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No good deed goes unpunished

      Joyce Diasparra is a nurse at the Erie County Home on Alden. She was driving home after work on a recent night when she saw a patient walking along Walden Avenue. He is a mentally unbalanced man who is in being treated in the facility after trying to kill his wife. He had sneaked out of the facility.

   Without a cell phone, but concerned for the safety of the patient and the public, she drove back to the County Home and alerted security. She drove back down Walden Avenue with a security guard. They got the man into her vehicle and returned him safely to the County Home.

   A few days later, Diasparra was reprimanded and suspended for a day without pay. The facility's director of nursing said Diasparra should not have left the patient, but instead should have gotten him back to the facility on her own.

   Given that Diasparra was alone, and the man was potentially dangerous, it seems to me that she did the right thing in going for help. What do you think?

   -- Donn Esmonde

Thinking four years ahead

ERIE, Pa. … Palin '012.

   No, that was not a typo. That was what was on the minds of some of the 6,000 or so people who jammed the convention center here Thursday to hear Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin deliver the same sort of show that's made her a star on the stump in this year's campaign.

   Pundits are, well, stumped at why she's such a star, but if you saw her, you'd understand. She rips into Democrats and touts the GOP's small-government philosophy with a folksy eloquence that contrasts totally with those cringefest interviews she did with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric.

   Those interviews have left some pundits thinking Palin is the Dan Quayle of 2008, but if you ask her fans, they'd say no, she's the Republican Barack Obama of 2012.

   This is America, where presidential campaigns never really begin or end, so it's not to early to ask: Who's the best Republican choice for 2012?

   … Jerry Zremski

Can you hear me now?

   It's impossible to walk across a college campus, sit in an airport lounge or sip on a mocha latte at a coffee shop and avoid seeing thin, white cords hanging down from someone's ears.

   IPods and other brands of MP3 players are everywhere, and users spend hours listening to songs and podcasts or watching videos on them.

   Now audiologists are warning that people are spending too much time listening to the personal music players, at too high a volume, and as we say in our story, this could lead to hearing loss.

   A European Union scientific committee found that people who listen to MP3 players at a high volume for more than one hour per day each week are risking permanent hearing loss after about five years.

   This could affect between 5 to 10 percent of MP3 player owners, according to the EU report, or millions of people in this country alone.

   While an industry group and organizations that promote safe listening have launched an educational campaign, many iPod and MP3 player users don't seem to take the warnings all that seriously.

   Are you worried about the prevalence of MP3 players, particularly among high school-age or younger children?

   Have you ever walked past someone and heard the tune they're listening to on their ear buds?

   Should manufacturers of MP3 players do more to limit the maximum volume level on their devices, and should government step in if they won't?

   Or are concerns about hearing loss overblown and reminiscent of the unfounded fears that people who listened to boomboxes, or Walkmen or records on turntables would go deaf?

   --- Stephen T. Watson

For Albany, the tough times have arrived

      ALBANY -- For his entire seven months in office, Gov. David Paterson has sounded a common warning: bad times are coming.

   Now, they are here.

   The state's deficit for the current fiscal year is now projected at $1.5 billion. That gap must, by law, be closed, and supposedly will be -- and then some, Paterson hopes -- at a mid-November special session of the Legislature. Lawmakers already have insisted midyear cuts to public schools and tax hikes are off the table.

   Then there's next year: another $12.5 billion in red ink. At that point, no one is really flatly ruling out anything. In Albanyspeak, that means the possibilities are endless: big cuts to popular programs, like education and health, or tax and fee increases, or even deals to sell public assets. Officials insist there will be none of the fiscal gimmicks seen before. Recall the "sale" of Attica state prison in the early 1990s by the Corrections Department to an off-budget authority?

   The overriding question, and one that residents in California have already been facing with their state's fiscal crisis, is whether New Yorkers will have the stomach for real spending cuts.

   Will residents be OK with less state aid for schools? What if it then means higher property taxes to make up the difference? Or, if not, what if it means cutting classroom or after-school programs?

   Will New Yorkers be OK with cutting aid to hospitals? What if it means curtailing some health services or dealing with more crowded emergency rooms?

