Remember - blog posts migrate downward, so the most recent post is at the top; the oldest at the bottom.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Morning for Solar

In a post this January called “Sunrise for Solar?” I described a Solid Waste/Environmental Concerns (SWEC) committee meeting at which we discussed a proposal to build a 2MW solar array on empty County land and buy the power from the private consortium of local investors who would pay for the array to be built. Shortly after that, I attended a NY Association of Counties conference in Albany, where I sat in on a workshop featuring a company called Solar City, which made the same proposal, except that they, Solar City, would own the array.

I brought this company to the attention of SWEC Chair Linda Rowinski, and she made contact with Solar City. At today's SWEC meeting, they made their second presentation. At this point, the array could be 3MW (80% of the County's needs) and it could be sited on a tapped out gravel pit (apparently called a 'boneyard') on County Rt. 11, between West Oneonta and Laurens. As in the January presentation, Solar City would build, own and maintain the array, and sell the power to the County at a rate guaranteed for 20 years – a rate which starts out lower than current costs.

It turns out that there is an annual round of NYS funding that Solar City, and the competing company I wrote about in January, are involved in, and they needed to have our approval to proceed in our behalf. SWEC gave that approval to both companies; the plan is to go with the plan that earns approval. If both are approved, we can choose between them. Good news! And more to come.

Two interesting points. When balancing the options, the Committee did not (at least out loud) consider the value of solar vs. hydrocarbons as a source of electric power. I think that would be worth a cent or two – probably more – per kilowatt hour, if it came down to that. But I'm not a Committee member, just an interested Representative, so I didn't have a say.

Second, there was some mention of the fact that the old boneyard was screened from view by an encircling berm (which is, apparently, true of all working gravel pits); this was seen as an advantage, because it would be hidden from view. I would prefer the array be in plain sight. We need to see the future, because the future – renewable power from clean, nearly eternal sources – is beautiful.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

What's the Big Idea?

I attended another economic development symposium today, this one at Foothills; part of it focused on the regional economic development zones (we're in the Mohawk Valley) and the CFAs (Consolidated Funding Applications). As I've noted recently, Otsego County is one of six counties in the region. Otsego County has had very limited success in the CFA process in the last three years, when hundreds of millions of dollars has been available for the right program applications.
When I got home from the forum, I wrote this note to Al Colone, one of the organizers:
You ended today's meeting with the suggestion that this may be an opportunity to start or continue a conversation. So – here are my thoughts –

I was struck by a couple of points made today. First, the importance of connecting projects to a vision. Second, the fact that our county has not done too well in the CFA funding cycles. I think these two things are related.

In my career, both professional and volunteer, I was engaged in creating and promoting vision as the fundamental element of any substantial change or growth. I found tremendous resistance to that, in all areas. People roll their eyes when vision is the topic; like the first President Bush, we have some really fundamental problems with 'the vision thing.'

It doesn't matter whether I think it's extremely important; what's vital is that those who assess our funding applications think it's important. So far, I haven't seen a lot of interest or activity in this area, and I think that's what we're missing.

The idea of a comprehensive application for an Edmeston economic development project – located between NYCM and Chobani – is brilliant. But when the small business owner in Edmeston asked, essentially, what might be next, the speaker offered a phone number. I'm anything but an expert in this area, but it seems to me that this isn't the way to do it. The way to do it is for the business owner get together with some folks in Edmeston – other business owners, residents; find the informal community leaders, and talk about this comprehensive plan for Edmeston. How could we best leverage these opportunities that have fallen in our lap? Meet with the school administration; sounds like they'd be in on this in a heartbeat. Invite community relations people from NYCM and Chobani, and don't forget Pathfinder Village. Ask the Town Board to meet with the group to brainstorm and problem-solve; make sure your County Rep is there, too. Think and plan bigger than you believe. Develop a plan for the whole town, a plan that would leverage all those people's needs into a thriving economy. Talk to planners, contractors, traffic professionals, farmers, etc., etc. And then, after all this (and probably a few steps I haven't thought of), create a CFA that naturally flows out of this planning and collaboration. This, I think, is what the regional boards are looking for.

We're not doing this here in Otsego County, and I think that may be why we're not being wildly successful. Projects appear like popcorn, unrelated to other projects, and unrelated to any comprehensive vision for the area, and so they are not successful. And as we've seen, even funded projects fail. If that Edmeston business owner worked on generating that comprehensive plan with all the stake-holders, she might find herself in an entirely different business, more aligned with the vision for the Edmeston development, and therefore more likely to succeed.

