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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The ACHA Rises Again

I just came back from a meeting with our new Congressman, John Faso, and a group of actual experts in the healthcare field, including Bill Streck, who I had been working with on the impact of the ACHA on Otsego County, and Patricia Kennedy, CEO of Springbrook. It was coincidental that we met on the day that it became widely known that the ACHA had risen from the dead. Our goal was to try and summarize – in 30 minutes! - the harm that moving from the ACA to the ACHA would do to people in the region.



Faso did most of the talking, at it was at a technical level that was beyond me, and some others as well. Bill and Patricia kept up, as did Wayne Mellor, a business consultant with experience in the area. After a while, it seemed like this was a ploy, to avoid talking about wider issues, like how the changes will affect people here in Otsego County and in District 19.



He started the conversation by telling us that the ACHA would take Medicaid from being an entitlement (hasn't “being entitled” always had a negative connotation?) to – well, something else. He also said, right up front, that the reason for ACHA's changes to Medicaid was that the growth in Medicaid spending by the Federal government was “unsustainable.”



And that's where we knew that we lived, as we talked about afterwards, out on the sidewalk, in two different worlds. Congressman Faso made it clear, from the beginning, that this was about money. To us, it was about people.



I didn't get to say much (no one really did) but I did note, at the end, that my only concern was whether my constituents would have better healthcare after the ACHA was passed. The answer was not “Yes, definitely.”



An amendment to the zombie bill that would give the states wide discretion in whether folks with preexisting conditions ended up in high risk pools (which we all know don't solve any problems) and would also give states the choice of whether policies would include essential benefits, is apparently the compromise that is going to get the Freedom Caucus and the Tuesday Morning Group to support the bill. Please forgive me for being partisan, but leave it to the Congressional Republicans to finally agree on a major bill after it is made unimaginably worse.



We shall see.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Tale of the Sherrif's Son

Well, it's been quite a day for Otsego County online. First the Strategic Plan is posted (see below), and then a confidential issue that the Board, and specifically the Public Safety and Legal Affairs Committee, has been working on since January, appears online as well.

The article is pretty accurate – although there is always a lot that is not objective enough to publish – and the whole incident is pretty frightening. And there's more to come – most importantly, the disposition of the case and the consequences for the individuals involved. Make what you will of it.

I have to make it clear to my constituents that, during the first (of many) extensive executive session during which the Board first heard of this incident, I insisted a number of times that the Superintendents of the school districts that were threatened be notified immediately. I had great confidence that they would use the information wisely and serve as partners in this issue. It is my memory – I did not take notes – that I was assured, as we were adjourning, that one of the investigations that had been discussed would include notification of the schools. This did not happen.

I believe that this was a mistake. One of Oneonta's elementary schools is in my district, another is down the street. Colleagues who I respect and admire work there, and my neighbors send their children there. This was a very specific threat, and a terrible one. The individual was not put under surveillance or supervision; he still had access to his extensive personal armory. The Superintendents deal with this kind of threat occasionally, and are professionals. They are responsible for the safety of their staff and students. To leave them out of the loop was, I believe, misguided.

Strategic Plan Online

The Strategic Plan is finally online.

This is the document that is, theoretically, designed to guide the County Board in its thinking and decision-making for the forseeable future. It was proposed by the IGA Committee a two and a half years ago; it was important that we have it on the shelf when applying for grants. We paid a consultant around $60,000 to put it together, and they arranged dozens of meetings with stakeholders of every sort all around the County. I went to quite a number of those meetings, and they all involved interesting and energetic conversations. The consultants also assembled a wide variety of data regarding all facets of the County and life here, and assembled it all in a document that we got last fall. And finally, today, it's available to everyone.

I am, as you can tell, a little frustrated about the length of time it has taken, and (my opinion) the low level of priority that the Board has assigned it. A committee to implement the Plan was formed, many months after it was received, and I'm on that Committee.

The Strategic Plan Implementation Committee has met each month this year, and discussions there have been more energetic and – dare I say it – hopeful than would be the case in most committee meetings. Opportunities and possibilities abound in the Plan, and once we begin talking about it, we realize that many of them can actually come to pass.

So take a look at it. It's on the Otsego County home page, and it's called the Strategic Prioritization Plan. You might have been at a meeting during it's creation, which means you built it (thanks, by the way, if you're one of those people). Let me know what you think. The actual plan is actually less than 40 pages; the rest is data, and very interesting data about where we live and work. Go take a look.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The People's Government

For the last two years, during the County Board's organizational meeting in January, Kay Stuligross has moved that the time of the full County Board meeting be changed from 10:00 AM on the first Wednesday of each month, to later in the afternoon or evening on that same day. The goal was to increase the number of citizens who could attend the meetings, since they would be after most people were out of work, and not in the middle of the morning on a workday.

Objections to this change never seemed to make sense to me; they seemed incomplete and ineffectual. “Noone will come even if we change the time,” was a leading contender. It was almost as if there were another reason that no one wanted to discuss.

I believe that the reason that no one wanted to discuss was, and is, this: with daytime meetings, only people with flexible schedules can run for Representative. Very few people who work in schools, the professions or in most nine-to-five jobs have schedules flexible enough, whereas small businessmen, farmers and retired people do. The former tend to be Democrats, at least in this county, and the latter Republicans. The cards are stacked against us, on purpose.

I'd like to test the viability of this theory by winning the majority this time and changing the time of the meetings. More people can come to the meetings and have their voices heard, and a wider variety of citizens will be able to run for office. Wouldn't that be interesting? Are you listening, Thomas Jefferson?

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.