   Or will they, as some lawmakers think, be open to tax increases? What if they are just on the wealthy? And who would the wealthy be -- considering personal income wealth means one thing in Buffalo than it does on Long Island?

   These questions won't be answered for months. There will be an initial test in mid-November
with the special session to close a $1.5 billion current year gap. But the big test comes
early next year for the fiscal year beginning April 1.

   About the only thing that could change the nightmare scenario is if Wall Street -- whose
activities generate 20 percent of the state's revenues -- has a dramatic rebound based on some
cheery economic news in the next couple months. Unfortunately for Albany, the number of
optimists predicting such an event can be counted on one hand.

   -- Tom Precious

When is a hiring freeze not a hiring freeze?

   So very often, reality is not as things appear in Albany.

   A little over three months ago, Gov. David Paterson took the bold step of ordering a hiring freeze for state agencies. Not the usual wink-wink kind of freeze, but a "hard" one that would require agencies to go through the process of getting approval from his budget office for any hiring.

   But payroll records show 31,684 people have been hired since the freeze was announced July 30. It begs the question: how many people would have been hired without a hiring freeze?

   There are all sorts of explanations. Most of them are in the state's higher education systems, for posts like full-time and adjunct professors and student assistants, and the state university system is not part of the freeze. But few agencies were blocked from adding staff and there are a slew of job titles that, while important, might not rise to the level of "essential" that the freeze was intended to exclude.

   Critics say it's another example of a government unable to truly tackle the costs right under its nose. But state officials say economic downturn or not, the business of the government still goes on. Prisoners have to be guarded, patients need to be cared for in public health settings and public safety cannot be undermined.

   So far, the state workforce has largely escaped the wrath of budget cutters. But today, Paterson will reveal what his budget advisers believe is the condition of the state budget at its midway point in the 2008 fiscal year. It will likely show a deficit of at least $1.5 billion this year, and many billions more for next year. Some have floated numbers as high as $9 billion or more for 2009.

   The fiscal situation is going to set off warfare between the various entities that rely on the state for money -- whether it's the state workforce or public schools or local governments or the health care industry.

   And what Paterson, like any governor, hopes to avoid are state worker layoffs. Besides disrupting families and communities with heavy public sector employment, layoffs also would set the otherwise liberal Democrat on a collision course with state worker unions. But at the very least, the fiscal problems may force him to become more strict in his interpretation of a "hard" hiring freeze.

  --Tom Precious

The forgotten issue

   Michael R. Petit has been waiting for more than a year for America's presidential candidates and the news media to start talking about the issue of children in poverty.

   Petit is the president of Every Child Matters, a Washington-based organization that lobbies for better living conditions for children living in poverty.

   For him, the 2008 presidential campaign has been a time of extreme frustration. He laments that his organization, and others like it, have been unable to get Barack Obama or John McCain to talk much about poverty.

   Nor has he had much success getting the news media to raise questions about an issue that faces an estimated 37 million people -- well over one in 10 Americans.

   "Obama has a section about poverty on his Web site, and he has proposed some programs to help, but neither of these candidates are talking about the issue," said Petit, former commissioner of Maine's Department of Human Services.

   "Since the wars started in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2001, 28,000 American children have died of child abuse, suicide or homicide. Thirteen million kids are in poverty, 8 million lack health insurance, 14 million are left alone after school ... I try to get the media to ask the candidates what they are going to do about it, and the media won't pursue it."

   The Buffalo News did raise questions along those lines with both major party candidates. The same 12 questions on poverty issues were e-mailed to spokesmen for McCain and Obama on Sept. 22. An Obama spokesman got back to The News the same day.

   It took two more e-mails before a McCain spokesman responded, and only to say that McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, would not be available for interviews. (Obama and Joe Biden also declined to be interviewed.)

   Finally, after several more e-mails and phone calls, McCain's Western New York campaign coordinator, Russell Gugino, sent answers to the questions on Oct. 9.

   "I understand why the Wall Street meltdown is the major story right now," Petit said. "But we've been trying to get people talking about poverty since long before the meltdown."

   Do readers think that either one of the candidates really would make an effort to help people pull themselves out of poverty?

