Thursday, January 29, 2015

The NY Divide, an Upstate Agenda, and Choosing a Speaker

With the removal of Sheldon Silver from his position as speaker of the Assembly, there is talk about who will be his successor. Per the NYPost, the Assembly may be getting Carl Hestie as its first African-American Speaker.  The Post indicates that he has great credentials, including an undergrad degree in math and statistics from Stony Brook University, masters in finance from Baruch, experience as a budget analyst in the City's comptroller's office, and a reputation as a consensus builder.  While others have questioned Mr. Hestie's background, what seems to be most important to the Post and for some people is that he is African-American.

Frankly, the focus on race, gender, ethnicity, and other human characteristics that created "protected classes" during the last 20-30 years (while accomplishing little in solving their associated problems) has prevented us from seeing the REAL divisions among us.

The REAL divide in New York is geographical, illustrated by the map of NY's 100 richest and poorest places based on information listed here.  While ten of the poorest places are in our own area, the real take-away from looking at the map is that almost all the richest places are in the metro-New York City area while almost all the poorest places are Upstate.

Now, how can a government essentially run by "three men in a room" who are ALL from the metro New York City area, where incomes and wealth are high, possibly understand Upstate's problems and represent Upstate's interests, where the opposite is true?  

There was once a time when Upstate and Downstate both succeeded through leveraging Upstate's natural advantages of an efficient transportation route to the West and hydropower.  How this all came undone, and how both Upstate and Downstate have suffered since, was previously discussed in "What's the Fix for Upstate?"

If the shoe was on the other foot, what might an Upstate-controlled agenda look like?

1) Dissolve the Thruway Authority, eliminate all tolls north of I-287 by turning that portion over to NYSDOT and run it like the other interstates in NYS; and turn the remainder over to the NY / NJ Port Authority, and run that portion like other metro-area toll bridges and approaches. Upstaters were promised, when they controlled the Senate, that Thruway tolls would be removed when the construction bonds were paid off.  But even after being paid off TWICE (first, when US Sen. Moynihan secured a Federal payment for same in the 1980s, and again when they were actually paid off via tolls in 1996), a now reapportioned state legislature controlled by Downstate has not only continued tolls to this day, but also directed them to pay for the state's canal system (which helped NYC to grow) and for maintenance of Downstate's toll-free I-84.  While tolls in the high income metro area may be viewed as either a necessity or an annoyance, to Upstate they are death because they generally do not exist among Upstate's business competitors, burden Upstate's advantageous trade route, and are less affordable to Upstaters than their well-heeled Downstate counterparts.

2)  Require that regions generate most of their own electricity.  Because Upstate is rich in green hydropower resources, its electric rates should be less than those of its less-endowed competitors. Instead, rates are significantly higher owing to state policies that have shifted Upstate electric power into the metro area to lower costs there, mandated high-cost "green" wind and solar power alternatives, and directed closure of metro area generation facilities. If regions were required to develop their own electrical resources, localities could decide for themselves what mix of sources is best for them and what associated environmental impacts they are willing to tolerate.

3)  Require the State to pay its entire share of Medicaid rather than pass a portion of it on to counties where it shows up in Upstate's crushing property taxes. Alternatively, require the State to pay its entire share of Medicaid at the MINIMUM level of benefits and allow local municipalities to determine and pay for any supplemental services desired.  NY provides one of the nation's highest level of benefits. While Downstaters whine about their sky-high property taxes, they are not so bad when viewed as a percentage of property value (which represents accumulated wealth) .  In fact, given the extremely high property values in Manhattan, property taxes there as a percentage of property value are actually among the lowest in the nation. (See Why People Don't Come Here . . . By the Numbers).  With such low rates, Downstaters might feel generous when determining the kinds of benefits they want to provide to the poor via Medicaid.  However, most of Oneida County's budget consists of mandated Medicaid costs. The same is true for many Upstate counties.  Medicaid is the reason why tax rates are as high as they are Upstate. The highest property tax burdens in the nation, when calculated as a percentage of property value, are found in Upstate NY counties. Essentially, Downstate, via State government, has mandated that Upstate take money from the poor to give to the poor.  No wonder why Upstate cannot compete for jobs!

Removing Thruway tolls,  letting Upstate keep most of its hydropower energy, and having the State pick up its entire cost of Medicaid, would help Upstate become competitive again without the need for expensive specially targeted programs (Utica Nano, Buffalo Billion, etc.) that may or may not work and simply shift some monies from Downstate to particular Upstate localities.  You might think of other things to add to this agenda.

