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Hillary bids farewell to the Senate

   WASHINGTON -- A lot of people expected to hear Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton give a farewell address from the floor of the Senate someday -- even if they figured she would be moving a mile down the road to the White House rather than a little farther down to the State Department.

   But now, instead of becoming president, Clinton will become secretary of state at a most difficult time, with the world economy in a shambles, wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran poised to try to acquire nuclear weapons.

   But Clinton didn't delve deep into all that during her farewell speech on the Senate floor Thursday,   choosing instead to look back fondly at her eight years as New York's junior senator.

   "I may not have always been a New Yorker -- but I know that I will always be one," said Clinton, a Democrat who was raised in Illinois and served as first lady in Arkansas and the White House before her 2000 election to the Senate from New York.

   Speaking to about a third of her colleagues and several of her most loyal staffers in a Senate chamber filled with tourists, Clinton, D-N.Y., said: "To my fellow New Yorkers, I give you my profound gratitude. I loved being your senator. Serving you has been the honor of my lifetime."

   So, looking back, how did she do?

  -- Jerry Zremski

Strong medicine for Buffalo's parking system

   Buffalo's parking system is broken, and the best way to fix it is to hire a guru who would oversee a new department with expanded duties.

   That's the conclusion of national experts hired by the city to conduct one of the most comprehensive studies of the city's parking set-up in decades.

   The 102-page report raises numerous concerns, including a projected shortage of downtown parking spaces, poor conditions at three ramps near hospitals, and loose controls over some parking revenues.

   Parking management decisions are made "in the political arena, not by an experienced parking professional," the consultants concluded.

   The study makes dozens of recommendations that range from consolidating duties under one commissioner, to building new downtown parking ramps and tightening controls over parking meter money. Buffalo hired Desman Associates to draft a study that has branded city parking policies as "shortsighted," "fragmented" and "dysfunctional."

   "The truth hurts," replied Ellicott Council Member Brian C. Davis, who has criticized parking operations for years.

   Davis acknowledges that some recent improvements have been made by Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, the not-for-profit entity that runs most city parking facilities. But he said there's no doubt the city's system is in dire need of an overhaul.

   Others dispute some of the study's findings. Developer Carl P. Paladino, a BCAR board member and prominent downtown landlord, branded many of the report's conclusions "outrageous," saying Buffalo has one of the model parking operations in the nation. Paladino said anyone who thinks Buffalo should hire a $140,000-a-year parking commissioner "needs their head examined."

   What do you think about the consultant's harsh assessment of city parking operations? What
have your experiences been in city ramps, surface lots and with parking enforcement?

   --Brian Meyer

Playing with fire

   Fireplaces are beautiful additions to any home, and wood-burning fires bring in warmth and conjure images of family togetherness and holiday celebrations. But as today's story in The News indicates, wood-burning fireplaces can lead to life-threatening house fires.

   Firefighters routinely handle chimney fires from creosote build-up, and investigate house fires from improper fireplace installation, overuse or improper disposal of ashes. Lots can go wrong, but the expense to maintain and improve a fireplace and chimney can be extraordinary.

   So calling all current and former fireplace users. Ever had a close call? How good are you at maintaining your own fireplace? How about your friends and neighbors? Share your story here.

  --- Sandra Tan

Does it feel like the 4th strongest housing market?

Homeowners in the Buffalo Niagara region watched for years as buyers in other parts of the country saw their home values skyrocket. The never-to-high, never-to-low nature of the region's home market made it seem as if we were missing a party.

Well, nothing like a global credit crisis to turn things around.

Forbes magazine has just ranked Buffalo as the "fourth stongest" housing market in the nation, a tribute to the homes in the region holding their values. The cities considered stronger than Buffalo are: McAllen, Texas, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh.

So the question stands: is it better to have enjoyed a booming housing market, or never to have boomed at all?

Surviving at analog TV conversion

   The conversion to digital TV won't affect a lot of people, but it seems to be generating no  small amount of confusion.

   The changeover is set to happen Feb. 17 — that is if it isn't delayed by Congress — and only a small percentage of the TV-viewing population needs to do something about it.

   To repeat: You don't have to worry if you get your television through cable or a satellite TV service.

   If you get your TV over the air, but you have a newer set with a built-in digital tuner, you're still OK.

   It's only if you get TV through an antenna on an older, analog set that you need to act.

   You can buy a new TV. You can sign up for cable or satellite service.

   Or you can buy a digital converter box for between $40 and $80.

   However, the problem is that the federal program to provide $40 coupons to cover part of the cost of a converter has run out of money.

   That means people trying to get a coupon by the Feb. 17 deadline may be out of luck.

   Concerns over the coupons and the outreach efforts meant to make sure people are prepared are prompting President-elect Barack Obama and others to call for a delay in the deadline.

   Do you think the conversion should be delayed? Have you bought and set up your converter box already?

   Did you upgrade to a new TV or cable/satellite service instead?

   What do you think of the fact that Congress is mandating this change? And do you think the concern over the conversion is being blown out of proportion?

   People have a lot of questions, too many to answer in this space, so here's a few Web sites worth checking out:

   www.dtv2009.gov and www.dtv.gov, official government sites, and www.dtvanswers.com, from the National Association of Broadcasters;

   Also, www.tvfool.com, is an interesting site for the technically inclined that answers everything from the coverage area of local stations to what direction you should point your TV antenna.