Mayor Miller used the term “big idea” a lot today, and I got the impression from the conversation that we're missing out on the big money because we aren't developing any big ideas – or even one big idea.

A big idea would come from a comprehensive vision for our area, centered on Oneonta. Mayor Miller is the only one I've heard talking about this, with his map with the circles. I've been pretty impressed and encouraged by this approach. It's probably time to start working on making it happen.

What would be a 'big idea' for the Oneonta area? Here's an example: Go ahead and proactively buy the land in the trainyards, choose from among the many detailed plans developed for that land, and get the work done. Get it ready for warehouses, shipping or light manufacturing (or even heavy industry, given the zoning).

This would require a consortium of lots and lots of different facets of the Oneonta area business and government and commercial and educational and agricultural communities. Banks for financing; municipalities for water and sewer and transportation and traffic; real estate professionals for land transfers, etc.; landowners, contractors, zoning boards, assessors, etc. for housing; the IDA for all the things they do; SUNY for possible connections to StartUp NY; local farmers, agricultural experts, Cooperative Extension, etc., for agricultural products that need shipping or processing; DOT for a proprietary ramp to I-88; local businesses to assess the opportunities for them in this kind of commercial park (Latte Lounge or Brooks satellite operation there, or (my favorite) a walking trail to Golden Gurnsey?); environmental groups to make plans for the wetlands, as a park, or trails, or an educational opportunity; Job Corps for the same kind of help we're getting at the airport; the school district to plan for increase in population and changes in density, etc., etc., etc.

When these coalitions are established, and planning is moving forward, then send in a huge CFA with lots of parts, asking for enough money to pay for it all. Or send in a number of them, but all connected to the one big idea.

I'm not suggesting this particular idea. It may be a terrible idea from the start. I'm just making up an example of what a big idea might look like. It is centered on a vision that will change the face of the Oneonta area, and it will require cooperative planning and investment – and risk – by a wide variety of stake-holders.

This kind of thing takes leadership – someone to drive the vision and 'sell' it to everyone; to manage the collaborations, identify other emerging leaders, etc. The leader is responsible for keeping the whole, comprehensive vision in sight at all times, and reminding partners of how the pieces fit together. As I've noted, Mayor Miller has made a start on this. Sandy Mathes may seem like a candidate, but his job is a little different, and he'll be done with it eventually and will move on.

So – in summary, I suspect that our lack of success in the CFA process has to do with the scattershot approach we seem to be taking. We need some vision-driven big ideas, and leaders to guide them to fruition.

Anyway – thanks for setting up this meeting. Here's to the conversation!

Cheers -

Gary Koutnik

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The County Administrator Issue

I'm a data guy, mostly because arguments based solely on opinion or emotion quickly run out of logical steam. Objective data is going to be the same, no matter what you think of it. Analysis of objective data is my kind of a good time.

Those of us County Reps of the Democratic persuasion have been talking about the idea of some kind of administrator (usually referred to as a County Manager, or County Executive, or County Administrator) as a direction in which Otsego County should be going. There are arguments for and against, and I'll be writing more about these as the debate takes shape. This needs to be a long and careful process, one which I'm ready for, but it's too complex to address in a singe post. More to come.

However, this month the NY Association of Counties, an active and useful organization, produced its Directory, with thumbnail sketches of each of the 57 counties (58 if you count NYC). I took certain pieces of data – county population, county administrator, legislative type – and put it in a simple database. Interesting stuff.

Unsurprisingly, the most populous counties all had county administrators. You need to go down to the 36th most populous county – Columbia County – to find the first one without an administrator.

County Population Executive Legislators Legislature
Columbia 63,094
23 Board of Supervisors
Otsego 62,259
14 Board of Reps.
Washington 61,042 County Admin. 17 Board of Supervisors
Genesee 60,370 County Manager 9 County Legislature
Fulton 55,531
20 Board of Supervisors
Chenango 51,401
23 Board of Supervisors
Franklin 51,134 County Manager 7 County Legislature
Tioga 51,125
9 County Legislature
Montgomery 50,219 County Executive 9 Board of Legislators
Allageny 49,927 County Admin. 15 Board of Legislators
Cortland 49336 County Admin. 17 County Legislature
Greene 49,221 County Admin. 14 County Legislature
Delaware 47,980
19 Board of Supervisors
Wyoming 43,424
16 Board of Supervisors
Orleans 42,883 County Admin. 7 County Legislature
Essex 38,851 County Manager 18 Board of Supervisors
Seneca 35,251 County Manager 14 Board of Supervisors
Schoharie 31,582
15 Board of Supervisors
Lewis 27,087 County Manager 10 Legislative Board
Yates 24,621 County Admin. 14 County Legislature
Schuyler 19,343 County Admin. 9 County Legislature
Hamilton 4,836
9 Board of Supervisors

Otsego county, with about 800 fewer citizens, was #37. Of all the twenty counties with a smaller population than Otsego County, thirteen of them have administrators of some type. Of the 57 counties, then, only nine – including Otsego County – have no county administrator.

