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Collins' goal: Reshaping Legislature

   Business-world dynamo Chris Collins a year ago took his oath and took over as Erie County executive, promising to vigorously pursue an efficient, leaner government.

   Collins hasn't lost that commitment. But business dynamos like to get their way. Collins has been frustrated by legislators, a comptroller, a control board and union leaders who frequently loom as obstacles.

   So Collins has learned, like other government leaders, that it's easier to function by changing the landscape. He will try to field a slate of candidates to oppose select legislators in 2009. He wants to find a favorite to run against Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, too.

   This is standard fare, or at least it's not unusual in local government. Other executives and mayors have tried to place friends, or yes men, into office. But it might surprise some people to learn that Collins will employ the strategy. He ran for office as the un-politician.

   What do you think? Has Collins betrayed a campaign pledge? Or have traditional government forces ganged up on him, so he's doing what he should to do his job better?

   A closing thought: Collins figures the Legislature elections of 2009 will serve as a sort of referendum on his service so far.

   --Matt Spina

   

How much will UB benefit from football program's success?

   It wasn't so long ago that UB's football team was a punch-line.

   The team struggled to win one or two games a year, and regularly finished near - or at - the bottom of rankings of the nation's Division I college football programs.

   I have a firsthand knowledge of these dark years for the Bulls.

   I was a freshman member of the UB Pep Band in fall 1993, when UB Stadium opened and the team lost every home game. The crowds appeared to get smaller and the margin of defeat larger as the season wore on.

   What a difference 15 years make. UB under head coach Turner Gill in 2008 seemed to lead the nation in dramatic, come-from-behind victories.

   The Bulls won their first Mid-American Conference Championship this fall and will play in their first bowl game Saturday in Toronto.

   ESPN's SportsCenter, Sports Illustrated - heck, even David Letterman  - have all recognized UB's accomplishments.

   Now, as my colleague Jay Rey notes today, school officials are optimistic that this attention will lead to increased name-recognition, donations and applications.

   Anecdotally, several schools - notably Boston College and Gonzaga University - have seen a boost in freshman applications after a big moment on the gridiron or a deep run in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

   And researchers have quantified a modest boost in applications when a school wins a championship or finishes in the Top 20.

   UB isn't there - yet - but the school is generating a lot of buzz.

   So do you think the good feelings and publicity stemming from UB's exploits on the football field will have a real impact in the classroom?

   How much of a benefit will UB see from its football success? Will it help the school get closer to its ambitious UB 2020 program?

   And what do we have to do to make sure Gill never leaves UB?

  --- Stephen T. Watson

Smile! You're on a lifecast!

   D.J. Wilson spent an entire year broadcasting his life, nearly every hour of every day.

   Shopping. Walking around the city. Cooking. Watching TV. Sleeping.

   Everything … well, almost everything he did … was captured on camera and broadcast live on the Internet.

   Wilson, a South Buffalo father of a 6-year-old daughter, Juliet, got burned out and stopped doing it every day, but he still occasionally broadcasts live.

   Footage on Christmas Eve showed him watching the 6 p.m. news and brushing his daughter's hair before she opened her presents.

   This practice is known as lifecasting, and Wilson is among the small but growing number of people who use the latest technology to share their lives with an online audience.

   Basically, all you need is a video camera connected to a laptop computer and a wireless Web
connection and you're all set.

   Wilson, UB graduate student and tech enthusiast Kevin Lim and others who do this consider lifecasting a social experiment.

   But the practice raises knotty ethical, legal and privacy issues.

   Do you think someone who is lifecasting should have to warn anyone who might be caught on camera of this fact?

   If you see a crime happening on a lifecast, or if you see someone in danger, do you as a viewer have a responsibility to step in and do something?

   And is it healthy for someone to expose her life, or her family's life, so publicly?

   To check out Wilson's channel of Justin.tv, the lifecasting site, visit www.justin.tv/net_dragon.

   To learn more about what Lim is doing with his broadcasts, visit http://theory.isthereason.com/?p=1693.

   And if you're interested in learning how you can lifecast through your smartphone, visit
http://qik.com/, a site Lim recommends.

   

   … Stephen T. Watson

Tiptoeing around issue of unshoveled sidewalks

   Oh, those slippery sidewalks.

   One disgruntled Buffalo resident lamented Wednesday that even a champion ice skater would have a tough time navigating many snow-clogged sidewalks.

