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Tax comparison may startle homeowners

   It's not a perfect comparison of taxes from town to town -- there is no perfect comparison. But it's as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as we have for now. And it's startling.

   A state survey of taxes paid on a $150,000 market value house in Erie County goes from a low of of $2,212 in the Pioneer Central School District in Sardinia to a high of $6,839 in the Village of Sloan.

   "The actual average taxpayer in this community isn't paying half that," says Sloan School Superintendent James P. Mazgajewski.

   That's right, because in Sloan, property values are low. And the survey does not include special districts in the town taxes, while village taxes include many of those types of services, such as lighting, sewer, water and garbage pickup.

   And since location, location, location is everything, a house in Sloan with a market value of $150,000 probably would have a much higher value in Clarence.

   So look at the numbers, and take them for what they are, not the final word, but one measure, one comparison, of what taxes you might pay if your house has a full market value of $150,000.

   -- Barbara O'Brien

In nature, small risks can spell big trouble

   The Niagara Gorge, Zoar Valley and Letchworth State Park aren't Disney World.

   The thousands who visit these spots every year are not in a controlled environment. They're in natural settings that demand respect and common sense.

   A simple slip-up can spell tragedy.

   Police and firefighters have been called into the Niagara Gorge for rescues five times this month after hikers wandered off marked trails.

   Nine young adults spent 10 hours in Zoar Valley in July before they could be rescued by helicopter after a flash flood left them stranded.

   And one hike Aug. 13 in Whirlpool State Park ended when 12-year-old Magdalena Lubowska slipped from a rock and drowned in the rapids of the lower Niagara River.

   In each of the Niagara cases, hikers wandered off the gorge trail, State Parks Police said.

   In Western New York, there are few signs that warn people of the dangers of the trails in some of our most breathtaking natural landscapes.

   State Parks Police Maj. Vincent Iacovitti called the idea of fencing off all dangers or posting numerous warning signs "an unachievable task."

   "All natural wonders have natural dangers," he said. "That's anywhere in the United States. In essence, you would be disrupting the natural beauty for those who respect the environment."

    He said he believes the signage at the falls and gorge is adequate.

   "I think if you have an obvious obstacle, such as a cliff or a swift water, I don't think those things necessary need to be signed. Most of the natural dangers there are fairly obvious," Iacovitti said.

- Denise Jewell Gee

Why aren't more boys graduating from high school?

   While it is uncertain what is prompting it, this basic fact is clear: Girls are performing far better academically than boys in New York State public schools.

   The statewide graduation rate for boys is just 63.9 percent, compared to 73.4 percent for girls. And females have higher graduation rates in all the sub-groups tracked by the state … white, Asian, African-American, Hispanic and Native American/Pacific Islander.

   Theories abound. Some people feel boys put too much emphasis on sports, video games … and girls. They have trouble sitting still in class and need more active, hands-on learning, others say.

   Girls, some argue, concentrate better, put aside distractions and have a better hold on the long-term value of an education.

   It wasn't always this way. Decades ago, boys outperformed girls, and efforts were made to help the young ladies catch up.

   The gender gap is causing increasing concern among educators. State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills worries about high school drop-outs who will end up "on the margins of society," and is looking for answers.

   How serious is this problem? What are the causes? And what can be done to boost the academic achievement of boys?

   
   -- Peter Simon

   

A gift gone too soon

Enser_local_babj_3  He was one of the few people I have ever known whom everybody liked -- and who seemed to like everybody. That was Jay Bonfatti's wonderful gift. It was a gift he shared with all of us here at The Buffalo News, and with many people in the greater community, for the two decades that he lived here and worked as a reporter.

   Now that gift he gave to all of us is gone. Jay passed away in his sleep Wednesday night  while on a family vacation in Martha's Vineyard. He was just 52. His death has devastated those of us at The News who knew him as a colleague and who valued him as a friend. He was our Falstaff, our John Belushi, a guy whose plus-size body could barely contain his enormous heart and his bursting good humor. He was, as a colleague noted during an impromptu in-house memorial this morning, the heart and soul of our newsroom. We loved him, and we will miss him terribly.