Of those nine, seven are run by a Board of Supervisors (a type of county government where the Town Supervisors are, collectively, the county legislature). Is there something about a Board of Supervisors that is antithetical to a county administrator in smaller counties? I don't know.
So that leaves Otsego County as the second largest county in New York State without a county administrator, and one of two (with Tioga County) with a separately elected county legislature, and no county administrator.

As I said, more to come. I think there's evidence in this data that we ought to think and talk about this idea a lot more than we have.

Another Summit

I've just returned from the Mohawk Valley Economic Development Summit in the delightful Arkell Museum, right on the Erie Canal in Canajoharie, NY.  New York State is divided into ten economic development regions, each of which submits a consolidated application for each annual round of state economic development grants. Otsego County is the southern outlier in the Mohawk Valley region, which also includes Oneida, Montgomery, Fulton, Schoharie and Herkimer Counties.

There was a lot to learn today, and I'd be glad to go into more detail with anyone who's interested. Just some random highlights:
  • The Mohawk River connects two of the hottest economic engines in the Northeast – the Marcy Nanocenter at SUNY-IT, just north of Utica, and the Global Foundries installation in Malta, NY, just north of Albany. These are monster installations that do, or will, manufacture a significant proportion of the digital brains that are running more and more of the stuff in our lives. The Malta plant has a 'clean room' the size of six football fields, and has an impact on tens of thousand of jobs in the region. Dozens of local high schools and colleges – especially community colleges – are adding new courses and programs specifically to train local folks for careers in these and related industries.
  • There's a lot of movement in the agriculture sector, in all of upstate New York, but this is not your grandfather's agriculture. The hungriest market in the country is only three hours south of us, and the demand for buzzword food groups – local foods, artesial foods, BGH-free, reasonably antibiotic-free, non-GMO foods, free-range (the list is very long) – increases every day. This shouldn't have surprised me, given all the vacant farmland in Otsego County, but it did: upstate farmers can produce many times what they produce now if they can only be assured of a market for it. So the challenge here is not producing the right kind of food, but creating and maintaining the sustainable economic connections needed to assure farmers reasonable market consistency. So: food hubs, food cooperatives (which should be a no-brainer for Oneonta), central processing operations, refrigeration and storage centers on the way to the great appetite, etc.
  • Each county had ten minutes at the beginning of today's meeting to 'introduce itself,' and the representatives of five of them, mostly CEOs of prominent businesses, did a great job of presenting a balanced and comprehensive view of the resources and challenges in all segments of their county's economy. Otsego County's representative, however, did not. Jeff Idelson, President Baseball Hall of Fame up in Cooperstown, spent about eight of his ten minutes selling the crowd on the Hall of Fame, as if there weren't anything else worth talking about in Otsego County. What a great opportunity wasted.
Probably about 100 people showed up this morning, the men and most of the women in suits, dressed for networking, and much of the day was self-congratulation and cheerleading. There's lots to be encouraged about, and lots of talk along the lines of “this is not the same old encouraging chatter we've heard for fifty years of decline; this is different,” but there are signs – local, national and international – that this benighted region may be in the way of some significant opportunities. More to come, surely.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

At the FERC Public Hearing

I just returned from the FERC hearing on the Constitution Pipeline, which was held right here in District 11, in the auditorium of the High School. It was a nice walk up and back; it wasn't so pleasant inside.

You probably know that I'm concerned about pipelines, and specifically this one, for a number of reasons. They're more dangerous than proponents want you to believe. They create new ecological niches and realities that we can't really predict, contrary to the assurances of the proponents. They create jobs, certainly, but out-of-area contract jobs, and when their distinctive boom-bust cycle is over, the infrastructure created to serve the workforce is abandoned, and all the associated jobs disappear. They carry, in this region, anyway, fracked natural gas, and can accommodate much more if fracking is approved in New York State. They lead us further and further down the hydrocarbon road, and further away from sustainable, renewable energy sources. And for some reason, this private sector project whose only goal is to create profit has access to the eminent domain process, where they can essentially steal land from private citizens, paying only pennies on the dollar.