   It's not just a problem in Buffalo. Officials in other localities, including Amherst, say many sidewalks are feeling the brunt of the fierce storms that dumped up to two feet of snow on the region.

   Sidewalk strife is nothing new. Whenever we get socked with a major snowfall, there are complaints about businesses, homeowners and even government entities that fail to clear sidewalks.

   In Buffalo, Mayor Byron W. Brown insisted the city is doing more now than ever before to deal with sidewalk-related woes. He said cleanup crews focus on removing snow from sidewalks around many city-owned properties and bus shelters along many business strips. The mayor also cited a new program that involves the city deploying shoveling crews from AmeriCorps to the homes of senior citizens who are on fixed incomes or residents who are physically impaired.

   The mayor's complaint line  received only about two-dozen calls about icy sidewalks out of more than 5,200 calls it received since Sunday night, city officials said.

   But many residents we spoke with Wednesday said some sidewalks, bus shelters and other areas frequented by pedestrians are in deplorable shape.

   What do you think?

    -- Brian Meyer

Ice rinks are suddenly a hot idea

   Not satisfied with the generous helping of ice served up by nature, Buffalo Niagara has a wealth of the artificial kind. There are 26 man-made surfaces suitable for hockey in Erie and Niagara counties — most of them backed by local governments.

   This doesn't count recreational skating venues like the Rotary Rink in downtown Buffalo, or the ice at HSBC Arena, which isn't for amateurs (although some nights, that could be disputed).

   The wealth of artificial ice helps keep ice time significantly cheaper than in other upstate cities, hockey league officials say. That, in turn, helps support the popularity of the sport — in the form of youth leagues, adult leagues and fast-growing girls teams.

   Now plans for new rinks are on the rise, especially in outlying areas where the drive to available ice can be lengthy.

   With local governments feeling tapped out, backers are looking for new ways to underwrite rinks. The ideas include public-private financing in Hamburg and volunteer labor in East Aurora.

   But it's unclear how successful the private sector will be in a venture that just doesn't make much of a profit.

   Does the area need more rinks? Who should foot the bill?

   — Fred O. Williams

The cost of giving

   Who knew it could cost so much for foundations to give away money?

   They all pay accountants.

   Most fork over money for taxes.

   At some fortunate foundations, the founders are still alive and adding new money every year. The rest, however, hire investment advisers to preserve and build up their assets.

   And then there are the trustee costs.

   Eight of the 10 biggest foundations pay salaries to their boards or key employees.

   But so do many small foundations, even those with less than $1 million in assets.

   Trustee expenses topped costs at a dozen foundations.

   Bernard Tolbert, the former head of the FBI's Buffalo office who is now in charge of security for the National Basketball Association, serves as chairman of the Statler Foundation's board, where he makes $16,500 a year, along with the other trustees.

   He travels from his home in New York City once a month to attend foundation meetings in Buffalo, and puts in many hours every week beyond that on Statler work, he said.

   "I don't think anyone does it for the money,"  he said. "If that's the case, we'd be better off getting a job at McDonald's."

   Pablo Eisenberg, with the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, says boards tend to be filled with "high power, higher paid professionals."

   "It's just an outrageous thing that these wealthy folks should get paid for doing their civic duty," Eisenberg said.

   Do you agree? Or do those entrusted with hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even millions, deserve to be paid?

   --- Patrick LaKamp

Foundations: personal perspectives

   Short tales of how foundation money changes lives are in the story of the free-tax clinic and in today's multimedia collection of video shorts: From Sister Helen Wolf, who used foundation money to do neighborhood outreach and find a way to connect with African refugees, to after-school program that is one boy's oasis and Lisa Clute's discovery of the free tax clinic and how it  helped her climb out of overwhelming debt.

   Foundation leaders say they do try to use their millions to help this economically ailing region and the working poor and people who live in poverty. Traditional scholarship programs are still in the mix, along with more unusual efforts intended to do something else besides tend to the  daily needs of desperation. They say they want to address some of the more complicated problems, such as the tax clinics effort to get unclaimed refunds and a program to train administrators to do a better job of leading public schools that are failing.

   What do you think? Is this enough? What else should be done? Share your ideas of  better ways for foundations and nonprofits to spend millions of dollars exempt from taxes and reserved for charity. Or, has philanthropy from a foundation affected your life at time of great need? Tell us your story.

-- Michelle Kearns

A storm of complaints

   Commanders of Buffalo's snow-busting brigade insist crews did the best they could to keep streets passable after the region was socked by storms Friday and Sunday.

