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Assessing the new assessment notices

    Ever open your notice of new assessment and feel the urge to scream? Or maybe let go with a few expletives?
    If so, you've got lots of company. Property owners in Buffalo, Amherst, Clarence, North Tonawanda and maybe Lancaster have either gone through, are going through, or bracing for, reevaluations. Assessors tell us that most property owners are content with their new values.

 But almost everyone I've spoken with says the same thing: No way my property is worth that much! How on earth do they (assessors and the outside firms that help with reevaluations) come up these numbers?

  Maybe it really is time to overhaul the system, as some critics suggest. As Gary Howell, a homeowner in Lancaster, told me: "It's all guess work. The only way you can really tell how much your house is worth is to sell it."

 — Niki Cervantes

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Hockey without the sound of the slapshot

   I've watched hundreds of youth hockey games over the last dozen years, as an assistant coach dating back to my son's days as a Mite player.

   But I'm planning on attending another one this weekend, a game featuring the national youth deaf hockey team as part of the USA Hockey Disabled Festival at the Amherst Pepsi Center.

   I can't wait to see a game pitting the deaf team against a local hearing team.

   It's not just because of the white strobe lights that will flash every time the whistle blows, to alert the deaf skaters.

   What really sounds intriguing is the way they're going to play the second period of each game. No coaches or players on either team are allowed to talk. The punishment: a minute-and-a-half penalty for talking.

   That's a terrific concept. All of us who take hearing for granted will understand, perhaps for the first time, what it's like to be deaf — at least for a few minutes.

   And that's how you really raise awareness about a disability.

   -- Gene Warner

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A rate hike -- and bonuses -- at the Power Authority

   The New York Power Authority, not always the most popular state agency among energy consumers, wants to raise rates — but just a little, officials say.

   The new rates are needed to help pay the expenses of running the hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls and St. Lawrence.

   But March is not a good time for the authority to be asking consumers to pay more for their energy bills — no matter how small the increase. March is the month when the authority, in a program it calls "variable pay," hands out annual bonuses to its workers — usually all of them — for meeting certain performance standards. The idea is the bonuses give incentives for more productivity and the attainment of certain on-the-job goals.

   So, now the authority is asking upstate consumers to pay about $10 million more in electric rates at a time it is considering paying more than $3 million in bonuses to its 1,500 or so workers.

   But there's more.

   The rate hike request also comes just a month after the state raided the authority to the tune of nearly $500 million. It's called a transfer or sweep, but it means taking off-budget money from the authority and moving it to the state's general fund. The purpose? More cash to help balance the state government's deficit.

   Power Authority officials said the sweep would have no effect on rates.

   So, is it just a coincidence that the rate hike request was pushed the same day the state government went with a tin cup to the Power Authority looking for some budget-balancing cash?

   Some state lawmakers say no, and they want the rate hike shelved. And they want the bonuses put off as well.

   So what will the authority do in this AIG era when the word "bonus" has become a pejorative? Will it dole out the extra payments this year?

   As of Thursday, officials weren't saying. All they would say is that no bonuses have been paid — yet.

   — Tom Precious

A challenging first year for Gov. Paterson

    To hear David Paterson tell it, his first year in office has been pretty darn good: He identified the state's fiscal problems early on, brought legislators into the fold and kept the budget balanced in terrible times through a series of steps.

   So why does everything seem to be crashing down around him? Why are his fellow Democrats openly stewing about his administration and how come so many are talking of Paterson in the past tense when it comes to his re-election effort next year?

   For starters, his critics say, is a healthy dose of indecision. They talk of his penchant for trying to make too many people happy. He will, for instance, talk tough on the budget and need for cuts and pain. But then, when confronted by a real live New Yorker -- a voter -- he backs away or waffles.

   It's been a rollicking year, indeed. His supporters say the year was not fair to him: he took over in a crisis -- the resignation of the disgraced Eliot Spitzer -- and had to deal with going from a job making no decisions, as lieutenant governor, to suddenly being the chief executive of a government with more than 200,000 workers and more than $120 billion in its budget.

   Moreover, they say the governor has not had a chance, because of the fiscal crisis, to actually implement a real policy direction; instead, his time has been spent moving from one fiscal crisis to the next.