As I walked through the parking lot, I noticed the out-of-state plates and the buses (and one tractor trailer with a union sign on it), suggesting that there was a lot of organized attention being paid here. Inside, the auditorium was full. Many signs were in evidence, and lots of guys (almost exclusively males) had orange shirts proclaiming their love for the pipeline.

OK. Lots of people with lots of thoughts and opinions. Emotions were high. This was democracy in action. Each side cheered for their speakers. The loudest response, while I was there, was to a woman who claimed that the anti-pipeline environmentalists were the 1%, the ultra-rich who want to turn the Catskills into a wealthy person's playground. Given that the money – lots of it – is flowing exactly in the opposite direction, the clamorous cheering for this point exposed some embarrassing ignorance. Still – OK. Thomas Jefferson said that this kind of thing would happen, and championed democracy anyway.

What led me to leave long before the end was the rudeness. The poor bureaucrats on stage had little control over the shouting back and forth, namecalling and unpleasant comments which peppered the evening. When I left, one of the speakers had whipped both sides into a deafening frenzy, and I hoped that the two OPD officers stationed on stage were able to restore order.

We can disagree, but if we can't be civil, we've given up civilization. And then what are we fighting for?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bedtime for MOSA

The post-MOSA picture is beginning to come into focus, which is a good thing, because MOSA will cease to exist as of May 1, 2014. Yesterday, the Solid Waste and Environmental Concerns (SWEC) Committee voted to recommend two contracts, one for post-closure maintenance of the MOSA landfills, and the other for the processing of trash in Otsego County at the two transfer stations, which Otsego County will own outright.

MOSA has responsibility for three closed landfills, and post-closure agreements with the three MOSA counties (Otsego, Montgomery, Schoharie) obligates each county to continue maintaining these landfills for many years. With the dissolution of MOSA, the individual counties still have the responsibility to maintain the landfills. A request for proposals (RFP) was written, and after examining the bids, SWEC chose to recommend the Montgomery County proposal.

When MOSA ends, the northern (Cooperstown) and southern (Oneonta) transfer stations will become the property (and responsibility) of Otsego County. Another RFP was prepared for the operation and maintenance (O&M) of the stations, and the transport and disposal (T&D) of the trash which passes through the stations. As the SWEC minutes indicate, Casella's bid for these processes was approved. I'm pretty sure that it didn't have anything to do with all the coffee and donuts the Casella representatives have brought to SWEC meetings over the years. As far as I could tell, they really did have by far the best proposal.

So, assuming the Administration Committee approves all this tomorrow, and sends it on to the full Board, which in turn gives its approval, starting May 1 Casella will begin operating the northern and southern transfer station and carting off the trash to one of its many landfills in the region. Otsego County will set and collect a per-ton 'tipping fee' for all trash delivered, and will pay Casella for the O&M and T&D. In the meantime, Montgomery County, using equipment formerly owned by MOSA, will maintain the three closed landfills, and will be paid a set fee for this by Schoharie County and Otsego County.

The trick will be setting the right tipping fee. It needs to be low enough to attract business (haulers in the eastern end of the county may go to the Schohairie station if our tipping fee is to high) but high enough for Otsego County to break even on this whole thing. SWEC recommended a tipping fee of $55/ton, so we'll see.

By the way, this all depends on the Home Rule legislation clearing the NY State Legislature in time, allowing us to dissolve an Authority that was, after all, established by state legislation. It's still grinding its way through, but all indications point to a timely and successful conclusion. Once again, we'll see.

Petitions Again

It's petition time again – this time, for the US Congressional race in District 19, our Congressional District. Sean Eldridge is running on the Democratic ticket, against incumbent Chris Gibson.

Each candidate has to collect a certain number of petition signatures in the District. Signing the petition doesn't commit you to vote for anyone in particular; it doesn't even signal your support. It just means that you think it's OK for that person to run. Only registered voters can sign; only registered Democrats can sign Eldridge's, and only registered Republicans can sign Gibson's (actually, Gibson is also endorsed by the Independence Party, so supporters will be circulating those petitions to registered Independence Party voters as well).

