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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Not Time To Cheer Yet

Last night the Lewis County Board of Legislators demanded further cuts from their beleagured Department heads. This is in an attempt to reduce the tax increase to zero and thwart criticism of their hoarding of 14.6 million dollars (this the correct figure- not the watered down 11 million dollar figure often repeated) of taxpayer's money in the fund balance.
While certainly hard pressed taxpayers will rightfully cheer a halt to property tax increases, we should look at what happened last night before we stand up and applaud.
Steep cuts in department spending were already made before last night. Some of the cuts that have been asked for may involve programs that produce revenue, meaning that cutting them produces no net savings.
A massive cut of nearly 25% was demanded of the Election Board. While I doubt this is possible, if it does occur it will be an illusion. Why? Many of Election's services are mandated, and whether the County budgets for them or not, they still must be performed. The bills will still come in and will still need to be paid for. From where? The contingency fund. Taxpayers savings? Zero. Meanwhile due to these "cuts", the Fund Balance, our taxpayer money, the Legislators slush fund, has grown still larger.
While cuts to reduce taxes can be a good thing, this Board of Legislators is at the point of hurting services to our the very same time it is hoarding our money.
It appears that too many on the Board of Legislators are too willing to be led by people that have either a grave misunderstanding of who that Fund Balance belongs to, or that have an agenda that causes them to wish to hoard taxpayer's dollars.
Maybe they want to spend more money on consultants to do still yet another Comprehensive Plan, or fund another special interest motel study, or sue the DEC or hire a high priced Syracuse law firm to defend an illegal law from a lawsuit brought by a self represented citizen.
Maybe, they just don't know what the heck they are doing.
Whatever their issues are, the taxpayer issue must remain focused. Lewis County can afford to apply a significant amount of Fund Balance to the budget and reduce our taxes.
It's our money...and we want it in our pockets.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hey Lewis Legislators... That's our money!!!

The Lewis County Board of Legislators seems intent on passing a budget that includes a property tax hike when people can least afford it. Never mind that the property tax is the most regressive and unfair tax of all. What is most galling is that the Legislators are crowing about not taking as much money out of the Fund Balance as last year. If they would, taxpayers would see a much needed tax decrease.
Why should more money be applied to the budget from the Fund Balance to reduce taxes? Because it's our money and they've (the County) have got lots of it. The County has 11.8 million dollars in its Fund Balance and Lewis County General Hospital has another 2.8 million dollars for a total of a 14.6 million dollar Fund Balance. The hospital's Fund Balance is the County's, just as when the hospital lost money, the loss was made up out of the County's Fund Balance. Further, the hospital has several million dollars in investments from previous positive Fund Balances.
At a minimum, the County should apply the same amount of dollars to this budget as they did last year. The County's Fund Balance has grown substantially since last year and County government can not plead poverty to its hard pressed taxpayers.
Lewis County Legislative Board Chairman Jack Bush has been hiding behind County ownership of the hospital as a reason for maintaining a bloated Fund Balance. That dog doesn't hunt. Bush points to the 1990's when the hospital was losing money as his example. Let's look at the facts.
In the mid-1990's while the County carried an approximate 30 million dollar budget, the hospital
was losing money and the County's Fund Balance was approximately 4.5 million dollars. Now the County budget is at about 42 million dollars, the hospital has made money for the last ten years and the County's Fund balance is at 14.6 million dollars.
Put another way, during a time while the County's budget has increased about 50% and during a time while the hospital has been making money, the County's Fund Balance has tripled. That's our money their hoarding, folks.
As an aside, it is germain to point out that Chairman Bush was a strong supporter of the hospital mangement that managed to lose all that money in the 90's.
I've heard it said that the Board of Legislators is saving that Fund Balance for a rainy day. It's not their money to hang onto. It belongs to us, the taxpayers, that have enough rainy days of our own to contend with. Spend down the Fund Balance . Reduce property taxes.
Let us spend our money on our own rainy days.
Besides, this group has proven itself too self serving to be allowed its own public slush fund. What's next? Buying a railroad track for ATVs?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Is This Darrel's Time?

