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A fiscal catastrophe in the making

     Researchers at the University at Buffalo's Regional Institute are not known for their inflammatory statements or outrageous findings. So their suggestion that Western New York is facing a "fiscal crisis of potentially catastrophic proportions" may catch many off guard.

     Even more shocking, they may be right.

     A new study by the institute delves into the long-term cost of retiree health care among local government employees.

     The price tag? About $3.7 billion.

     And guess what else? The cost is rising fast. So fast, says institute director Kathryn Foster, that the result could end local government as we know it.

      Thus, the name of UB's study: The End of Local Government as We Know It?

     "These figures reveal for the first time the sheer scale of the long-term benefit commitments faced by local governments," Foster said in announcing the results.

      What the UB study found was long-term liabilities that range from a high of about $1 billion each for the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Public Schools to a low of $1 million at the Williamsville Central School District. The institute looked at nine large local governments.

    Even more disturbing, most local governments are doing little to address the issue. In Foster's eyes, that means pushing it off on the next generation.

    There are no easy answers to this problem but the likely solutions range from a reduction in retiree health benefits to the creation of trust funds that can't be raided to governments joining together to buy insurance and keep costs lower.

     As the folks footing the bill right now, what do you think?

   -- Phil Fairbanks


 

Johnnie B. Wiley's untapped potential

   For two years, the Buffalo Bisons and New Era Cap Co. have offered to provide substantial funds to renovate Johnnie B. Wiley Stadium  into a state-of-the-art baseball field.

   And for two  years, that money has  gone unused, with the ballpark mostly locked during the summer -- hostage to the inability of the city, county and Buffalo School District to find a solution.

   The neighborhood around Johnnie B. Wiley has a shortage of open spaces and an abundance of poverty.

   What should be done?

   -- Mark Sommer

 

Getting the facts on problem used cars

   Was that used car you're looking at on the dealer lot ever stolen? Was it badly damaged in a flood or fire? Was it in a serious accident?

   Sometimes it's hard to know for sure. And even the best reports that private vehicle-history companies can produce don't always say everything, and they aren't cheap.

   But consumer advocates say a new federal database that's being unveiled today will make it easier and cheaper for prospective car buyers to find out a used vehicle's full history.

   There's just one problem: Some of the biggest states, including New York and California, aren't letting consumers have access to the information they've sent to the database.

   The state says it hasn't made a decision yet on whether to fully participate in the database, known as the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.

   But critics say New York doesn't want to give up the revenue it now makes selling vehicle information to Carfax and other vendors.

   Visit nmvtis.gov to learn more about the system, which is being run by third-party contractors. And let us know what you think of the new database.

   Do you want New York to makes its motor-vehicle information available to consumers? And have you ever had a problem with a used-car lemon with a bad history you didn't know about?

   -- Stephen T. Watson

Will the huge stimulus package do the job?

   WASHINGTON -- Another $116.44 million in federal aid for Erie County schools sounds good, right?

   But local education officials aren't so sure.

   "This will have no bearing on our general fund," said Buffalo School Superintendent James Williams.

   "This is a two-year one-shot, so we have to spend it wisely," lest schools create more expensive programs that they will end up having to fund themselves when the federal gift expires, said Donald A. Ogilvie, superintendent of Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Education Services.

   The trouble, it seems, is that the school aid is targeted to underperforming students, special education and construction -- and doesn't give districts any flexibility on how to spend the money.

   Aides to Sen. Charles E. Schumer said districts can expect other money under the federal stimulus bill to help them with their fiscal woes.

   But you have to wonder if the criticism from the local school officials poses an important question:

   Is this $825 billion stimulus plan moving too far too fast?

   -- Jerry Zremski

It gets personal between Rumore, Paladino

   We've all witnessed the schoolyard brawls that erupt when some kid blurts out: "Oh, yeah? Well, your momma wears army boots!"

   The head of the Buffalo teachers' union claims he was subjected to a similar personal attack. But it wasn't a playground bully doing the heckling, according to Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore. It was Carl P. Paladino, a prominent developer and crusader for educational reforms.

   In a long-festering dispute over health insurance for teachers, the two community leaders exchanged biting letters Wednesday. Rumore was incensed that Paladino made mention of Rumore's mother -- who died recently -- in what he called a "vicious and ugly letter."

   Rubbish, said Paladino (although he used more colorful words), claiming there wasn't a single sentence in his letter that disparaged Rumore's mom. If anything, said Paladino, he gave Rumore's parents credit for raising him right.

   But Paladino insists something went wrong later in Rumore's life. He faults the union chief for short-changing students and "sucking the taxpayers dry."

   Rumore dismisses the claims, insisting he has only tried to get the school district to live up to its obligation to negotiate a shift to a single-carrier health insurer with the union.

   We've posted the letters written by Paladino and Rumore. Read the letters and the accompanying article, and tell us what you think.

   -- Brian Meyer

Tough times ahead for school finances

   With cuts in state aid affecting public school districts throughout the region, school officials are warning taxpayers that they'll be enlisting their help -- raising their taxes -- to try and make up the difference.