   Detractors say he flips and flops, though. At first, he defended his former top aide, Charles O'Byrne, for being a tax evader. Then, he helped him out the door. Recently, he welcomed him back as a campaign adviser and, Democrats say, off-budget adviser to help him through his troubles at the Capitol.

   But before each new poll showing him slipping in the eyes of New Yorkers, another thorny problem emerges that does nothing for his image. He talked of belt-tightening, yet there were stories about expensive rug purchases at the governor's mansion and pricey taxpayer-funded hotel rooms for Paterson to attend President Obama's inauguration. (He recently said his campaign would fund the trip instead).

   And, of course, there was the debacle over his selection process to pick a replacement for Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate, which ended with anonymous personal attacks from someone close to Paterson on Caroline Kennedy, once the front-runner, after she dropped out. This week, Paterson called the whole process "a circus" and said he should not have dragged out his selection.

   Now comes word again of another example of what Paterson says in public may not really be reality. Consider the "hard" hiring freeze Paterson put into effect last summer. In appearances around the state, he talks of the freeze as an example of his fiscal discipline and the public is led to believe few, if any, state jobs are being filled during these tough times.

   Yet, since October, more than 8,000 people have been added to the state work force. (A look by the Buffalo News last fall examining hiring since the freeze kicked in last July found 31,000 people added to the state's job ranks).

   Such a term -- "hard" -- sounds like they really mean business, and if you read the budget bulletins sent to state agencies, the rhetoric is tough and pointed: every hire must go through the ringer and be justified in any number of ways.

   But, since this is Albany, there are loopholes galore. For starters, huge areas of state government are not even covered by the freeze: the state university system, Legislature and court system for starters. About 70 percent of the hiring since October has been in those kinds of agencies.

   Then there are, of course, exceptions for jobs involving public safety and health, like state troopers and prison guards and nurses at psychiatric centers and snowplow operators. Finally, there are the positions deemed crucial for the running of state agencies, a catch-all provision that can be anything from public relations people to ski school instructors to a tree pruner at the transportation department.

   In the end, the explanations sound plausible. But it seems as though, considering that nearly 40,000 people have joined state agencies since a hiring freeze was announced, perhaps a different term might be used.

   -- Tom Precious

AIG: Millions and millions of reasons to be mad

    WASHINGTON -- OK, it's time for a quiz.

   Which of the following sets of numbers makes you angrier:

   A) $165 million in bonuses, paid out of taxpayer money, and given to employees of AIG, the insurance conglomerate whose exotic "credit default swaps" made it the biggest recipient of federal financial bailout money.

   B) The $47.73 million AIG spent lobbying Congress between 2004 and 2008.

   C) The $9 million in contributions that AIG and its employees gave to federal politicians and parties in the last 20 years, which includes $200,560 to former President George W. Bush, $107,332 to current President Obama, and $111,875 to New York's own Sen. Charles E. Schumer.

   D) All of the above -- in combination.

   -- Jerry Zremski

East Side project stymied by banking crunch

   When plans for the Crescent Village project were first made public in 2007, it sounded like just what was needed for an East Side neighborhood that has too many vacant and dilapidated houses.

   Officials of the Lt. Col. Matthew Urban Human Services Center would eventually like to tear down all the problem houses and replace them with hundreds of new, government-subsidized homes for working low-income families.

   Everything seemed on track last May, with federal, state and city funding partners all lined up to help. The first step of the $5 million project called for building 10 new homes on Sweet Avenue.

   But then, the banking industry was hit by a disastrous financial crisis, and banks from Buffalo to Butte, Mont. were called upon to take a much closer look at where they were lending money, and to whom.

   The Crescent Village project has been stopped dead in its tracks ever since. Officials of the Urban Center say they had a verbal commitment from M&T Bank on the lending rates for home buyers, and they claim M&T made the terms much tougher after the lending crisis hit.

   That's not exactly true, according to M&T officials. They say they have been negotiating back and forth with the Urban Center for months, trying to reach a reasonable lending agreement.

   M&T says it wants to lend money to help neighborhoods in need, but also to do it in a responsible way.