Times are tough on New York's dairy farms. Dairy farmers are going through another price crisis the type of which has been reappearing every few years since the massive farm crisis of the 1980's. The truth be told, dairy farmers have been living on the edge price wise since the Reagan Administration led the charge to remove the price of farm milk from the Parity Formula leading to where we are today, the price basically dependent on the vagaries of the price of cheese at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange with no relationship to the actual cost of production.
Now along comes a proposed state law that would require that farm workers receive time off every week, over time pay, and the right to collective bargaining. Given what I just stated that would be a bad idea, right? Wrong. It's way overdue to happen.
The cost of financial success for dairy farmers can't be put on the backs of those that work for them. The fact that the price of milk is far below the cost of production is not the fault of farm labor. In the mid 1980's I began what was to be a second unpaid career working to change farm policy so that dairy farmers were treated more fairly in the market place. I, and many others took our concerns to Albany and Washington D.C., lobbying and agitating for change. We worked hard for a system similar to that enjoyed by Canadian dairy farmers, a supply management system coupled with a price based on a cost of production formula. Canadian dairy farmers are doing well, by the way. All too often though, we were met with opposition from within our own ranks by farmers or farm organizations that caused enough division that caused us not to succeed and has prolonged the boom and bust, mostly bust, system that we have today. Among the farm organizations that opposed our efforts were some of the large cooperatives and the Farm Bureau, the same Farm Bureau that is opposing improving conditions for farm workers as being too costly to farmers.Those that opposed us often did so for ideological reasons often calling supply management socialism (sound familiar?) or sadly too often, outright greed thinking that if their neighbor went out of business they could expand their farms and they would be better off. This expansion concept has led to the growth of many large farms, farms often referred to as corporate farms that depend on cheap labor to survive as prices are too low for them also. These large farms are often pointed to as being "more efficient" than the more traditional family farm when in reality they are getting by on cheap labor.
What I'm saying is farmers have met the enemy, and he is us. We have failed to organize to the extent necessary to improve our prices. This is not the fault or responsibility of those that now work on these corporate farms.
By exploiting cheap labor, large farms have competed unfairly against true family run farms, putting more product in the market, lowering prices and putting farms out of business.
At the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, Senator Darrel Aubertine made the point that the purported cost of the bill would amount to about 11 cents per hundred pounds of milk and stated that that was more than many farmers would make this year. He's right. This is a disastrous year for dairy farmers, but again, this is not the fault or the responsibilty of the farm workers. The large farm operators made the decisions to operate like big industry and proclaim their superiority to family agriculture. If they want to be industry, they should play on the same field as industry when it comes to labor.
It must be pointed out that the right to collective bargaining would apply to farm workers on operations with sales over $650,000.00 per year which would rightly exempt many smaller dairy farms but would likewise rightly apply to the larger industrialized operations. The new changes are hardly luxurious,- one day off a week, overtime after 60 hours and the right to collective bargaining. How, in the 21st century, can this be controversial?
There are other reasons this bill should be supported. Most importantly, morally, farm workers should not be treated as a separate class of citizen nearly on a par with slave labor so that someone's bottom line is improved or someone else's wine and cheese party costs a little less. This is truly a moral issue in the realm of women's suffrage and the civil right's movement.
Farmer's need to address their price problem as a price problem- not a labor problem. It is decades past due for farmers to organize and demand new farm policy that gives them prices that allows them a fair return on investment, including the ability to pay competitive wages. I've long held that farmers should be working with labor rather than acting as antagonists. The corporate agriculture mentality won't allow for this as would smaller family agriculture, so in that case I side with the workers.
I know Darrel Aubertine and know he is a good man with a good heart. His type of farming was that of a family farm such as mine. Without putting words in his mouth I'm pretty sure his choice of farm policy would look a lot like mine. But right now Darrel is under pressure in an election year in what is seen as a swing Senate seat. In my opinion I bet he's darned uncomfortable supporting the Farm Bureau position. I'm pretty sure he's trying to figure out how to do what is right and still get re-elected. I hope it works but let me suggest to just do what's right and make your case. In my opinion what is right is passing the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act allowing farm workers to take a few steps away from the exploited position they've been in.
Will Rogers once said " Every politician should do one thing in their life just because it is right." Is this Darrel's time?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Queen Has a King...or Pick Your Pork