   But many residents disagreed, including hundreds who called City Hall Sunday night to complain about snow-choked streets.

   Buffalo's public works commissioner said plowing crews faced unusual circumstances. As if the double whammy wasn't bad enough, Steven J. Stepniak said the timing of the Friday storm compounded problems. Because fewer people have to work on weekends, plows had to deal with more vehicles parked curbside the day after the first heavy snowfall.

   Then came Sunday's storm, including fierce winds that created whiteouts and drifting snow. Stepniak said the progress city plows made in some areas was undone by powerful gusts of wind.

   Put all these factors together, said Stepniak, and they created a maze of hurdles for plowing crews.

   He estimated that by noon Sunday, 93 percent of all city side streets had seen a plow at least once since the Friday storm.

   Still, several hundred people called Buffalo's complaint line over a five-hour period Sunday night to gripe about snow-clogged streets. The city took the rare step of assigning clerks to staff the 311 line after hours. The non-emergency system typically only records callers' complaints on evenings and weekends.

   Citizen Services Director Oswaldo Mestre Jr. said his office and public works officials will scrutinize complaints to determine whether complaints were concentrated in certain neighborhoods.

   How would you assess plowing efforts on your street? What grade would you give to Buffalo's Public Works Department for its response to the storms?

   … Brian Meyer

   

Foundations: no shortage of need

   Local foundations give away almost $100 million a year … and it's still not enough.

   Just ask Marlies Wesolowski, who runs a community center in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood.

   She had to eliminate a crime-prevention program that helped elderly residents because she couldn't find $22,000 in funding.

   Meanwhile, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra received more money than the total given the United Way, United Jewish Fund and Catholic Charities combined, a Buffalo News analysis of giving found.

   "I don't want to come across criticizing the foundations," Wesolowski said. "We're fortunate to receive gifts from foundations. So I don't want to be critical, too much so, about what they do and don't do."

   But she is disappointed her Lt. Col. Matt Urban Center had to cut a program she called "needed and necessary."

   "Would we like more? You bet," she said. "Could we use more? Sure we could."

   The foundations are quite aware of the need.

   "There are more needs than we have resources for," said Howard Zemsky, a trustee for the Zemski Family Foundation, which has given nearly $4 million in grants since 2002. "We're not lacking in requests and for projects to support."

   As Buffalo hovers near the top of the national list of the poorest cities, even those who run local foundations wonder if they should re-evaluate who's getting the grants.

   Deciding priorities isn't so simple, however.

   Even experts disagree.

   "Too little money goes to benefit those that need it the most," said Aaron Dorfman of the
National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

   But Emmett Carson, former chairman of the National Council on Foundations, said foundations
should give to whatever causes they want.

   "That's what makes philanthropy strong … the ability of people to pick the issue that's important to them," he said.

   What do you think?

      -- Patrick Lakamp

Kennedy's thoughts on the issues

She speaks.

   Caroline Kennedy, in a glimpse at just some of the issues she would face as U.S. senator, checked in Saturday on everything from the war in Iraq to gay marriage and free trade.

   In her brief appearances upstate and downstate this week, the few questions Kennedy did take from reporters were dominated by political inquiries. On Saturday, she responded to questions from The Buffalo News on a dozen different topics.

   She was sometimes vague, such as on controlling illegal immigration, sometimes specific, like restoring a federal ban on assault-type weapons.

   She doesn't seem to mind linking teacher pay to student performance, but only if the teachers - ie: teachers unions - agree.

   She doesn't rule out nuclear power to help with the nation's energy problems, but only if "safe and economical."

   She supports her friend, President-elect Barack Obama, on several fronts, like his Iraq withdrawal idea, but breaks with him on gay marriage, which she favors.

   The limited set of questions posed to her were part of attempt to get an introduction into Kennedy's thinking. There are a slew of other issues upon which she will have to take a stance if she actually gets the job. That's all up to Gov. David Paterson, who will select Hillary Clinton's successor if she is confirmed as U.S. secretary of state in the new Obama administration. That means the guessing, lobbying and tea leaf reading will drag on for at least a month … unless Paterson sends some sort of definitive signal for who he favors.   So far, Paterson hasn't held any job interviews for the post. He has been coy about the conversations he has had with potential candidates, which number a dozen, and include downstate members of Congress, a county executive, an actress, a borough president from New
York, a union boss, and, locally, U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

   So, what are the burning questions Paterson should be asking these candidates? What should he consider as he deliberates? …

-- Tom Precious

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