But these things won't happen because the people in control, Downstaters, come from a very different place economically. They don't readily comprehend how their well-intentioned policies have hurt Upstate, which is not just a supplier of natural resources and power generation for the City, and not just a repository for the City's garbage, but a place where people live, work, and raise families. 

Having an Assembly speaker from Upstate won't solve the problem, but it may, in a small way, help the Upstate perspective to be seen.

The Assembly should choose someone from Upstate to be its new speaker.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Pattern of Duplicitousness . . .

Last year some of Rep. Hanna's duplicitous behavior was documented here.

Now,  the Vass Political Blog documents a pattern of duplicity.

For a clear picture of our representation in congress: Stop listening to what Mr. Hanna says, but instead, look at what he does.

No wonder why he did not want to debate his opponent in the last election cycle.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Buffalo Billion, the Utica Connection -- and NYS Secrecy . . .

As noted in an October post, the state is in the process of spending $750 million (of Our Money) to construct and equip a solar panel manufacturing facility in Buffalo for Solar City, a California company. The project furthers Governor Cuomo's plan to spend a $Billion (a/k/a "the Buffalo Billion)  to revive the economy of Western New York.

Jim Heaney, veteran investigative reporter and founder of the Investigative Post, intended to document how that large sum of money was being spent. Instead, he wound up writing an article entitled "Suppression of Buffalo Billion spending records," documenting the run-around he got from officials responsible for the project when he attempted to get information.

In addition to Alain Kaloyeros, new president of SUNY Poly, Utica readers may recognize the names Alicia Dicks and, perhaps, Fort Schuyler Management Corp. in Mr. Heaney's article.  Ms. Dicks is a local resident, director at Mohawk Valley EDGE, co-owner of Aqua Vino Restaurant, and was President of Fort Schuyler Management Corp. when, at about the time Mr. Heaney was researching his article, she was named CEO of the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties, Inc.  (FSMC is now looking for a new president).  Fort Schuyler Management Corporation was a Non-Profit created by the Albany NanoCollege (now SUNY Poly) for its economic development operations in Utica. The undeveloped western portion of SUNY Poly's Utica/Rome campus, which comprises 300 acres, has been ground leased to the Fort Schuyler Management Corporation, which in turn, has subleased this property to Mohawk Valley EDGE for the development of the Marcy NanoCenter.

Fort Schuyler Management Corp., at some point, became a vehicle for fostering the governor's development agenda not only in the Utica area but elsewhere, including Buffalo -- which led to it becoming a focus in Mr. Heaney's article.  According to Mr. Heaney . . .
The Fort Schuyler Management Corp. contends it doesn’t have to abide by the Freedom of Information Law, a point disputed by the state’s open government director.
After describing contacts with other players in the governor's agenda (who are also involved in Utica area projects) Mr. Heaney noted:
I have never, in my nearly four decades as a reporter, encountered such heavy handed tactics to thwart the release of information.

FOI requests have not been honored.

Interview requests have gone unanswered.

Information casting the developer selection process in a favorable light was provided to another news outlet in an apparent attempt to head off the story you are reading now.

And Kaloyeros, who has not hidden his displeasure over my pursuit of documents, sent me an email last month in which he declared he does not “respond to perceived threats and terrorism.”
How does this matter?

Mr. Heaney's article suggests that the developer selection process could have been skewed to favor a large donor to Mr. Cuomo's campaign.  Another article by Mr. Heaney reveals that
The company that New York taxpayers are investing so heavily in has not been able to produce a profit for its shareholders.
The lack of transparency on the part of the State with the facts noted in Mr. Heaney's articles can lead to conclusions that (1) the economic development schemes are designed to funnel money to the politically connected and/or (2) the governor is recklessly gambling with our money hoping to hit a jackpot.

Perhaps these conclusions are erroneous, but government stonewalling does not encourage taxpayers to accept government conclusions on faith.

How does this matter locally?

The Utica area has had a long history of state officials making hyped-up promises that fell way short of expectations: The Center for Brownfield Studies, Griffiss Institute, and Homeland Security Training Center come immediately to mind.

The biggest promises have been Marcy NanoCenter and Nano Utica. Local funds (such as increased sewer rates) have been ponied up in support of these projects.

Marcy NanoCenter has been a project for perhaps a dozen years and, other than the jobs at EDGE itself to promote it, jobs have yet to be created.  Telling is its total absence from the Fort Schuyler Management Corp.'s website (as of posting today) even though FSMC is supposedly involved. The site, rather, has small pieces on Quad-C and a Syracuse project, but is dominated by Buffalo Billion information -- likely recently posted in response to Mr. Heaney's article. (Listen to his interview by Fred Dicker at about 36:00) .  Does the lack of information on Marcy NanoCenter suggest that it is not an important project for FSMC?