Last week I coronated the St. Lawrence County Clerk the"Soap Box Queen". Patty Ritchie, in an apparent attempt to make herself a household name, or at least a Facebook name, has taken on the license plate fee and snowmobile registration fund issues, without offering ideas or solutions as to how she would either cut programs or raise fees and taxes to close New York State's Budget deficit.

Enter State Senator Joe Griffo of the 47th Senate District. He has taken to finding fault with everything Governor Paterson has proposed and has picked up the same cudgle as Ms. Ritchie, the proposed one million dollar sweep of snowmobile trail funds to help reduce the state's budget deficit. Along with the snowmobile clubs and Patty Ritchie, Mr. Griffo has been using the argument that "This money belongs to the snowmobilers. It comes from registration fees and belongs to them and shouldn't be used to balance the budget." That's not a direct quote but a close summary of the argument. I don't buy the argument, because snowmobile registration money is no more sacrosanct than my automobile registration money, but for the fun of it let's give Joe Griffo the chance to be consistent.

State representatives have access to funds to be doled out to pet projects in their district called member items. This is pure pork barrel spending and vote buying with taxpayer dollars. Nearly all, if not all state legislators engage in this practice, the attitude being "it's the name of the game". It does appear that some engage in their pork habit with more gusto than others. The Soap Box King appears to truly have enjoyed his pork while he was in the majority.

Now, back to the snowmobile/soapbox issue. Does Senator Griffo wish to be consistent? Is he really concerned about the state's budget mess? Or... is the snowmobile registration fund issue just a chance to jump on the soapbox and sing for a special interest?

Mr.Griffo has provided $50,000.00 of pork barrel, member item money, taxpayer money,to the Lewis County Area Snowmobile Association during a recent budget year according to the website That $50,000.00 was clearly taxpayer money. It can not be argued that the money belongs to the snowmobilers as with the trail fund. Step down from the soapbox Joe and lose your partisan stripes. You can't complain about the Governor's cuts on the one hand by saying the money isn't taxpayer money and then on the other hand give away taxpayer money as a pork barrel member item all the while complaining about the state's financial mess.

New York is in fiscal crisis (like nearly every other state in the union) because of a severe recession brought about by greedy investment bankers. New York was especially hard hit with Wall Street being "ground zero" for the crisis. New York State was hit hard by the loss of revenues generated by Wall Street. As for any structural budgetary problems, both parties have dirty hands. Joe Griffo has contibuted his share of excess spending through pork barrel member items when times looked rosier.

Right now we have a crisis and politicians can stand on principles and behave like statesmen or they can try to turn every issue into a chance to score points and act like Soap Box Royalty.

Don't grandstand against what the Governor's doing or criticise him for the budget deficit while you've handed out taxpayer money to the same group he just proposed to cut.

This is an election year and I fear based on the evidence thus far the Soap Box Queen and King will continue to make partisan, emotion based appeals without offering alternatives, or in the case of Mr. Griffo, offering hypocrisy.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Soap Box Queen