   -- Dan Herbeck

Windmills in farm country and furrowed brows

I'm obviously not an acoustical engineer, and I had no measuring equipment with me on a recent windy day as Derek Gee, a Buffalo News photographer, and I took a look at the wind turbines in Wyoming County. But I can say this. You can certainly hear these giant tubes with their huge blades.

   From a distance, they look like a field of Mercedes Benz emblems, spinning in the wind. As we stood on Telegraph Road in the Town of Eagle, looking at a landscape of turbines erected by Noble Environmental, on a beautiful October day when the wind was blowing, at probably 15 to 20 miles an hour, one turbine in particular almost seemed to whistle. The rest of them raised a steady whoosh, whoosh, woosh.

   Maybe it was just one errant whistling turbine, and a field of them may be scenic, but what if New York fulfills its alternative energy goal, and there are thousands of these 400 foot towers in the upstate countryside? Would you live next to one?

   With New York's goal of having 25 percent of its electricity produced by alternative energy in just five years, it's a future that all of New York now faces, whether you live in the countryside, spend time there, or just enjoy driving through it.

  -- Michael Beebe

The unlikeliest Obamaniac

   PITTSBURGH -- It seemed like deja vu all over again, with Hillary Clinton on stage before a room full of deleriously admiring older voters, but the thing that matters most had changed utterly and irrevocably.

   Hillary Clinton was on that stage at a downtown hotel here Friday urging seniors to vote for Barack Obama. And based on interviews with a dozen of the seniors who attended this "Hot Dogs With Hillary" event, not many really needed the urging.

   This was Clinton's 65th campaign event for her onetime rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, and there's no indication she plans to stop anytime before Election Day. After leaving Pittsburgh, she flew off to Denver and New Mexico to deliver the same message.

   "There are only 11 days left, but 11 days can be a lifetime in presidential politics," the New York senator said. "So I am asking you to really go to work...If you supported me, please support Barack Obama as strongly as you supported me."

   In other words, she was asking voters to support Obama as strongly as she's supporting him, which is pretty strongly. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said Clinton has done more for Obama than any losing candidate has ever done for a former rival.

   Of course, this poses a simple but compelling question: Why?

   -- Jerry Zremski

   

A $2 bus ride?

The board of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is proposing a two-step rate hike for Metro Bus and Rail riders: from $1.50 to $1.75 in January, and then up to $2 in July.

Monthly pass holders would see a similar two-step increases.

Public hearings on the hikes will be scheduled for early December before a final vote.

At these prices, it may be cheaper to drive.

Questions keep mounting about governor's top aide

   Day five of the controversy over the tax problems of Gov. David A. Paterson's top aide was meant to quell some of the firestorm and unanswered media questions.

   But, by nightfall, holes were getting dug deeper.

   First, lawyers for Charles O'Byrne, whose job as secretary to Paterson makes him the most powerful staffer in all of state government, explained that his tab to the state and IRS -- in back taxes, penalties and interested -- totaled $293,000. That's only about $93,000 more than the "about" $200,000 that the administration had been claiming he had owed.

   Then reporters were told over the weekend that all of O'Byrne's past tax bills had been paid. On Wednesday, documents showed that a final payment was not logged in by the state tax department until Wednesday.

   Next came the theory promoted by one of O'Byrne's lawyers for his failure to pay taxes from 2001 to 2005 -- even though he made nearly $700,000 in income during the period. He called it "non-filers syndrome" made worse by depression.

   Hours later, the Paterson administration rushed out a statement saying the lawyer didn't mean to say O'Byrne suffered from such a syndrome.

   The whole affair underscores how an administration can be brought to a standstill when the top adviser to the governor comes under a cloud. It is made even more true in this case because few at the Capitol can remember a more powerful gatekeeper to the governor in recent decades than O'Byrne.

   So far, the administration has offered up its chief spokeswoman, the governor, two lawyers and a psychiatrist. The only person not talking beyond the early hours of the controversy is O'Byrne himself.

   For the Capitol, it has been a year of years when it comes to scandals and controversies.
The state has seen a governor brought down by prostitution. It had its current governor admit
to extramarital affairs. There have been sex and corruption scandals in the Legislature. And
now this.

  -- Tom Precious

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