer facilities that are needed, and state and county governments who are so focused on 'jobs' that they do not understand the larger impacts of what they are doing.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Helpful Corruption . . .

Schumer pushing for Fort Drum veterans to be treated at Sitrin  
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called Tuesday for some military veterans from Fort Drum with post traumatic stress disorder to be treated locally at Sitrin Health Care.

Currently, all such veterans requiring treatment go to Texas, but allowing some of them to be treated at Sitrin would help Sitrin and allow the veterans to receive “world-class service” closer to Fort Drum, Schumer said.
. . .
Sitrin and Fort Drum officials have been meeting about the plan, and Sitrin also has been looking into the possibility of receiving veterans from other military bases, said Rosemary Bonacci, Sitrin’s vice president of development and communications.
It is nice to see Mr. Schumer (of all people) pushing to privatize the government's provision of treatment for these heros.

But while it may make sense for the soldiers to be treated closer to Ft. Drum, and it is helpful for the local economy (and for one of the biggest and most influential not-for-profit behemoths in the Mohawk Valley), look at the process being followed.  "Sitrin and Fort Drum officials have been meeting about the plan. . . "

What ever happened to competitive bidding?

This privately negotiated process creates a dependency between Sitrin (with perhaps hundreds of voting employees) and Mr. Schumer (and any other politician that helps broker this deal).  When people become beholden to certain individuals for their livelihoods, they will vote as though their lives depend on it . . . because they do.

Sitrin may be the best vendor because they do good work . . . but let that come through in a competitive process.  If Sitrin wins on its merits, votes would not have been bought.
But as it stands now, this looks like corruption . . . helpful . . . but corruption none-the-less.
“It makes sense for everybody,” Schumer said.
Corruption usually does.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Same Old New Hartford . . .

JUST when we started to think that New Hartford may have turned a corner toward a new era of transparency, we get THIS:

New Hartford library board approves agreement with town

Agreement?  What agreement? Where are the details?  Who decided for the Town and how?

Does the "Agreement" require the Library to make full disclosure of all the Financial information FOILed by Concerned Citizens of New Hartford for Honest and Open Government ... or is it silent on the issue, and maintains enough "status quo" on the Library Board so that nothing will change? (We're still interested why the Library's Form 990 discusses "leasehold" improvements)

Looks like the Wagons have been Circled.

8/24 UPDATE --
A reliable source indicates that the agreement merely reappoints most of the prior Library Board save one slot going to Mr. Wiatr of Concerned Citizens, and releases money from the town to the library.  That's it!

With no significant changes in a Library Board that was clearly operating outside of Town authority and oversight, Wiatr is put in a position of having his time wasted (perhaps to keep him out of "trouble"?). . . . and Taxpayers are stuck funding a group of people who are unwilling to open their books (finance books, not library books).

This makes one wonder what was the point of Mr. Tyksinski's drama over the library? A "dog-and-pony show" put on because the library board got caught.? . . .Or a distraction from the REAL issue of why the Library Board has failed to open its books to the public?

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Tale of Two Mosques . . .

. . . One in Utica, NY . . . The other proposed for New York City.

The Utica mosque was started in 2008 -- a transformation of the former Central Methodist Church.  This went on with hardly a raised eyebrow.  Today its appearance has completely changed, being faced with light and dark gray stucco with an added minaret . . . literally towering over the Utica City Hall next door.

The mosque has been and is a welcome addition to Utica.  Uticans can be happy that an historic landmark has been saved. . . . Members of the former Methodist Church are happy that a building that housed many memories for them would continue to exist with its life as a house of worship (although a different religion) continued.  The new mosque symbolizes an acceptance and integration of former Bosnian refugees into Utica and our American way of life.  We are one people out of many.

The Utica mosque is something we all can be proud of for what it symbolizes about Utica and America. . . . We welcome newcomers, we recognize the importance of Faith in our community and our country, and we adhere to our Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. 

Then there is the $100 million mosque proposed for two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center in New York City.  It has been intensely debated in New York, locally, and nationally.  Prominent politicians including President Obama, Andrew Cuomo, and Mayor Bloomberg have come out in favor of the mosque, citing the US Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion.