Nobody disputes that New York State is facing a fiscal crisis. It's also understandable that not everyone will agree on how to address the crisis we face. Disagreement isn't, by itself, a bad thing. Open debate, frank discussion and a forthright exchange of ideas can create the well informed electorate our forefathers spoke of when fostering our fledgling democracy. Hopefully this exchange of fact based ideas will allow voters, ultimately, to elect leaders that will put forth policies that will prevent or repair the type of problems we face today.
Unfortunately, it has become far too prevalent in today's political atmosphere to pretend that facts are the same as opinions and that we are all welcome to our own-in either case. Also, rather than putting forth reasoned discourse or alternative policies, it has become far too easy for political wannabees to jump on the most accessible soap box and throw mud balls at a plan or policy, even one of relative little consequence, as a means of boosting popularity without offering any alternative plans or ideas.
We have a soap box queen here in the north country, St. Lawrence County's County Clerk, Patricia Ritchie. It has been gabbed about in political circles for some time now that Ms. Ritchie is considering taking on State Senator Darrel Aubertine for his seat this fall.
Her first blast into the soap-box-o-sphere came on the heels of an announced plan by New York State to charge an extra $25.00 per license plate as a means to attempt to close, in part, the state's budget deficit. Now, nobody likes paying higher fees or higher taxes, but realistically, it is going to be a combination of increased revenues and cuts in spending that is going to get us out of this mess. Judging from the brou-haha, I was apparently one of the few people that thought raising revenue from license plate fees was a good idea. My reasoning- a lot of people buy license plates, the cost is widely spread and thus it is a relatively fair way to raise revenue.
Enter Ms. Ritchie who takes the not so courageous position that she is opposed to people paying more for license plates. Wow! The thought! The courage! The alternatives! Alternatives? Strike three!
No alternatives... just the Soap Box Queen. How else would Ms. Ritchie rescue the state from fiscal demise? There has been no comprehensive plan put forth by the County Clerk leaving me to wonder if she has asked the most basic of questions. For example, if the state loses the revenue from raising the price of license plates, what is offset in other areas? How many elderly residents will have their EPIC presription benefits cut or teachers lose their jobs or how high will the most unfair tax of all go, the property tax, to make up for cuts in state aid? There are more questions but you get the picture- on Ms. Ritchie's part that doesn't seem important, at least not as important as the soap box.
Now we have another hot button issue that Pattie Ritchie can jump on and try to ride to the state Senate. Governor Paterson has proposed that the state take one million dollars per year from the state's snowmobile fund to put towards deficit reduction. This is one million out of more than five million in the fund. Ms. Ritchie finds this offensive. Really, she finds this to be another opportunity to get on her soapbox (in this case a snowmobile) without offering alternatives. How much safer can you get? First you appeal to a minority (the snowmobilers) that will rabidly oppose the Governor's plan while the majority is mostly uninformed of the facts of the situation. You become the poster girl to this minority, making an issue of a relatively minor amount of money, while other areas including education, the environment and healthcare suffer cuts amounting to tens of millions of dollars. Again, a question goes unanswered. Who will make up the snowmobiler's share of cuts if Ms. Ritchie has her way?
Again, no matter. Ms. Ritchie has become the soap box queen attempting to elevate her status as a political commodity while denigrating the value of the real hard issues that New York State faces.
Hopefully, the County Clerk from St. Lawrence County has greatly under estimated the ability of north country voters to see through the gimmicks that have made her the Soap Box Queen.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

In His Own Words

So was Lewis County's ATV trail permit system a success this year?
CountyLegislator Rick Lucas was quoted in a March 15, 2009 article by Steve Virkler in the Watertown Daily Times referring to trail permits as saying "This year, if we could get 4000 or 5000, it would be a success."
This year, Lewis County sold only 2016 trail permits, making it a resounding failure according to Mr. Lucas' own standards. According to this morning's Watertown Daily Times (2/4/10) Lewis County is going to consider reducing the permit fee by half to buyers of multiple permits. So what's up? This will reduce revenue greatly, as it would require a major increase in sales to offset the fee reduction. I believe trail officials are concerned that they may not match last years sales, hence the reduction. Already there's grumbling in some quarters about paying for a "trail system" that consists of County Reforestation Land connected by public highways, with by far most of the riding on public highways for which a fee can not be charged. Also, there are a number of people that are surprised that they will be required to buy a permit again this year and there is resistance to that.
There are other more pernicious problems in my opinion with charging for a trail permit.
Part of the trail system includes some off road areas on private land that is included in the permit fee. I have held from the start that the County can not charge a fee to ride on property it does not own. Also, the County had announced that it would give a free trail permit to landowners that allow ATV trails on their property. It is my position that this free trail permit constitutes a form of payment for use of the property and puts the landowner in the position of losing New York State General Obligations Law protection and makes them open to liabilty problems.
Most importantly in my opinion, the permit system has put all Lewis County taxpayers in jeopardy. By charging for the trail system, Lewis County has lost its protection under the General Obligations Law and taxpayers could be left holding the bag in a serious lawsuit.
County Legislators will be asked at the next meeting to consider reducing trail permit fees. The best thing they could do for the county as a whole would be to scrap the trail fee system entirely and remove the risk from the backs of the taxpayers. We all know who this is benefiting and its not the taxpayers.
The current plan was a miserable failure, but don't take my word for it. Ask Rick Lucas, in his own words......

