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What does the future hold?

   In my column today, I took a few light-hearted stabs at what 2009 has in store for us. (As grim as some of the more reality-based predictions are, I thought light-hearted would be a good change of pace.)

   How about you? Care to take a guess at what awaits us in the coming 12 months?

   --- Bruce Andriatch

Rink plan gets a grilling in Hamburg

  Ice is a hot topic in Hamburg.

   Nearly 100 residents turned out for a meeting about a proposed new rink on Wednesday, the first official look at an idea that has been discussed for more than a year.

   A partnership consisting of ex-Sabre star Dave Andreychuk and Hamburg resident Jeff Walker is the sole bidder. They propose to build a companion rink beside the town's current one at the old Nike Base recreation center on Lakeview Road.

   Taxpayers at the meeting didn't take it easy on the hockey star. Questions peppered the financing for the project, estimated to cost $8 million to $9 million, at least some of which would be backstopped by the town.

   Proponents call it a creative public-private partnership that fills a rapidly growing demand for ice time.

   Others say it's a bad idea for taxpayers to turn over public land --  plus financial backing
--  to a private venture.
 
   -- Fred O. Williams

Schools prepare for the worst

   Every year, school boards fall over themselves applauding their efforts to keep tax rate increases down to 3 or 4 percent. A budget proposal that will keep the programs in place and increase you tax bill by "only" $20 or $30 is cause for celebration.

   Those will indeed seem like the good old days in May.

   Barring an economic miracle, the state money that schools depend on to keep the local tax rate down is going to be cut drastically. Districts that worried when the aid didn't grow enough year to year will have to settle for millions less next year.

   Prepare for stories about people losing their jobs, field trips that the senior class has taken for years being eliminated, the tax rate going up by 10 percent or more and voters taking out their frustration by voting down budgets.

   Put it all together and there won't be much to cheer about it.

  --- Bruce Andriatch

   

Girls are ready to hit the ice

   There are 17 public schools in Western New York that offer boys varsity ice hockey.

   Yet despite the hundreds of girls who strap on helmets and skates for community recreation leagues throughout the region, not a single school-sponsored varsity ice hockey program is available to public school girls.

   Not fair, say female hockey players and their parents.

   The Williamsville School District, which was one of the first area districts to offer boys varsity ice hockey, has wanted to create a districtwide girls varsity ice hockey team since last year.

   But it can't because no other area school district has been willing to do the same. On Thursday, Williamsville officials plan to meet with other area athletic directors to gauge the potential for some girls competition in 2009-10.

   Given the rough economic times, some districts might find it hard to justify creating a new sports program. But girls say they want school officials to drop the puck not pass the buck.

   --- Sandra Tan

Could you keep it down please?

   You only appreciate a good night's sleep when you stop getting it.

   The people complaining about the noise coming from restaurants that operate drive-through windows that are open 24 hours a day understand this all too well.

   Williamsville is considering banning them, but that is a proposed law that seems unlikely to withstand the expected legal challenge that would follow. In my column today, I offered one compromise solution - directing patrons to a window to place their order instead of the electronic ordering board.

   Any other ideas out there that would allow fast-foodies to get their chow while allowing neighbors to get some shuteye?

   --- Bruce Andriatch

Amherst considers a sidewalk clearing tax

   Amherst is starting up a pilot program to see how much it would cost the town to assume responsibility for clearing residents' sidewalks along the busiest major roadways in Amherst.

   The program might ultimately lead to the creation of sidewalk districts in Amherst, which would essentially result in homeowners being charged a fee or tax in exchange for the town assuming all sidewalk clearing responsibilities for homes that front some of the town's major corridors.

   Robert and June Collins, are all for it. Both of them are in their early 80s and have lived along Harlem Road for 60 years, agree. Even though Robert Collins has a snowblower and tries to keep his and his neighbors' sidewalks clear, when the plows drop big chunks of ice in his path, not even a snowblower can move it.

   "They say you've got to clear your sidewalk," said June Collins, "but it's just about impossible."

   Some question the wisdom of sidewalk districts, saying it's adding another level of liability and potential expense to the town, and could create another tax burden for residents who don't want it. Others say the town has to do something to keep pedestrians from walking in the streets and getting hurt or killed.

   --- Sandra Tan

The Amherst payroll goes public

In compliance with a resolution passed earlier this year, the Amherst town Web site has posted all employee's salaries. 

The workers' names aren't included, which is OK. What Amherst taxpayers are getting is transparency — solid information about how their money is being spent. Because, let's face it, it is hard to gauge whether you are getting your money's worth if you don't know the cost of what you are buying.

Orchard Park also has made its payroll costs public, with no ill effect, and the City of Buffalo plans to post its salaries soon.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli has launched a Web site called Open Book New York. It offers searchable databases of spending by 113 state agencies and more than 60,000 state contracts.

It might look cloudy out right now, but it looks like our governments might really be trying to let more sunshine in.

Amherst hunts for a solution to its deer problem

   If you live in the suburbs, chances are you fall into one of two categories:

   A) The person who thinks deer are precious woodland creatures and gets a little zing of pleasure every time you manage to spot one in your backyard or grazing near the road.

   B) The person who is tired of having the family garden reduced to a Bambi buffet and worries about driving at night and catching a deer in the headlights.

   Amherst Town Council member Barry Weinstein is betting that more town residents fall into the B category. For years, the town has struggled with the overpopulation of deer in suburban neighborhoods, with many seeing the town's quality of life falling as deer numbers rise.

   Weinstein's solution: Why not grow them and eat them? Or more specifically, why not study the idea of "deer farming" - a practice that has been a huge success in New Zealand, which used to struggle the same deer dilemma before it turned into one of the largest global producers of venison.

   Amherst has larger farms along its northern border. If there's a way to cultivate and raise deer in a way that makes farmers money, why not?

   Weinstein's resolution gained board support Monday. Town departments will work with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to see if the deer farming idea is workable.

   - Sandra Tan