I've got some blank petition forms for Sean Eldrige. If you'd like to sign, please comment here or e-mail me. If you'd like to take a blank form and collect signatures from friends and neighbors who are registered Democrats, let me know, too. I've got the official list of all registered Democrats in County Board Districts 11 and 12.

Our goal is 100 signatures in the City of Oneonta. It's a quick and simple way to participate in democracy. Let me know! Thanks.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Governor's Plan for Tax Relief

As a member of a County Legislature, I was asked by a representative of the Governor to endorse the tax reform plan he's included in his current budget proposal.

A summary of the proposal can be found here. It was prepared by the Bipartisan New York Tax Relief Commission, headed by former Governor Pataki. It doesn't seem complex, but it's not clear, either. Can you make heads or tails of this:

The Executive Budget provides a 2-year property tax freeze to residents in local taxing jurisdictions that agree to abide by the property tax cap in the first year.

So does the County Board freeze taxes (no increase) or act within the tax cap (in 2013 it was 1.66%)? Not sure. I think it means that the municipality must stay within the tax cap, and at the end of two years taxpayers are sent refunds for those capped increases. Got it?

In the second year, the municipality needs to stay within the cap (or freeze?) and achieve savings from sharing services with other municipalities. If the savings are enough, and the tax/freeze rules are followed, taxpayers get their refund checks, ranging from about $200 to about $800 (Otsego County properties would be closer to the $200 end).

A 'circuit breaker' provision kicks in later; the summary provides a vague “...when fully phased in...” and news reports indicate this would start in the third year. “This relief program is progressively structured to provide a greater proportion of benefits to those with the highest property tax burdens as a share of their income.” The math should be interesting, but it is an attempt at progressive tax relief.

I'd love to support a plan that sends rebate checks to taxpayers. But the problem is, many taxpayers across the state will get $0. If their municipalities have a disaster (a flood, a bridge collapse, a hurricane, a huge embezzlement, or any other unexpected expense) and can't stay within the cap, that's the end of tax relief. If the municipality can't find ways to share enough services, and create enough savings, that's the end of tax relief. In these cases, the municipalities are set up to take the fall for taxpayers not getting the kinds of checks their friends down the road are getting.

If this proposal were accompanied by some substantial reduction in unfunded mandates, it might be a better risk. If the 'circuit breaker' provision began in the first year, it might be a fairer deal. As it turns out, noone outside the executive branch seems to like this plan: the Democratic Assembly is working on an alternate plan that expands the 'circuit breaker;' the Republicans have denounced it, and schools and municipalities seem inclined to oppose it (although noone seems to be keeping score yet).

If Albany wants to provide property tax relief, then the municipalities which levy those taxes should be full partners in developing a plan that is going to be in the best interests of all the taxpayers, all over the state.

Bike Signs

I was part of an interesting conversation at the Public Works Committee meeting today. Linda Rowinski, a County Rep from the City, had asked us if we'd consider placing signs on County roads alerting drivers to the possibility of encountering bicyclists - “Share the Road with Bicyclists” or “Bike-Friendly Otsego” - that kind of thing . Linda and others (including myself) are encouraging the Tourism Board and the folks at economic development to tap into the active and growing interest in bike tourism.

The response from those who were there – the rest of the committee, and the Highway Supervisor and his deputy – was, I thought, surprising. They made the very accurate point that our roads are not wide enough to be truly bike-friendly and bike-safe, and therefore we shouldn't put the signs up, because that would encourage more bikers to ride on the narrow roads. The point was also made that having those signs up would make us liable in case of an accident – the signs had encouraged the bikers to ride on our roads, so it would be our fault if there were a crash.

I'm not sure what to think of this. I'm not a cyclist, and I've had some bad experiences with cyclists who have not been good citizens of the road. But bike tourism will be great for Otsego County.  I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure that signs encouraging drivers to be alert won't magnify our liability.

It's true that our roads are narrow; it's true that by law, we must allow cyclists to use our roads; it's true that widening all the County roads would bankrupt us pretty quickly. But I'm not sure how this relates to putting up signs encouraging drivers to share the road and be alert for cyclists. There seems to be something else going on here.

Any thoughts?

Apologies for the Gap

Sorry my posts have been sparse lately. It's partly because business at the County has been somewhat routine lately, and partly because I've been off doing other things instead of writing posts: I took a road trip to San Francisco and back in January, and then in February my Aunt had a stroke and, after a week, died. But I'm back, and as the winter winds down (really... Spring is coming...) there are some things happening that I'll be writing about. As usual, please let me know what you're interested, in Comments or by e-mail.