The majority of Americans, however, are opposed.  Some politicians, perhaps sensing the political wind, are opposed.  Is the majority wrong?  Are the opposing politicians succumbing to mob rule?

Many are torn over this issue.  People who are committed to all that America stands for feel a bit guilty for not wanting this mosque to be built . . . but they know that something feels wrong, yet they can't quite put their finger on it.

The key is that freedom of religion, like the freedom of speech also guaranteed under the First Amendment, has its limits. The Constitution is not a license to commit a civil wrong -- a tort -- a breach of duty owed to society.  The human sacrifices of ancient Aztec religion can be constitutionally prohibited.  Harassing phone calls can be constitutionally enjoined.      

People intuitively know that the proposed mosque in New York City has nothing to do with freedom of religion or freedom of speech.

Context is everything.  Proponents of the NYC mosque do not want to even consider alternative locations. Why is this site so important that no other will do? No real explanation has been noted.  Meanwhile, in Utica, the proponents of the Utica mosque took great pains to respect and fit in with the residents of their new home city.  A recent NY Times story questioned whether Uticans would have felt the same if the local muslims were more arab-looking rather than european.  It has nothing to do with looks, NY Times, since very many of arab descent have resided here for most of the 20th Century.  It has everything to do with attitude.  Does a group want to be part of this miracle of freedom we call America ... or destroy it?

A conclusion reasonable people can reach is that the NYC mosque is intended to inflict emotional harm on the citizens of the nation's largest city who were already harmed on 9-11.  Rather than trying to integrate with and become part of America and its citizens, the proponents of this mosque, when they insist on this location, are trying to harm America and its citizens.

What other purpose could there be for insisting that the mosque has to be built on that site?

Intentional infliction of emotional distress has been classified as a tort.

A suit to enjoin the mosque probably would test the limits of the First Amendment . . . but there is an appropriate argument to be made there . . . and someone should be making it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Utica and County Leaders Have Their Heads . . .

 . . . In the Sand. 

For the second time in three months, local leaders just refuse to accept what appear to be unbiased opinions on this region's viability. In May it was Forbes.

Today it is Moodys according to stories in the OD and on WKTV.
Out 384 metro areas, the local region was one of only 22 two deemed by Moody’s to be in danger. 
The danger being described as sliding into a double-dip recession. (This raises the question of when was the last time this area was OUT of recession?)
And yet, “we are not really at risk like Moody’s portrays us to be,” Roefaro told Erin Burnett, host of CNBC’s “Street Signs.”
Roefaro — along with John Engen, mayor of Missoula, Mont — were interviewed, and Roefaro focused on jobs he says he’s added downtown, the opening of new small businesses in the city and the progress at Harbor Point in North Utica.
 Per WKTV, Mr. Picente is also in denial . . .
Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente doesn't lend the report too much credence.

"When you look at the map and you look at the areas that were designated, there really is no rhyme or reason, or doesn't point to anything significantly that has reacted to any type of recession," Picente said.
Local leaders for years have avoided benchmarking Utica-Rome Metro against other parts of the country . . . and local media has been happy to play along with it.  That has allowed the same old faces to use the same old policies which has led to the same old place: economic decline.

Until leadership takes off the rose-colored glasses and starts acknowledging just how bad off we are, nothing will ever change.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Carrying Regionalism a Bit Too Far

From the Watertown Daily Times:
The Metropolitan Development Association of Syracuse and Central New York, which represented the 200 largest companies and institutions in Central New York, and the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce completed the move in May to become CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity. . . .
The area covered includes Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties and runs from the St. Lawrence River to Tompkins County and from Utica to the eastern Finger Lakes.
At least Greater Utica is now no longer the only place to have its Chamber of Commerce hide its geographic identity inside an amorphous regional "blob."   But including Utica in with Syracuse??
Bringing a business to Ithaca should make economic developers in the north country happy because it could mean growth for the entire region.
If new businesses in Ithaca are good for Watertown, I guess it is less of a stretch to imagine that bringing businesses to Syracuse will be good for Utica . . . or vice versa?

