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

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.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sunrise for Solar?

I attended a meeting of the Solid Waste and Environmental Concerns Committee (SWECC) a couple of weeks ago. I'm still attending as many committee meetings as possible, whether I'm a member or not (they're all open meetings, so anyone can come). To find the committee meeting schedule, got to Otsego County's website (here), click Legislature, and then Committee Meeting Schedule. This is where the real work of the County is done.

I'm especially interested in SWECC meetings, because that's where I learn what there is to be learned about the dissolution of MOSA and the trash world after MOSA. We certainly covered that, and the quick summary is that dissolution is on-track for April 30 of this year, and an RFP (request for proposals) is being prepared for the public-private partnership that will handle solid waste in Otsego County after that.

But the most interesting part of this recent SWECC meeting was a presentation by Jan Myers, Solarize NY Program Facilitator; Jim Kurtz, RER Energy Group President; and Michael Roach, RER Energy Group Project Developer, regarding a solar project which could generate 2MW of electric power for Otsego County building use.

Here's how it works: the 2MW solar array would be built on County land and owned by an LLC (Limited Liability Corporation) made up of private investors who have raised $2.4 million. They would sell the electricity to the County at rates that would be lower than current rates, and going forward, projected rates from the solar array would rise, but not to the level of projected power company rates until the 17th year. There are complicated sets of incentives, accelerated deprecations and tax breaks provided by NYSERDA grants and other agencies, which make investing in the LLC very attractive.

There are a couple of points along the way where the County can buy the array from the LLC if it wants to; from then on, of course, the electricity generated would be, essentially, free, and the savings would be used to pay off the price of the array.

Madison County is moving in this direction, and SWECC voted to send a letter of support for the grant proposals.

So far, I think this is a great idea; it does sound too good to be true, but sometimes that kind of stuff is actually true. So stay tuned; I'm going to keep track of this initiative.

Sunk in Admin

The raise for M&C workers in Otsego County (see the second post down from here) is dead.

At the Administration Committee meeting today, the raise was the last item on the agenda of a five-hour long meeting. It was clear from the beginning of the discussion that three of the five members (I am not a member but was there to observe) were against any raise proposal. The actual motion that came to the floor, after an extended executive session, was for a substantially smaller raise for a much smaller group of people. The final vote was 3-2, with Betty Ann Schwerd, Don Lindberg, and new member Rick Hulse voting against, and Chair Ed Frazier and Oneontan Kay Stuligross voting in favor. I have to give Ed credit for making a sincere effort to get a proposal out of Admin, as he said he would, and to the full Board. The full Board is where a proposal of this magnitude belongs; we all need to go on record on this issue.

To be fair, the debate on the raise came right after some bad news regarding sales tax for December: it was down 17% from December 2012, after a pretty encouraging year. This represents about $300,000 less in revenues than expected, which is significant, but the Committee had spent all day approving significant expenditures with very little debate. To cry poverty and blame the death of the raises on this bit of financial news was, in my opinion, more than a bit ingenuous, especially since Schwerd and Lindberg had voted against the raise at the December and January Board meetings, before we knew anything about the sales tax.

To me, it's a matter of priority. Otsego County has a wide variety of assets: buildings, equipment, supplies, vehicles, contractors, etc. But chief among our assets – our first priority, I believe – are our employees, and especially those who shoulder most of the responsibility for getting the work of the County done. To ignore the simplest measure of support for these people is, I believe, just wrong. And to have the raises sunk in committee, after the full Board had agreed to them, is, if possible, even wronger.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Committee Assignments

It's a new year, which means that the County Board elects a new Chair and Vice-Chair. Kathy Clark was reelected Chair unanimously, and after a close vote in which Kay Stuligross was not elected Vice-Chair (a post that Rich Murphy held before his retirement from the Board), Ed Frazier from Unadilla was unanimously elected Vice-Chair. He will also hold the key position of Chair of the Administration Committee (Admin).

Kathy Clark made the committee appointments as the meeting ended. After two years on the Human Services and Health and Education Committees, I'll be on four committees, like most of the other Board members. I'll stay with Human Services, and chair it, which is a great honor and a great responsibility. I'll also be on the Public Works Committee and the Manor Committee (which we all hope will disband sometime this summer, when the Manor is successfully sold).

I'll also be on the Performance Review and Goal-Setting Special Committee. This may prove to be the most interesting post, as all three members agreed, during our brief conversation after the meeting, that our top priority should be to begin work on designing a merit raise system in the County. This would create Board policy covering future M&C raises (see previous post) that will be more dependent on employee performance than current politics.

Let me know if you have any questions or concerns about any of these appointments. New committee appointments should be available here as soon as the page is updated.

Happy New Year, M&C

What seemed to end as a good year for county M&C employees was followed by a New Year that started very poorly for them. Their first raise in six years was suspended, and it suddenly depends on the action of a small number of Board members on the Administration Committee.

M&C stands for Managerial and Confidential, and anyone who works for the County who isn't in one of the unions is an M&C employee. I'm and M&C employee, as is my wife, who is a part-time Special Educator in the Department of Health.* Every January, the Board must, by law, set the salary for all these employees. For six years, the numbers have been the same, as we tried to claw ourselves out of the recession.

This last December, the Board and the Treasurer, Dan Crowell, worked to set out a proposed raise that provided any M&C employee who had worked over one year with a raise of 1% per year of longevity, with a cap at 5%. There was also a one-time payment of $100 for part-time and $200 for full time employees. The raises totaled about $160,000, money which was available from another line in the budget – a budget which was lean and fair and resulted in a tax levy increase of only 0.14%.

The December vote to transfer these funds – to provide the raise for these employees, some of whom made less than union workers they supervised – was very close. All seven Democrats voted for it, as well as one Republican: Jim Powers. The rest of the Republicans voted against it, but the weighted votes were in favor and it passed.

Today, at the first Board meeting of the new year, some bureaucratic complexities arose which I can explain in detail to anyone who is interested, but which are too convoluted to include in this post. Long story short, an opportunity appeared to send the raise to the Administration Committee (Admin), instead of approving it today. The new Board split along exactly the same lines as last time: All Democrats voted to approve the raise as passed by the last Board, and Jim Powers joined us again. All Republicans voted to send it to Admin. However, there are now more Republicans, and fewer Democrats, on the Board, and so the raise was sent to an uncertain future in committee (a committee comprised, this year, of four Republicans and one Democrat). Elections have consequences, and this truth was made evident within an hour of the new board being sworn in.

The new Chair of Admin, Ed Frazier of Unadilla, assured me that he would get the raise out of Admin and back to the full Board. I hope this happens, and I will be at the Admin meeting on January 23 at 9:15, in a non-voting role. It's an open meeting, and anyone can come.

If Admin approves the raise, then it still has to pass the full Board in February. The outcome of this issue may set the tone for a long time to come.

* - If the raise is saved, it will not include the Board members or the Treasurer; we have all exempted ourselves. My wife will make 36 cents an hour more, in a job where she can work no more than 20 hours a week. So this is not an issue that has a lot of personal impact. It's just a question of right and wrong.