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

Saturday, May 14, 2016

We Can't Agree on Health and Safety

Yesterday, the Solid Waste and Environmental Concerns Committee (SWEC) had their monthly meeting at the former Meadows, which is now an extensive, rambling County office building.

We voted on a resolution that, if it passed, would be sent to the full Board. It addressed the health and safety of the citizens of Otsego County. It read, in full:
WHEREAS One of the primary responsibilities of the Otsego County Board of Representatives is to assure the health and safety of all residents of our County; and
WHEREAS: Although the various Representatives have diverging opinions regarding the role that methane gas should play in the energy future of Otsego County and New York State, we all agree that no currently existing, or future project(s), energy or otherwise, in or near Otsego County should pose a threat to the health or safety of our citizens,
NOW LET IT BE RESOLVED that the Otsego County Board of Representatives requests New York State to perform a full and comprehensive assessment regarding the health and environmental risks that are associated with natural gas pipelines, or any other type of large-scale energy infrastructure, prior to permitting the construction of said infrastructure.
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED further, that the Clerk of the Otsego County Board of Representatives send copies to Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Acting Commissioner, New York State Department of Health Commissioner, Senator James Seward, Assemblyman William Magee, Assemblyman Peter Lopez, Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, and Commissioners Tony Clark and Cheryl Lafleur of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Two months ago, we considered a similar resolution, with essentially the same “Now Let It Be Resolved”s, but it was extremely long and combative, filled with facts and opinions regarding pipelines and natural gas, and included a page of footnotes. It was the same resolution which earlier had been passed by the Oneonta Town Board. Unsurprisingly, the resolution failed at SWEC along party lines.

Along with Andrew Marietta, the other Democrat on the committee, I acknowledged the contentious nature of the wording. I offered to rewrite the resolution so it was, clearly and simply, about health and safety, and not about hydrocarbon politics. Yesterday's resolution was the result.

The vote yesterday was the same: a party-line defeat. It seems that the politics of this issue are so deeply rooted that we cannot be in favor of health and safety if it involves carbon-based energy. Where does this fear come from?

Friday, April 15, 2016

Vote on Tuesday!

The New York primary is Tuesday.  Both parties have pretty interesting, very competitive tickets.  

So - get out and vote.  This is important.  This is a chance to participate in democracy in a meaningful way.  We're out West, visiting relatives, but we sent in our absentee ballots a while ago.  For the first time I can remember, the New York primary will make a big difference.

Important caveat:  In Otsego County, we're used to being able to vote from 6AM until 9PM.  This will not be true this Tuesday:  voting times will be 12 noon until 9PM.  I'm not sure why the change has been made - it's the same in nearly all the non-NYC-metro-area counties this time.  

So go get that "I voted" sticker and wear it proudly.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Global Approach

As noted below, Dr. Robert Thompson was scheduled to speak on “Climate Change and Agriculture,” and speak he did. His talk was highly organized, coherent, and enlightening. His major points:
  • Climate change is real.
  • Agriculture is having an impact on climate change.
  • Climate change is having an impact on agriculture.
  • As a result, major geographic shifts need to be – and, in fact, are being – made in agricultural production and international trade.
I'm sorry he had to spend so much time on the first point, but it seems he did, judging from some of the questions afterward. The second point involved, mostly, the production of meat and dairy, as well as tilling and fertilizing practices, and the methane and nitrous oxide that these processes release into an already overburdened atmosphere. Methane and nitrous oxide, apparently, put carbon dioxide to shame in their power to trap heat.

And how will agriculture be affected? This is the intriguing part. Dr. Thompson spent a long time (a really long time) describing the impact of precipitation and temperature changes in on each continent. The upshot? Don't invest in farmland in the Mediterranean region, or in the American Southwest (although you probably knew that). Invest instead in the Canadian west and northern China. Both are becoming warmer, and receiving increased precipitation. The first soybean crushing facility ever in western Canada is being built right now, because, for the first time, soybeans can find a beneficial growing season and enough water to thrive.

Otsego County should thrive, and this presents a cruel paradox. It is just this combination of neutral to positive temperature change, combined with more precipitation, that will make many among us look around in Otsego County (and in many other places around the world) and say, “Climate change? Looks good to me.”

We need a global approach, a way to shift resources and production around to achieve, over time, the best results for the most of us. And there lies the political divide.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Climate Change and Ag

In case you're wondering, there are climate change skeptics on the Otsego County Board of Representatives. I'm on the Solid Waste and Environmental Concerns Committee (SWEC) and at its March meeting this week we had a lively discussion about whether climate change was real. It was two against two, with two members reserving judgment. I was told that climate change was something I “believed,” not something that was “settled science.”

I find those conversations taxing and unproductive. This is too important to fritter away our time with people who have found some reason to ignore science.