Saturday, January 30, 2010

O'Brien-Dailey vs. Lyonsdale- Lewis County's Trail System Exposed

Lyonsdale Town Councilperson Nancy O'Brien-Dailey felt strongly that her town was acting outside their authority when they voted to open more than ten miles of town roads that allegedly connected to Lewis County Reforestation Land.
The Town of Lyonsdale was encouraged to open these roads to ATV traffic by Lewis County and ATV clubs, ostensibly so that ATV riders could get from one trail to another via town roads.
Lewis County has embarked on creating a countywide ATV trail system that involves connecting some Lewis County Reforestation Land to short sections of private trails to other areas of Reforestation Land all connected with long segments of public roads.
Critics, including this blogger, have long contended that what Lewis County has been doing with cooperation from some of the towns, violates Vehicle and Traffic Law. Short segments of roads can be opened so that ATVs can gain access to "areas or trails" that are "adjacent" to the road where it is "otherwise impossible" for ATVs to do so. Municipalities must prove that both trails are "adjacent" and that it is "otherwise impossible" to gain access before roads may be opened to ATV traffic. Instead, Lewis County has been opening disparate parcels of land and short segments of driveway like private trails as an attempt to justify opening mile after mile of public highway.
Ms. O'Brien-Dailey testified at her Board's public hearing against opening the roads, pointing out the legal problems associated with the action and the accompanying increased liabilty vulnerability the Town of Lyonsdale would be facing. It was all to no avail as the majority on the Board charged ahead, in a rush apparently to please the county fathers and a handful of ATV club officianados- the law and taxpayers be damned. Ms. O'Brien-Dailey pointed out that the town board violated both New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law and State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) requirements and sued the Town of Lyonsdale in New York State Supreme Court in Lowville, N.Y. Supreme Court Judge Joseph McGuire agreed.
In a ruling filed on January 20, 2010 Judge McGuire ruled that the Town of Lyonsdale violated New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law as well as SEQRA requirements.
In her lawsuit Nancy O'Brien-Dailey pointed out that Lewis County wants to make public highways part of the countywide trail system. Judge McGuire agreed saying "At the outset, the County's descriptionof the ATV trail system being evaluated by its GEIS process indicates that it does incude town roadways as part of that trail system."
This ruling should have important ramifications beyond the Town of Lyonsdale and even beyond Lewis County. It should be apparent by now that other towns in Lewis County, as well as the County itself, have far exceeded their authority in allowing ATV traffic on their roads. Even attempting to disguise the road openings as a way to connect to parcels of land has been exposed as the attempt to distort Vehicle and Traffic Law that it is.
Additionally, Jefferson and St Lawrence Counties have undertaken similar laws at the town and county levels and should take note.
The premise of the so called trail system by using public highways as connectors approach here in the north country, when in reality there is more highway than trail involved, is built on violating New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law.
Municpalities should follow the law. There are consequences, sometimes extremely costly consequences when they don't follow the law.
Hopefully, more thoughtful consideration to this issue will be given than what we have seen so far. The costs of doing things wrong far exceed the paltry sales tax generated at an ATV patronized gin mill and the effects felt far more widespread.
Nancy O'Brien-Dailey deserves our gratitude. Her actions may ultimately save the taxpayers of Lyonsdale and others areas a lot of money... but in the meantime isn't it a good idea that local government should operate legally?
Beyond the legalities, O'Brien-Dailey vs. the Town of Lyonsdale exposes the attempts at establishing so called ATV trail systems in the north country for what they are- connecting disparate riding areas or short private trails by using many miles of our public highways- in other words...they are a ruse.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Shell Game Continues...the County Manager's raise is where and how much?