   The bottom line is this -- no new homes are going up on Sweet Avenue, but Urban Center officials still hope to find a lender.

   Can we afford to build projects like Crescent Village in a financial atmosphere where the public is now closely watching banks to see if they are lending responsibly?

   Or can we afford not to build projects like Crescent Village in a community that badly needs new housing stock and the pride that goes with home ownership?

   Tough questions for our times.

   -- Dan Herbeck

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Sobering enrollment numbers for upstate Republicans

These are not exactly the best of times for the Republican Party — nationally, statewide or in Western New York.

Now the party's woes are reflected in a cold, hard statistic: for the first time in anyone's memory, upstate New York collectively falls into the Democratic column.

That old, reliable concept of upstate countering the Democratic advantages of New York City now lies in the past.

There are reasons for all of this. New York Republicans have never identified with the more conservative brand the party now sports in other parts of the country. The New York GOP, after all, always had a good number of "Rockefeller Republicans" in the more liberal fashion of the late Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.

In addition, even Republican pundits acknowledge that the party finds itself at low ebb resulting from the unpopularity of former President George W. Bush. The pendulum, they say, is on a leftward path for the moment.

All is not lost for the GOP. The party has recently elected county executives in Erie, Monroe and Onondaga counties, and Michael R. Bloomberg became mayor of New York as a Republican (he is now an independent). And many see the 2010 gubernatorial election as another golden opportunity for Republicans, especially in view of the many problems encountered by Democratic incumbent David A. Paterson.

Still, it's a sobering moment for the GOP. The party controls no statewide office and lost its majority in the Senate in 2008. Some, like former Erie County Republican Chairman Bob Davis, say it's time for Republicans to develop a message and articulate it.

Do you think the newest statistic sounds the death knell for the Republican Party in New York? Or do you believe it can re-establish itself as part of the state's political mix with the right message and the right messenger?

— Robert J. McCarthy

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Should Buffalo rely on overtime or hire more firefighters

Rochester hires 20 more firefighters than it needs so the department is adequately staffed even when people take vacations, get sick, or use personal days. Rochester discourages overtime.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, relies on overtime to fully staff its fire department. The city feels it's cheaper to rely on overtime than to hire more firefighters.

Pittsburgh spends about $10 million annually on firefighter overtime. So does the city of Buffalo, although Buffalo is hoping to hire more firefighters by the end of the year, and reduce its overtime bill.

Which makes more sense: Relying on overtime? Or hiring more firefighters?

Tell us what you think.

-- Susan Schulman  

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Rating doctors and other on line


   Patients for years have turned to the Web to get information about their illnesses, possible courses of treatment and the medication they've been prescribed.

   Now, they can go there to rate, or read reviews of, their doctors, too.

   Yelp, Angie's List and Rate MDs are just some of the many Web sites that now carry patient reviews of doctors in a range of largely subjective rating categories.

   Rate MDs, for example, asks patients to rate doctors for their punctuality and helpfulness, and about 400 local doctors are reviewed on the site.

   Some area physicians receive poor reviews and scathing comments from these anonymous critics, and doctors and patients alike question their validity.

   But all agree that some kind of credible information about physician performance would be helpful to present to the public.

   The question that regulators, insurers and doctors alike are wrestling with is what criteria to include in the physician reports.

   Would you like to see more doctor reviews? What do you think of the rating Web sites? And should more classes of professionals … plumbers? mechanics? home contractors? … be rated on the Internet?

  

   — Stephen T. Watson

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Firefighters piling up big overtime, bigger pensions

   Buffalo's fire department has been downsized in recent years as city officials attempted to reduce costs and bring the department into the 21st century. Fire companies were shut down. Manpower was sliced.

   But in the end, total payroll went up, because of skyrocketing overtime associated in large part with short-staffing.

   But the overtime money isn't distributed evenly.

   Firefighters on the verge of retirement gobble up big chunks of the extra $10 million. Sometimes the amounts are so large it's hard to understand how one person  could have gotten so much under the existing system for doling out OT.

   However it's done, New York State counts overtime payments in pension calculations. As a result, many firefighters are retiring with pensions bigger than the base pay they earned while on the job.

   What do you think? Is the system working, or does it need some  fixing?

   — Susan Schulman

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