I wonder why the Mohawk Valley Chamber of Commerce hasn't folded itself into CenterState since it seems to subscribe to the same regional philosophy.  Why not add EDGE, too, since it already cooperates with the now former MDA on the "Creative Core" marketing concept.

And since all of Upstate is pretty bad from Amsterdam to Buffalo, why stop with just Central NY?

Does anyone really believe this nonsense?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Too Much Government -- and Not Enough . . .

Everyone wants our old buildings saved and given new life. . . . to preserve architectural heritage . . . to reuse the surrounding supporting public infrastructure of streets, sidewalks, water and sewer lines . . . to inhibit urban sprawl and avoid the costs and environmental degradation associated with sprawl.

Unfortunately when someone tries to save old buildings -- giving the public all the benefits listed above -- too often their government works against them.  This is what happened in a story that appeared in yesterday's OD: CharlesTown project in jeopardy.

Cancilla, a local attorney, purchased CharlesTown in late 2007, and planned to make it into a retail and residential development that would once again be an asset to the area.

But the state departments of Labor and Environmental Conservation halted demolition of buildings on the eastern end of the complex in early 2008 after they discovered the company doing the work didn’t have the necessary permits and hadn’t taken proper safety precautions, according to a federal Environmental Protection Agency report.

A subsequent investigation found not only asbestos in and around the buildings, but also toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

The EPA ordered Cancilla to secure the site and is now looking to do the work itself, the developer said.
EPA's involvement is a troubling sign . . . You can be sure that when government does the work itself, it will be more expensive, and not necessarily of better quality (e.g. the now demolished State Office Building parking garage that did not even last 30 years).

This is where the role of government really needs to be thought out. Anyone purchasing an old building willingly accepts the costs of remodeling and bringing it up to modern standards. The costs are calculated into the purchase price offered.  However, if government is going to make the process of recycling old buildings unpredictable, buyers will not be able to perform the calculation and will be frightened away. And if the government makes the price too expensive, there will be NO redevelopment. 

Government needs to do a better job of making the building recycling process predictable and affordable.  If this is not done, the public will be stuck with a legacy of hazardous decaying structures ...  and have to sprawl further out on to green fields in the countryside.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Regionalization and Sustainable Infrastructure

The words we use have meanings beyond their definitions, with connotations of good and bad depending on our experiences.  We unconsciously rely on the connotations in reaching conclusions on the subjects discussed.  Sometimes the connotations become a substitute for further study of an issue.  The words can shape public opinion and, ultimately, produce a result through legislative action. "Regionalization" and "sustainability" are two of those words.

“Regionalization” became a fashionable word in late 20th century local conversations.  It was promoted as  the antidote to “parochialism” –  a narrow self-interest or selfishness that some municipalities seemed to have – something bad.  “Regionalization” implemented “regionalism” to imply that communities would take a broader perspective in their decision-making, cooperate with each other, share with each other, and achieve something for the greater good.   In an age of high taxation, sharing municipal services through a regionalized approach has been offered as a way to extend services to more people at less cost.

“Sustainability” and related terms are words that are just now becoming fashionable, often used in connection with renewable resources.  If something is “unsustainable” it cannot keep itself going or cannot be allowed to continue. It is something bad. If something is “sustainable” it has the ability to keep itself going with little or no effort – something good.  If sustainability could be built into municipal services, governments would not have to worry about keeping the services going or increasing taxes. 

Although “regionalization,”  “sustainability,” and their opposites have connotations of good and bad, the connotations arise in a different manner.  “Regionalization's” connotation arises from one's upbringing -- a sense of fair play. We were all taught to share.   “Sustainability,” however, is something that can be measured, at least relatively if not quantitatively.   If a resource is used faster than it can be replenished, the use is unsustainable – bad; but used at a slower rate makes it sustainable – it can continue forever – good.  “Sustainability” lends itself to evaluation, “regionalization” does not.