The shell game involved in giving Lewis County Manager David Pendergast a raise continues. Last night the Lewis County Board of Legislators voted to rescind the $10,000.00 raise they gave him two weeks ago and voted to give what amounts to a $6,500.00 raise instead.
At first glance it would be easy to say good, at least it isn't as much as when we started, but when we look at how this raise is being established and the reasoning (or lack thereof) behind it, the whole process appears arbitrary and certainly unsubstantiated.
Two weeks ago we were told that the County Manager deserved the raise because of extra duties associated with the IT department and the new Public Transportation Department. The entire $10,000.00 raise was put on the Budget Officer position, even though the Budget Officer work is considered part of the County Manager's duties. Further, both the IT Department and the Public Transportation Department have people that head up those departments.
Now, two weeks later, the County Manager no longer needs $10,000.00, he needs $6,500.00.
Now, two weeks later, the Public Transportation Department is no longer part of the equation.
Now, two weeks later, the County Manager's position is being raised $3,750.00.
Now, two weeks later, the County Manager is getting $2,750.00 more for heading up the IT Department when there is already a person that heads up that department.
Just like two weeks ago, the current $6,500.00 raise is unbudgeted.
Just like two weeks ago, Department Heads are being asked to go without raises this year.
Just like two weeks ago, union employees are being asked to work five hours per week more for the same pay... and just like two weeks ago the rest of us are still facing tough economic pressures.
This whole thing wreaks of either slight of hand or a poorly thought out plan. The slight of hand
is obvious. Don't put it in the budget, wait until the last meeting of the year and hope nobody notices. Oops! Somebody noticed! Now, lower the numbers somewhat, juggle the titles, create a little confusion and hope everybody thinks they've won when we're still getting stiffed for $6,500.00.
When it comes to poorly thought out plans, this board takes the cake. Remember the big 52 job cut budget panic that they reversed themselves on? How about the Mental Health and Alcohol Clinic privatization plans that didn't work out, and of course the planned closing of the Transfer Station in Croghan under false pretenses? These are just the badly thought out plans we've been fortunate enough to have had changed. Other bad plans still exist like our permit based ATV system that has county taxpayers, when it comes to liability, exposed like a colonoscopy patient.
A raise? Folks when we look at the performance of this Board, and the County Manager is their point man, from a citizen's perspective a raise shouldn't even be on the table.
We have a shell game on the table, the hands are moving faster and the taxpayers better be paying close attention.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

To Veep or Not To Veep...or run for Assembly?

The votes were barely counted election night and Lewis County Legislator Rick Lucas was making it known that he was seriously considering running for the assembly seat now held by Dede Scozzafava. He even let it be known he'd consider running against Dede in a primary. I suggested in a previous post that perhaps Mr. Rick was a bit full of himself, but after tonight's Lewis County Board of Legislator's meeting perhaps the hubris involved in his ambition will be more evident.
You see, the man that would challenge Dede, the man that would be New York State Assemblyman, could not muster enough votes from his colleagues to regain his position as Vice Chairman of the Lewis County Board of Legislators. After brother-in-law Jack Bush was once again made Chairman of the Board, a resolution was put forth to make Mr. Lucas Vice Chairman.
With six positive votes required to pass any resolution, Mr. Lucas' attempt to once again become Vice Chairman was defeated by a vote of 5-4. With five votes in the affirmative he was one vote shy of regaining the Vice Chairmanship. Legislator Pat Wallace was absent from tonight's meeting and how he would have voted is uncertain.
Later in the meeting, newly sworn in Legislator Paul Stanford, put forward a resolution to make Legislator Jerry King from West Leyden the Vice Chairman. This resolution was defeated 4-5 with King receiving four positive votes.
Perhaps this should be considered a wake up call to Mr. Lucas. It's time to leave the political dream world.