Although a gleaming, costly, building has been constructed (at taxpayer expense) for Nano Utica next to the SUNY Poly library, people were supposed to be working there last month. Where are they? The lack of activity has the folks on Utica Topix speculating in several threads that Quad-C is not going to be a manufacturing facility with 1500 jobs, but, rather, nothing more than an expensive academic building. The contradictory statements last summer regarding which companies were participating in Quad-C certainly bolstered the negative outlook.

TODAY in the OD we read: Major Quad-C expansion on the horizon. Now the cost of the building will rise from 125 to between 250 and 300 million dollars, and the potential workers will increase from 1500 to 2250. . . . with completion postponed until summer.  But this announcement comes after the building should have been completed and people should have been working.  The descriptive language also seems to have changed from emphasizing manufacturing to research. The lack of specificity in who will be participating is telling.

This is starting to sound too familiar -- like Griffiss Institute's "world class research facility" turning into little more than field trips and summer jobs for middle and high school students and some seminars.

Only time will tell whether Greater Utica will have its hoped-for economic transformation --  or whether highly-paid Economic Development Music Men  hucksters have taken advantage of our naivety - - - again.  Let us hope it is the former.

Seventy-Six Trombones, anyone?


Monday, January 12, 2015

A Cold Dose of Reality for Utica-Rome ...

The Guest Editorial by Dr. Anthony Vennero in the Utica OD over the weekend, "Nanotech center might not be our economic panacea," should be a cold and bracing dose of reality to all of our regional leaders, both elected and non-elected.

In a nutshell, Dr. Vennero cites numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to show that even if the rosy projections of job growth from nano are met, they will not even bring the region back to the number of jobs held in 2009! Worse, Dr. Vennero describes the formidable competition our region has in the nanotech field, suggesting that the promise of virtually guaranteed (taxpayer-subsidized) jobs may be empty. Additionally, Dr. Vennero cites demographic information to show that our population downtrend, with negative economic consequences, will continue.

None of this is new to long-time readers of this blog as similar things have been said here for many years. What is new is that we now read about this in the local media.

Perhaps this is because the regional elite know that the situation has become so dire that it can no longer be hidden, and they wish to prepare us for the worst.

Now . . . What should be done with this information? 

Friday, January 02, 2015

Teacher Evaluation: Who's the Boss?

The Washington Post had a New York-focused article yesterday, Teacher evaluation: going from bad to worse?  Per the article, we are reminded of how Gov. Cuomo, using the threat of withholding state aid, bludgeoned local school districts into implementing a teacher evaluation system based 20% upon student standardized test scores. Now we are informed that the Chancellor of the Board of Regents, Dr. Merryl Tisch, not only wants to double the portion of a teacher's evaluation that is based upon student standardized test scores to 40%, but also wants to eliminate the locally selected measures of performance.  Essentially, per the article, the purpose is to increase the number of teachers rated as INeffective from 1% to 10%, to reach the goal stated in the state's "Race to the Top" application to the Federal government for a huge grant -- with two "ineffective" ratings sending the teacher out the door.

Per a 12/29/14 New York Times article, Cuomo Vetoes Bill That Would Protect Teachers From Low Ratings -- a bill drafted by his own administration in response to pressure from teacher unions.  Likely this 180% change was payback for the union's failure to endorse Cuomo during the last election, but Gov. Cuomo is now echoing Dr. Tisch that the 1% ineffective figure is "not real" and that the teacher evaluation system needs to be "more rigorous."

Lost in this struggle over teacher evaluations between Unions, the Governor, the Board of Regents, and even the Federal Government, is the fact that the Local School Boards are charged with the hiring and firing of teachers.  Thus, the rules for teacher evaluations are a power grab from the Local School Boards, removing their discretion and effectively turning them from supposed policy-makers into unpaid employees of the State (or maybe even the Federal) government.   So Who's (really) the Boss?

While the debate over how to calculate the effectiveness of teachers continues, new rules, directed by the Federal Education Department, are being crafted to define how the Teachers, themselves, are to be educated.  These are summarized by Susan Schneider on her blog, along with a link to how you can comment on them.  Essentially, the rules will reduce the range of types of persons who will become teachers -- further limiting the meaningful choices of Local School Boards.

What will be the end result of these rules for teacher evaluation, teacher preparation, and, likely, Common Core itself ?

Since psychiatry heavily informs schools of education and the education elite, recent changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders should be instructive: Nonconformity and Freethinking Now Considered Mental Illnesses.

Is this the ultimate object here? An enforced conformity?

Who should be the Boss?