   Many school officials say that even extreme budget frugality and the delay of new academic programs won't make up for a loss in aid that makes up a huge chunk of their operating budgets.

   While small tax increases tend to pass during school budget votes, the question remains as to whether taxpayers will be willing to step up to the plate when it comes to swallowing a bigger bill.

  

Does this error tax your patience?

   Everyone makes mistakes, right?

   But the mistake with Erie County's property tax bills, a simple clerical error, has snowballed into confusion for tens of thousands of taxpayers.

   Plus, governments don't always have the highest levels of credibility among the people they serve.

   What do you think of this year's property tax snafu, and how has it affected you and your budgeting?

   Joseph Maciejewski, the county's director of Real Property Tax Services, says he's taking measures to make sure it never happens again.

   Your take?

   --- Matt Spina

The generic alternative

    A new report indicates the prescribing of generic drugs in upstate New York continues to increase because of greater acceptance and a rise in the number of popular brand-name medications  coming off patent.

   The percentage of prescriptions filled with a generic alternative across upstate rose last year from 63.9 percent to 68.4 percent and in Western New York from 68.4 percent to 72.7 percent, according to an updated analysis of prescription patterns released by Univera Healthcare and Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, its Rochester-based parent company.

   The health insurer estimated that the increased use of lower-cost generics resulted in a savings of $369 million in medication costs in 2008 alone.

    A generic drug is chemically identical to a brand name drug and can be produced once the patent protection expires for a brand name drug. Generics typically sell for significantly less than their brand-name counterparts.

   Greater use of generics is seen as one way to control soaring health care costs. But doubts still exist about whether some generic drugs are identically effective compared with their brand name counterparts.

   --- Henry L. Davis

The heavy consequences of 'sexting'

   The suburban teenager shook with sobs last month as she stood up in a federal courtroom and told the story of her involvement with a sexual predator.

   It all started with the teen taking nude pictures of herself and using her cell phone to send them to someone she met on the Internet.

   Someone who said he was 20 years old and called himself "sex master Adam."

   Instead, the pictures went to David Evans, a 48-year-old man who kept demanding more pictures and then threatened to harm her family if she refused to send them, the girl said.

   She said that, after her experience with Evans and other men in her life, she didn't know if she could ever trust another man again.

   Evans was sentenced to more than 17 years in federal prison for using a fake MySpace identity to coerce teenage girls into creating child pornography. The two suburban girls who testified at his sentencing exemplify what can happen when teens indulge in "sexting," the act of using cell phones to send out lewd pictures of oneself.

   In a survey conducted by an organization that is trying to prevent teen pregnancies, more than 20 percent of teenagers admitted that they have used cell phones or the Internet to send out nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves to others.

   Local experts believe those numbers are accurate. They are surprised how widespread the activity is in Western New York.

   "I won't say it's an epidemic, but it's common," said Leonard Guagliano, a Niagara County Sheriff's investigator who lectures in schools on Internet safety. "Much more common than parents think."

   Does your son or daughter have a cell phone? Have you spoken to them about using it appropriately? Is your school educating students and parents about such issues?

   "Once this stuff gets out there on the 'net, it's out there forever," said Senior Detective James F. Hatch of the Erie County Sheriff's office. "Kids don't realize this."

   -- Dan Herbeck

  
  

Bruno combative in face of indictment

      ALBANY -- The indictment-in-waiting -- which Albany has been anticipating for more than a year -- finally dropped Friday: prosecutors charged former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno with public corruption.

   Ever since Bruno publicly revealed he was the target of an FBI probe in December 2006, the Capitol has been waiting for the shoe to drop against someone who had become the most powerful Republican in the state.

   Now retired, and raking in money as a lobbyist and executive with a politically connected firm, Bruno was his classic self Friday. He was combative, fiery and ready to toss one zinger after another at anyone -- in this case federal prosecutors -- who would say anything against him.

   But while he faces the legal fight of his life, and one that could land him in jail for 20 years if convicted, Bruno still has his Eliot Spitzer ghosts. For more than a year, Bruno and the former governor went head-to-head. Spitzer saw Bruno as his chief obstacle to getting his way, a feeling that drove, his critics said, his administration to begin using the state police to monitor Bruno's state travels.

   So there was Bruno Friday, less than half an hour after appearing in court to face an eight-count indictment for his outside business dealings that made him a rich man, barking at Spitzer as much as at anyone. Was it just lingering anger or part of a legal strategy to suggest that Bruno has been a political target -- first by Spitzer and then by federal prosecutors?

   Either way, it was there. "Whether by former Gov. Spitzer or a politicized U.S. Attorney's office and an overzealous FBI, I have, with their efforts, had every relationship of my life poked, probed and looked over. The former governor's aides, even when they illegally used the state police, could find nothing."

   He even brought up Spitzer not getting charged for patronizing a prostitution ring, a prosecutorial lapse by Bruno's account.

   "One thing I know in my heart, I did nothing wrong," Bruno said.   This time, though, there would be no farewell bus tour for reporters, the likes of which he gave when he retired last July to show off all the hundreds of millions of dollars in state money he spread around the Albany area in and around his district.

   -- Tom Precious

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