Concepts of sustainability, if not the word itself, have long been used in reference to public infrastructure.  Public water and sewer systems are usually found in cities and villages because the systems require a certain minimum population density to be sustainable (affordable). The amount of money available to a community obviously plays a role, with wealthier communities able to sustain more infrastructure than those less wealthy.   In rural areas population density is low and public water and sewer services are seldom seen.

In the early 1990s, Utica was portrayed in local media as being parochial regarding its water supply - not wanting to share its resource with surrounding communities – not wanting to play fair. Those controlling the information flow, because they resided in the suburbs, viewed the situation from a suburban perspective, and used the “regionalization” idea to advocate for regional ownership of the Utica water supply system to make it easier for the surrounding communities to obtain water for growth.  Many believed this was fair to Utica because regionalization would not only pay Utica for its system, but also remove from Utica the responsibility of having to pay off the debt for a new filtration plant.  Costs could be spread over a larger area.  Since Utica city finances were precarious, receiving money for its water system and getting  rid of the filtration plant debt provided city leaders some relief. Shedding their parochial image made it so much the better for city leaders.  So it was done ... and the Mohawk Valley Water Authority was born.   A quarter century earlier similar situations took place when the Oneida County Part County Sewer District was formed and when the City of Utica cooperated with New York State to build the regional arterial highway system.  All these seemed like good moves from a regionalization perspective – but were they good in the sense of creating a sustainable regional community?

SUSTAINABILITY MUST BE DETERMINED FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE RESIDENTS WHO PAY THE BILLS AND NOT THE MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENTS INVOLVED.  This is because people will simply pack up and leave if their costs become unaffordable, taking their money – the lifeblood  of services – with them.  In the case of the regionalized water system, Utica leaders got temporary financial relief and suburban leaders got easier access to water. The Residents of all areas, however, have continued to pay the bills – as they always had – and costs have continued to increase. Sustainable?

Supplying water and sewer services to suburban locations costs more than locations within Utica because (1) water must travel greater distances through more pipes to go to and from suburban locations and (2) the number of customers per square mile is usually less, due to larger lot sizes. It requires more pipes per person to supply suburban areas with water and sewer services than in the city.  It logically follows that suburban users should pay higher water and sewer rates to sustain services over the greater distances and lower population densities involved.   However, because these services are now governed regionally (suburban representatives on boards would be loathe to accept higher rates for their constituents), rates for water and county sewer services throughout the Greater Utica area have been kept the same for everyone. This means that residents of the population centers (Utica and the Villages) pay to maintain more infrastructure than they actually use to enable unincorporated areas of Towns to receive services.

Another example of an infrastructure change that increased costs for Utica residents was installation of the State arterial highway system. At the time the arterials were initially designed, the bulk of the region's population and business was within Utica's corporate limits. At 100,000 people, Utica was only about 4,000 people short of being "full." Utica residents did not need the arterials because almost every one and every thing was close by. Instead, the roads were built to keep the regional economy growing -- which is probably why the Chamber of Commerce endorsed the state's plan, while at least one Utica mayor questioned its value. Faster connections to and from Utica suburbs would not have benefitted Utica residents at that time because there was little in the suburbs for them. After 45 years, the arterial did not result in “growth” but merely sprawl.  People and economic activity merely redistributed themselves across the landscape.

What made the arterials a problem for Utica was that DEVELOPED properties in a city (almost at capacity) had to be demolished to install the system. This PERMANENTLY removed them from the tax rolls and necessarily increased the cost of maintaining municipal infrastructure for the remaining property owners. Many city streets became cut off and traffic was re-routed.  Former busy thoroughfares became virtual dead-ends or ghost towns. While these streets had their value for carrying traffic drastically reduced, the streets still needed to be plowed and maintained. City neighborhoods, including business areas, became less convenient for residents and customers - another cost since "time is money." The increased costs resulted in lower property values -- another cost. Rising costs made remaining in Utica unsustainable for many people, and population declined.  Meanwhile, the owners of suburban properties saw their values rise at little cost because arterials in the suburbs took little developed property. 