But that's not why I'm writing this post. On Wednesday, March 30, at the Farmer's Museum, Dr. Robert L. Thompson will be speaking on “ClimateChange and Agriculture.” He is an actual scientist, an actual expert. Agriculture is Otsego County's biggest industry. If you, like many of the Board of Reps, are still conflicted about whether climate change is real, or if you just want to come out and learn something new, join us.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Opiods and Heroin

You may have heard about the terrible variety of opiod issues that have been plaguing our county, and so many other rural areas of our state and nation, for the last few years. A week doesn't go by without a new article about the arrests of dealers, or the effects on victims, or some other situation that has painkillers or opium lurking in the background.

Last week, State Sen. Jim Seward brought the State Senate Heroin and Opiod Addiction Task Force to Hunt Union up at SUNY Oneonta for a publichearing. They were here to listen (although they did a fair amount of talking themselves) and there was a lot to hear. Panelists included law enforcement, public prosecutors, emergency services, Bassett administrators, and leaders of private and public agencies. It was an impressive showing, and after two hours I had learned a great deal about the subject. For instance:

  • Many speakers independently confirmed that prescribed painkillers were the gateway drug for well over 90% of heroin users they encounter. This is astounding to me. So the foundation of the heroin epidemic is – perfectly legal (and regulate-able) prescription medication.
  • The I-Stop laws passed recently make it very difficult for people who are addicted to painkillers to get prescriptions filled in multiple places. Unfortunately, they are still addicted, and so very often turn to heroin to meet their needs.
  • Rehab is so hard to get into in New York State – due to an overwhelming mess of regulatory, insurance and geographic difficulties – that people are traveling to Florida, California and Arizona and checking into rehabs there. These facilities cater to out-of-state patients whose insurance companies pay up to six times more for the service, through the out-of-region clauses (these are the clauses that require that you be reimbursed if you need and pay for medical services while traveling). They'll even pay for your plane ticket to their city! You'd think the insurance companies would realize how much this cost, and lead the charge to rehab reform in New York. But, no.
  • When heroin addicts are in jail or prison, they are, of course (for the most part, anyway), not using. They are also covered by Medicaid. When they are released, they have no medical insurance, and no money (the $250 that released State prison prisoners are given takes a month and a half to get to them), and, one would assume, their dealer is waiting for them to take up right where they left off. The lack of support for addicts who are released from prison is a massive problem.

There was much more packed into the two-plus hours. Everyone had something interesting and important to say. The whole thing is on the NYS Senate's website, and anyone interested in how this epidemic is shaking out in Otsego County – and interested in who is on the front lines in this battle – should check it out.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Which Road?

One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. "Which road do I take?" she asked. "Where do you want to go?" was his response. "I don't know," Alice answered. "Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."
Lewis Carroll

Just a reminder that we're still waiting for the final Strategic Plan report from the Lebarge Group. Last fall, lots of folks from all over the County got together to talk about the County's future.

This can be an important intermediate step toward a Comprehensive Plan for the County, which would result in it mattering which road we take.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Good News About Cheaper Electricity

Otsego County* buys its electricity from MEGA (Municipal Electricity and GasAlliance). So do four towns, three villages and four school districts in Otsego County, as well as the City of Oneonta. MEGA combines the energy needs of large collections of municipal entities, and shops for the most economical energy available in a vast and complex market. MEGA has customers in all but eight upstate counties.

The NY Public Service Commission (PSC) will announce, in the next few months, whether it will approve Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) for New York communities. If a community (municipality) agrees to participate, individual households in that municipality can establish an aggregation, and get the same or similar benefits as municipalities themselves get from an aggregator like MEGA. Individual households must opt out (a relatively simple process) if they're not interested.

The energy market is evolving and five or ten years from now it will look very different. However, CCA is a good option for the next few years, with, it seems, few if any downsides.

* - meaning County buildings and facilities.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Sluggish Recovery Upstate

If you're reading this blog, chances are that you'd be interested in NYS's Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoi's, Annual Report on Local Governments. If not, here's the summary: while the state and downstate municipalities are doing better, upstate counties face a continuing set of obstacles to real recovery and growth. From the Executive Summary:

  • The tax freeze and the property tax relief credit have added pressure on local governments to stay under the property tax levy limit.
  • In many communities, foreclosures cases, shown to cause reductions in property values and erosion of the tax base, continue to be filed at levels considerably above those seen before the recession.
  • Sale tax collection growth in 2015 has been below 2 percent across the State excepting New York City.
  • Most on-going State general aid funds to municipalities have been held flat over the last few years.
Local government expenditures overall have remained largely flat since the recession, increasing at a 0.9 percent annual average rate from 2010 through 2014. However:
  • Fixed costs have continued to grow, especially those related to employee benefits, with benefits increasing at a 6.3 percent annual average rate over the last four years.
  • To balance their budgets, local governments have had to hold the line or reduce funding for services such as public safety, health services, economic development and roads.