  Jay's world extended far beyond the newsroom, to the world of the music he loved, to the countless folks whose lives he touched, to the numerous friends -- nobody was better at making them -- he had in all walks of life. Jay was like a crossover artist in music, whose appeal transcends boundaries of race, age, class and religion. But Jay's milieu was not music --although he was handy on guitar -- but people, and human nature, and the boundaries that sometimes divide our lives. Jay did not see any of those boundaries. All he saw was human beings, and the best aspects of each of them. He never married, or had children. But there was no lack of love in his life. It was as if we all were part of his extended family -- with his smiling, Buddha-like countenance at the center. And now, from here on, we will have to figure out a way to go on without him.

   Jay's life touched many lives. We would love to hear from the people who knew him, who remember him, who would like to share their thoughts of a man who died way too young, but who never grew old.

-- Donn Esmonde

The Senecas' stunning decision to halt casino projects

   Maybe it's just a coincidence. Maybe not.

   One day after getting bad news in a federal court decision, the Seneca Nation's gambling corporation announced it is suspending $463 million in casino expansion projects in Buffalo and Salamanca.

   The Senecas are blaming the construction halt on "various factors, including challenging economic and capital market conditions." The statement  they issued this afternoon did not blame the halt on Tuesday's federal court decision from District Judge William M. Skretny.

   About 23 hours before today's announcement, Seneca Nation treasurer Kevin Seneca told reporters that construction on the casino projects was moving forward. He said the federal court battle was "frustrating." Seneca said the Buffalo casino would create at least 1,500 new jobs.

   Skretny's decision is viewed as a big win for Citizens For A Better Buffalo, the group that is leading the court fight against a Buffalo casino.

   The judge ruled that he still considers the Buffalo casino to be an illegal gambling operation, and he directed the National Indian Gaming Commission to move forward "forthwith" with enforcement actions. So far, the gaming commission has not indicated its plans.

   Some Western New Yorkers who enjoy casinos are angry at Citizens For A Better Buffalo and its main funder, the Wendt Foundation, for trying to stop Buffalo from getting a casino.

   "Most people I know want the casino, because of the jobs it is going to create, and because going to the casino would be a fun night out for people in downtown Buffalo," said Douglas Pagano, 53, a database technician from the Town of Tonawanda. "I think it's a small minority of people who are pushing this lawsuit. Why doesn't the Wendt Foundation spend the money it's spending on this lawsuit by helping Hunter's Hope or Studio Arena or some other worthy charity?"

   Richard Lippes, an attorney for Citizens For A Better Buffalo, has heard these criticisms before. Lippes said the anti-casino group is fighting the
casino because it believes the casino would hurt Buffalo more than it would help.

   "There's never been a vote taken on whether the public wants this casino," Lippes said.
"Anyone who says they know whether the public is in favor or not is just speculating."

   What speculations do you have on the future of Buffalo's casino?

   -- Dan Herbeck and Michael Beebe

   

Casino construction, and gambling, continues

  Construction crews continue erecting structural steel on the site of the planned Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, as a federal judge today knocked a little bit more out of the casino's foundation.

   U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny today ruled that gambling is still illegal on the 9-acre site -- as he ruled July 8 -- and directed the National Indian Gaming Commission to look at his earlier ruling and file the necessary notices of violation that would shut the casino down.

   Citizens for a Better Buffalo, the group that brought the suit,  claimed victory, though gambling continues on the site.

   And the Senecas urged government attorneys to file an immediate appeal. The Senecas are not a party to the suit, but have friend of the court status.

   Cornelius D. Murray, the attorney representing the opponents, warned the Senecas before construction began that they were doing it at their peril, that the lawsuit was already under way.

   The Senecas point to the jobs they create, the money they send to Albany and localities for their exclusive right to slot machines.

   Opponents say the casino will suck money away from local people in America's second poorest city. And they also say the tax-free casino will give away millions of dollars in free food and rooms for gamblers, making it impossible to compete.

   What do you think?

-- Michael Beebe & Dan Herbeck

Pierce's sentencing was anything but normal

   As soon as I walked into Judge Richard J. Arcara's federal courtroom Monday afternoon, I had the feeling it was going to be no ordinary sentencing.

   David Pierce, 55, stood like a statue toward the back of the courtroom, staring straight ahead toward the judge's bench. Wearing a blue business suit, the thin, gray-haired man did not appear to speak a single word to his wife, daughter or attorney.