   And YouTube has an amusing video look at the conversion:


    

   — Stephen T. Watson

The "one-drop" rule of multiracial America

Barack Obama, who is biologically biracial, will officially go down in history Jan. 20 as the country's first black president.

  Famous Americans born to black and white parents, such as Obama and Halle Berry, and some local residents have made the personal choice to identify as black. But they also admit an American society, which has adhered to the "one-drop" rule for centuries, wouldn't see them as anything else.

   The rule deemed anyone with any amount of black ancestry to be black. And with Obama's historic designation, many believe the rule is still being practice.

   "In America, a white woman can have a black baby but a black woman cannot have a white baby," said Paul Nevergold, who's married to a black woman and has two adult children. "So race is not biological; it's a social, political construct."

  What are your thoughts?   

… Emma Sapong   

   

   

If you are considering attending the inauguration...

WASHINGTON — "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." Inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, those words were aimed at the immigrants who arrived on these shores and made this nation great. But somehow I thought of those words again when contemplating the crowds that will jam the nation's capital for the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president. Of course, Obama — the son of an immigrant himself stands as a living example of this nation's possibilities. Yet unless you want to be tired, poor and part of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, you might want to watch this inauguration on television. Bill Line, a spokesman for the National Park Service, says the inauguration could be the largest American public gathering ever. "You're going to be in a sardine-like situation for five, six, seven hours," Line said. "People should right now be asking themselves the question: do I have the physical stamina to walk that far, walk that far back, and stand for four, five, six hours in-between?" For many — probably numbering in the millions, many of them thousands of dollars poorer after paying for their trip — the answer will be yes. No presidential inauguration ever has created such excitement. So, is it worth it to withstand the crowds and the costs to come to Washington to watch history in the making — Jerry Zremski

A possible reprieve on Medicaid costs

   WASHINGTON -- The economic crisis won't lead to higher property taxes in Erie County or anywhere else if Sen. Charles E. Schumer gets his way.

   Schumer, D-N.Y., on Thursday proposed rejiggering the funding formula for Medicaid, the health care program for the poor. Under his plan, the federal government would pay a bigger share for two years --thereby providing direct relief to New York State and its counties, which see Medicaid as their biggest
fiscal burden.

   The change would be included in the $775 billion (if it stops at that!) stimulus package President-elect Barack Obama is proposing. And it would bring more than $45 million to Erie County, thereby relieving County Executive Chris Collins of his biggest budget worries for the next two years.

   That means Erie County taxpayers would not have to pay for the expected boom in Medicaid costs in these troubled times -- at least not directly.

   But with the federal deficit projected to balloon to $1.2 trillion in 2009, somebody is going to have to pay the bill someday, right?

   -- Jerry Zremski

Some good news on gasoline prices

   We all have noticed that gasoline prices have been falling locally.

   But an additional bit of good news is that there is no longer a huge difference between the price at the pump in Buffalo Niagara compared to our upstate neighbors  in Rochester, Syracuse and Albany.

   The average price locally stood at $1.84 on Wednesday, 12 cents over the national average of $1.72.

   The local stations were charging five cents more than in Syracuse, down from a 19-cent difference nearly a month earlier. Prices were four cents more than Albany, rather than the 17 cents they had been, and three cents higher than Rochester, down from a 10-cent difference.

   The gap has narrowed since a Buffalo News article last month pointed out a lack of competition and other factors were driving up area prices.

   Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, says the Federal Trade Commission and the New York Sate Attorney General's office are now working together to investigate the disparity in gas prices between Western New York and other regions in the state.

   Hopefully, that price differential will one day be a thing of the past.

 

Insuring the young and the healthy

ALBANY — State of the State addresses are a time for governors to come out with bold new ideas. But such ideas, as is often the way in Albany, almost always carry a big price tag for residents.

So what's Gov. David A. Paterson to do in his first State of the State as governor? With the state facing a $14.4 billion budget deficit, there's hardly room in the wallet to begin some ambitious new spending program.

That leaves him with the no-cost ideas. Enter health insurance. His new plan, rolled out Monday in advance of this afternoon's speech, calls for health insurers to provide coverage on parents' group policies to children up to age 29.  That could add as many as 10 years to the additional time children can remain on their parents' policies.

The extra tab would be paid for by the parents, or their children. But details were elusive Tuesday, and health insurers and business groups, while offering some initial warm words, cautioned that they will be waiting to see that the plan, in the end, doesn't end up raising premiums for other policyholders and businesses that offer insurance to their workers.

The idea is far from new. At least 20 other states in recent years have been increasing the age at which children can stay on their parents' health insurance plans. The theory is that it gets a relatively healthy group of people -- those ages 19 to 29 who now can lose their coverage under their parents' plans -- into the insurance pools. It will reduce the number of uninsured, and lower the costs for the young adults compared to what they'd have to pay on their own.

But, there are questions. For instance, does taking this group of young and healthy adults now in a broader age of insurance pool increase the percentage of older and, therefore, often sicker group of policy holders left in that pool? And what will that mean for their premiums?

   -- Tom Precious

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