Sales tax, revenue in general, and percentage increase in the tax levy have all been going down. Counties statewide depend on sales tax for about one third of total revenue, and the reduction in the price of gas has had a big impact on that. Otsego County's tax cap has been substantially below 2% for the last few years – and costs continue to rise. This year's tax levy hike won't even pay for the raises negotiated for CSEA county workers.

So we're actually doing pretty well, keeping major systems going, given that we're really cut to the bone. But the time will soon come for an adjustment: raises for upper level County staff (they've had one in eight years) and beefing up departments that have been gutted to keep tax hikes down.

Returning to Blogging

After an election campaign that got me out to see most of you this fall, and a late autumn and winter that was, to say the least, eventful, novel and exciting (and which involved a whole lot of travel), I'm back here at the blog. We've got a new Board – 7 of the fourteen of us are new January 1 – and a lot to do in a year in which there don't seem to be major difficulties or issues that might divert us for long periods of time. So it may be time to start thinking of some long-term planning.

Some directions I'd like to see us take:

  • Comprehensive Plan: We need to know where we're going if we're going to get there. If we don't we'll just drift. We completed a Strategic Plan at the end of last year, and when the final report is available I'll make it available. I see this as a start – a quick process that identified some priorities.
  • County Manager: This is one of the priorities which came up during the Strategic Plan process. More and more of us on the Board are thinking more seriously about it. Over five hundred employees in over 25 departments, and no CEO. I feel confident that we'll see some progress here this year. It's not going to happen quickly, partly because it will be a complex process, and partly because we really need to have a consensus for a County Manager without a stubborn opposition that can sabotage the process.
  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: This task force operated under the supervision of the SWEC (Solid Waste and Environmental Concerns) Committee last year, and came up with a list of recommendations for SWEC and the County Board to pursue. This included further work on recycling textiles; thin plastic film (think plastic grocery bags); expanded polystyrene (EPS), otherwise known as styrofoam, and mattresses. We also talked about establishing an Otsego Green certification, which a business can earn by following a set of guidelines regarding recycling, reducing waste (for instance, not providing plastic garbage bags), reducing carbon footprint, etc.
  • Fair Pay for Employees: The management/confidential (all non-union) County workers have had one raise in eight years, and as time goes on, the problems that this causes mount up: turnover of essential employees; unwillingness of staff to seek promotion; some staff managing union staff who make more than they do; not to mention the frustration and mistrust it creates between the Board and our department heads. This has to be fixed.

This year, I'm still on the Human Services Committee (which I chair again), the Health and Education Committee, and the Performance Review and Goal Setting Committee. I'm also on SWEC, which is a great thing. Let me know if you have any questions, concerns or ideas in any of these areas.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Budget and Bed Tax

Well, the impossible has been achieved: the Budget Committee has prepared a balanced budget to present to the Full Board at the end of the week. After that, any adjustment need to be made by the full board.

It took a long time to close the $9 million+ gap. The $2 million+ tower project cost for next year was covered by loans, which will add almost $1 million in interest to be paid off during subsequent years. The reduction in projected DSS revenues was offset, to a great extent, by updated revenue projections in other areas of DSS function. There has actually been a lot of activity in this area since the original budget was prepared in August, and much of that activity results in good fiscal news for Otsego County.

Lots of projects won't get done next year; the technical term for this is “kicking the can down the road.” Department heads cut and shaved and did without. And a number of vacant positions – and some that were not vacant – were cut from the budget. But not as many as some folks wanted. Rick Hulse fought for the elimination of 25 positions County-wide, much more than was needed, because he felt that this was the way to longer-term stability. Don Lindberg wanted to cut more, for reasons that were not as clear. In the end, enough positions were cut – including two in the Sheriff’s road patrol – to get to zero, and no more.

Also cut was the bed tax distribution, which has been a lightning rod of controversy and perhaps the single most disputed issue on the Board this year. Until now, the 4% tax added on to tourist accommodations has all gone to the County, ostensibly to support and grow tourism, but, as we all know, money is fungible. Originally proposed by Oneonta then-mayor Dick Miller, Cooperstown mayor Jeff Katz, and Board member Ed Lentz, the distribution returns some of the bed tax that is collected to the municipalities, pro-rated based on the proportion of the total bed tax which comes from each municipalities.

The original proposal did not pass, but later in the year – in what can only be a bold political move – three Republicans, including some who had voted against it, re-introduced, with great media fanfare, a “new” bed tax proposal with extremely tiny and insignificant differences. It passed, and so a Democratic initiative became Republican. Two of the three Representatives who re-introduced the plan did not get reelected, so it is not clear whether this was a good move. At any rate, the will of the Board was, and is, that part of the bed tax should be distributed to the municipalities from which it emanates.

But that distribution was eliminated to balance the budget, so municipalities will have to wait until next year. Unless this whole process was developed to kill a plan and still take credit for it...