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

Friday, March 24, 2017

R.I.P. ACHA

For the last couple of weeks – since the ACHA was introduced in the House of Representatives – I've been working with an informal group whose goal is to try and identify and define the effects of the ACHA on Otsego county – its citizens, its healthcare systems, and the County budget itself.

It's been a moving target, as you probably know. The impacts, as the bill has gone through three major changes, have become more intense. The biggest impact would probably be the massive restructuring of Medicaid into a state block grant.

Otsego County – and most, if not all, counties in America – is statutorily required to provide a wide variety of services to its citizens. In return, the County is reimbursed – by an insanely complex, draconian set of shifting equations and timelines – with Medicaid dollars. This exchange is at the heart of a great deal of the work that is done at the County level, including and especially through the Department of Social Services, which the Committee I chair (Human Services) oversees.

I am extremely happy, for many reasons, that the ACHA was withdrawn today and, if we can believe the President, will not be re-introduced. It is a very big win – bigger than most of us understand – for Americans in all situations – pretty much anyone who pays taxes or interacts with the healthcare system in any way. It is also a win for me, because I will not have to try and summarize the impacts the AHCA will have on County functioning. The initial number – an $800,000 budget impact – was just the beginning.

The ACA - “Obamacare” - seems to work just fine. It needs some tweaks and adjustments, but the Congress did not see fit to address any of that. We will continue with a sound but not perfect health insurance system, and continue to muse over the reasons why we continue to be the world's only industrialized nation without a robust system that works for everyone.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Recycling

It's occurred to me recently that, to the outside world, the topics we engage with on the County Board might seem pretty humdrum and trivial. The fact that the change in the hiring approval process, noted below, was such a big deal, probably comes as a surprise. Another issue that many of you might not think about all that much, an issue we discuss every month at SWEC, is recycling.

The County is statutorily responsible for recycling – as far as I know, another unfunded mandate – but we've been doing it a long time and we can get pretty enthused, in our monthly discussions, about the variety of items that can be recycled and how we go about doing that. Here are just some examples:

MATTRESSES: As you can imagine, a discarded mattress (usually accompanied by its boxspring) can take up a lot of room in a landfill. Consider that Otsego County has two colleges, two hospitals, and a very robust tourist industry, we generate a lot of mattresses that need to be disposed of (and boxsprings too, of course).

Triad is a recycling and energy company in the western part of the state, and it recycles mattresses. What this means is that they employ people to manually deconstruct each mattress and boxspring, and separate all the component parts for re-use. Steel, polyurethane foam, wood and fabrics are processed for reuse. They've got a trailer at the Southern Transfer Station in Oneonta; we fill it up, and they take it away. We charge $25/mattress, and pretty much break even; no mattress goes to a landfill. Learn more at their website.

AG PLASTIC: You've seen those white plastic-wrapped haystacks, ranked by the dozens, on the edges of fields, and the long bays of plastic-covered silage in horizontal silos adjacent to larger working farms in our County. Tons and tons of that plastic is used each year, and it's all trash when the feed is unwrapped and fed to the cows. In conjunction with Jordan Clements and the Otsego County Soil & Water District, we hold two ag plastic recycling days a year. Farmers bring us the plastic, we use a dedicated baler designed for just that, load the bales on a tractor-trailer, and ship it out. The bales take a long, circuitous route halfway around the world, and return to us as plastic grocery bags (more of that below). For about 40,000 pounds of trucked-in bales, we get about enough money to pay for the trucking.

PLASTIC GROCERY BAGS: If you're keeping up with this kind of thing, you'll know that there are initiatives all over the country to get a grip on the plastic grocery bag problem. They're ubiquitous, getting into every conceivable wastestream and littering our landscape more and more every year (and threatening many kinds of wildlife in the bargain). Some municipalities have banned them outright; others have imposed a five-cent fee for each one you use. New York City is working on a fee; some Legislators in Albany are looking at a plan to provide a three-cent sales tax credit for each reusable bag a customer brings in and fills with groceries.

There is, however, a way for each of us to address this right now. State law requires that larger stores that use plastic grocery bags provide a place for customers to return them for recycling. As it turns out, these bag recycling bins accept most 'thin film' products, including bread bags, those bags you use for your veggies in the produce department, drycleaning bags, ziploc bags, plastic cereal box liners, Tyvek, bubble wrap (you need to pop the bubbles – what a great excuse to have fun!) and most other thin-film plastic product wrap. There are bins in Oneonta in Hannaford, Price Chopper, Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowe's, for a start. So – something we can all do about all this plastic.

OCCA's EARTH FESTIVAL: April 22, at Milford Central School. I have to admit that the first time I went, when I first joined the Board, it was because I kind of thought I should. What a great day it turned out to be! I spent hours learning and talking and listening and looking at fascinating presentations. I also got rid of all the styrofoam I had been hoarding in the hope of finding someplace to recycle it.

So don't miss it. I hope to see you there, right after I drop off all the styrofoam (actually, expanded polystyrene) I've been collecting since the last one. Learn a whole lot more.

OK, I'm Back

And all of a sudden, it seems, there's a lot going on in County politics.

To start with, after years of being on four Committees and a Board, this year I'm on seven. And a Board. Here they are:
  • Human Services (chair)
  • Health and Education
  • Solid Waste and Environmental Concerns (SWEC)
  • Performance Review and Goal Setting (PRGS)
  • Administration
  • Strategic Plan Implementation
  • Budget
  • Community Services Board
I certainly can't complain about the added workload, because I've wanted to be on Admin and Budget for years – they are where the sausage is made, the sausage in this case being policy, procedure, permission and, of course, the budget.

With the invaluable help of County Attorney Ellen Coccoma and Commissioner of Social Services Eve Bouboulis, I've already been able to get Admin to end a hiring freeze, and allow Department Heads to fill vacant and funded and budgeted in about half the time it has taken in the past. The freeze was enacted in October of 2015 when there was some threat, real or imagined, regarding the ability of the County to pay its bills until the end of the year. As often happens when 14 laymen run a county with no CEO, the freeze process – all hiring requires parent committee, Admin and full Board approval – became the status quo. It could take two months before a Department Head could even begin the hiring process. Now all that is needed is parent committee approval (with signoff from the Treasurer and Personnel Director). This makes a world of difference to large departments with expensive turnover issues, like the Social Services.

Another pretty big deal is the County Strategic Plan, which has taken forever for our consultants to complete, and seems to me to be a little thrown-together and copy-pasted. Then it took forever to create and empower an implementation committee. But that's been done, and I'm on it. Looking forward to that.

More to come soon.

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.