Although residents of Towns have received the benefits of highway, water, and sewer services subsidized by Utica residents, the scheme that produced this result -- New York State's laws and policies -- have produced negative results for them as well. This will become increasingly apparent as time goes on.

Long time New Hartford residents, for example, may remember when there was NO Town tax.  This was back when most town residents were clustered in the Villages of New Hartford or New York Mills, which had municipal services. As conditions in Utica became unsustainable, many Uticans moved to unincorporated areas of the Towns. This required (or provided an excuse for) Town government to expand, which led to Town taxes. Because Village residents are also residents of Towns, they were taxed, too, to help pay for Town services to the new Town residents, even though they were already paying their Villages for similar services.  In other words, Village residents pay for more government than they need and subsidize Town government. Like Utica, village populations have declined from their highs, and for many people, the Villages have become unsustainable.

As Town taxes increase to meet the increasing demands of more development, living in the Towns will become an unsustainable proposition for some people, and they will move to the next town.  If past policies continue, water, sewers, and highways will follow these people, again subsidized by the residents remaining behind who either are wealthy enough to pay the costs or are too poor to leave.

Like a smoke ring, the urbanized area will continue to expand outward across the landscape, gobbling up green fields and leaving behind underutilized infrastructure . . . until it all disintegrates.

We have already witnessed the beginning of this process. Populations of suburban towns have topped out, being relatively steady for 20 years. Regional populations have declined, with Oneida County having lost 40,000 and Utica-Rome metro down by more.  WE HAVE  ALREADY BECOME UNSUSTAINABLE.

The Greater Utica area is not alone.  The policies, which subsidize suburban growth at the expense of central cities and villages, prevail across Upstate New York and are rooted in how New York State organizes local government.  They have resulted in Upstate having some of the worst cases of urban sprawl in the country, requiring dwindling regional populations to support an ever expanding infrastructure (see “Sprawl without Growth – the Upstate Paradox” by Rolf Pendall of Cornell on the Brookings Institution's website at  Because of the inordinate amount of public infrastructure this region and other Upstate regions must support, it is no surprise that, when calculated as a percentage of home value, Oneida County ranks as the 24th most heavily taxed county IN THE NATION and that twenty of the twenty-three counties more heavily taxed are also in Upstate New York.  In contrast, because state policies reflect the dominance of Downstate legislators in state government, Downstate counties ranked well and are still growing in population. Nassau is 237, Suffolk is 292, Westchester is 354, Queens is 1,382, New York (Manhattan) is 1,547, and Kings (Brooklyn) is 1,553.  (See the Tax Foundation at 

Although our problem with sprawl is rooted in state policies, understanding the nature of the problem gives us the tools to halt the process and, hopefully, eventually return this region back to sustainability.  Programs designed to create growth ever further from central cities must immediately cease. Residents should not support "growth" that is merely moving people or business out of Utica or Rome. If any incentive is given for business development, it should only be at brownfield sites that already have the infrastructure to support development in place. Plans to consolidate police or EMT services must be rejected, if they impose higher costs on Utica or Village residents.  Plans to move responsibility for services to the County level must be rejected, if they increase costs to Utica or Village residents or minimize their voices in government. Planning efforts, such as the Utica Master Plan and New Hartford GEIS, must address sustainability both for the jurisdictions doing the planning and for the region as a whole.

Ultimately, the best chance to restore the area to sustainability would be to build regional sustainability right into local government through a merger of all local governments that SHARE A COMMON INFRASTRUCTURE. The new government needs to be given the responsibility for this infrastructure (primarily water and sewer services, but all "regionalized" services focused on the Utica area should be included). The elected representatives leading this new government will have a better perspective of what is sustainable for the region as a whole because they will be responsible for ALL municipal services throughout the area.  They will be more likely to put the brakes on developments which impose more costs on area residents.

Without the merger of local governments as described above, the coordination required to achieve the same result will be next to impossible to achieve. . . and like an expanding smoke ring, Greater Utica will eventually disintegrate.

[The above article was originally published in the July 2010 Utica Phoenix.]