   Pierce, a former Marilla highway superintendent who had been caught stealing from the town, stood that way for a good 20 minutes -- just staring -- before Arcara walked in and started the proceedings.

   After an FBI investigation, Pierce pleaded guilty earlier this year to a felony fraud charge.

   As the sentencing began, I was surprised by the painfully honest words spoken by Pierce and his attorney, Anthony J. Lana.

   As a reporter covering law enforcement for more than 30 years, I'm used to criminals making all kinds of excuses, often blaming cops, reporters or other people for their problems.

   There was none of this from David Pierce.

   "There's not a day that goes by that I don't regret the bad decisions that put me here," Pierce said.

   And I could tell he meant it.

   There was great sorrow in his voice as he spoke of his alcoholism, his emotional problems and his greed. But he never blamed anyone but himself.

   He repeatedly apologized for hurting his wife, his daughters and other family members, including one relative who lost an arm and a leg while serving in the Marines in Iraq.

   Lana mentioned that, at one point after his arrest, Pierce tried to kill himself with booze and prescription drugs.

   Pierce said that, since that time, he stopped drinking and started working an honest job. He said he enjoyed watching the sun come up each day as a sober man. He said he hopes his family can forgive him someday.

   Arcara scolded Pierce at several points. The judge said he was disgusted with public officials who think stealing from taxpayers is "entitlement" -- something they should be allowed to do.

   But I could also see the judge was impressed by the sincerity of Pierce's apologies and lack of excuses.

   "This is a tough one for Arcara," I thought to myself. "He wants to punish this man for being a corrupt politician, but he also feels bad for the guy."

   Arcara refused Lana's request to give Pierce home confinement. Under advisory sentencing guidelines, he could have sent Pierce to prison for anywhere from six to 12 months. Arcara gave Pierce seven months in prison. I saw no reaction from Pierce as he walked out of the courtroom.

   Hours later, Pierce left his home with a gun, and pronounced the ultimate sentence on himself.

   I grieve for his family.

-- Dan Herbeck

Will Clinton backers be out in the cold?

   DENVER - This is Barack Obama's week in the sun - and it's enough to leave you wondering if local Democrats will be left out in the cold.

   After all, the vast majority of top Democrats from Western New York supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for the Democratic presidential nomination. And of the 13 elected Democrats from the region at this week's Democratic National Convention, 10 will be here to vote for Clinton.

   The local delegates for both candidates stress they are all behind Obama now, but one thing can't be denied. They don't have the intimate contacts among the Obamaniacs that they had in Hillaryland.

   So what will this mean for Western New York? Will it mean less easy pathways through the federal bureaucracy, or fewer Western New Yorkers in an Obama administration?

   --- Jerry Zremski

The power play

   It's the excuse you hear every time a politician gets caught doing something he - and it is almost always a he - knows is stupid, immoral and/or illegal: Powerful men get used to doing what they want.

   Anyone who has paid attention to what goes on in Albany says it's the confluence of that power and being away from family that leads to problems and sex scandals like the one in which Assemblyman Sam Hoyt - and countless others before him - finds himself.

   So is this what we expect from our leaders? Should we care if they take advantage of their power for personal satisfaction as long as they don't break a law? Is it too much to ask that they understand that with great power comes great responsibility?

   

Rookie season in school opens many, many doors

   The aisles are crowded - is everyone else looking for blue folders, red binders, crayons, red pens and hand sanitizer?

   And how about going to the store that's having a half-price sale on jeans, only to discover every other child must be the same size as yours, because there aren't any in the right size?

   Those are my back-to-school nightmares, making me think it would be a lot easier preparing for back-to-school without the kids!

   But when you're talking about going to kindergarten, it's a different story. The weeks leading up to the first day are exciting, as you do some things for the first time - and some for the last time.

   Amy Scharf made getting school supplies a fun outing for her children, Rachel and Rebekah. Rebekah is the experienced one, showing the ropes to her younger sister. Picking out supplies and clothes helps make it real for Mom and Rachel, who have spent the last five years together at home.

   They're working up to the first day of school, when Rachel will wave and step on the bus. It's not the new outfit and backpack that will make that day successful, but the support, love and experiences Mom and Dad have given through the years that have helped Rachel and her sister prepare for a lifetime of learning.

- Barbara O'Brien

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