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Slow-moving feds delay local nuke cleanup

(Editor's note: John Bonfatti wrote this post last week. Bonfatti died overnight Thursday.)

John F. Bonfatti writes about environmental issues for The News. Today he fills us in on a slow-moving project out west that will delay the cleanup of nuclear waste at West Valley.

Bonfatti It's called Yucca Mountain but it's more of a ridge, stretching for nearly five miles in the barren desert, not far from where the government conducted numerous nuclear bomb tests.

The potential of nuclear energy was demonstrated here. The answer to its chief pitfall -- what to do with the deadly waste it generates -- will also be located here, if the federal government has its way.

The government has already spent $9 billion to burrow the tunnels that are being used to try to test whether the proposed long-range nuclear waste repository will safely protect waste that will remain highly radioactive for thousands of years.

It was originally supposed to open 10 years ago, but has still not been given final approval.

The earliest date it could possibly open now is 2020 -- and that's probably optimistic, given the deep opposition to it in the state in which its located, Nevada.

As part of a deal it made with the utilities to build a repository, the government agreed to pay the generators of the waste between $300 million and $500 million a year if it wasn't open by 1998. That account remains open as long as there's no repository.

A few weeks ago, the government announced the cost of building and operating Yucca Mountain for 100 years would be $90 billion -- $19 billion more than an estimate made last year.

What's at stake for Western New York?

The high-level waste from the West Valley Demonstration Project is destined for the facility. If it's not built, that waste will almost certainly remain on site in Cattaraugus County.

Nuclear plants don't produce the carbon-based pollution of coal and gas-fired electricity plants do, so some energy analysts believe the country may soon have no choice but to add more nuclear power to our energy profile because.

But the saga of Yucca Mountain shows nuclear plants have their own pollution issues -- and that's not even considering the environmental impacts of accidents like the ones at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

Should we be looking at producing more nuclear energy, which now accounts for 20 percent of the U.S. needs? If so, what should we do with the waste?

Problems with pensions

News investigative reporter Mary B. Pasciak recently did an eye-opening series on sky-high public pensions. Today she expands on those findings in this guest post.

We wrote recently about the pension-fattening lump sums that some teachers and administrators get when they cash in unused sick days and vacation time when they retire. In some cases, retirees end up with a pension -- free of state income tax -- that's as big as their paycheck was while they were working.

Eventually, those sweetheart deals will be phased out; only people who started teaching before June 1971 can count on those lump sums when the state calculates their pensions.

That doesn't mean taxpayers are off the hook, though.

In many places, teachers and administrators will still be able to cash in their unused sick time. But instead of getting a huge check when they retire -- which then would pump up their pension -- hundreds of retirees will be getting tens of thousands of dollars set aside so they can purchase health insurance many years after they retire.

Nowhere does this type of contract provision seem more lucrative than in Depew.

For years, employees could collect as much as $110,000 when they retired, when they cashed in unused sick time.

This summer, the deal got even better. Now, for teachers who cash in the maximum of 420 sick days, the district pays out $174,000, deposited into a tax-sheltered account.

Superintendent Kimberly Mueller, who has been in the district for one year, acknowledged that Depew's teachers contract is among the most generous around for retirees.

"It was just since time began that this was how they compensated employees in Depew," she said.

Tomorrow: John F. Bonfatti on bad news for the West Valley cleanup.

Housing activists remain skeptical of City Hall

My guest post for today comes from Phil Fairbanks, who has written extensively about city housing issues, including a recent investigation of vacant housing. I asked Phil about the fallout since his series ran.

As you can probably guess, the response has varied widely, although the large, large majority of the people who contacted me saw the series as eye-opening confirmation of an immense challenge facing the city.

Perhaps the most telling reaction came at a recent Common Council hearing on how the city should use state housing funds. Speaker after speaker called for a more thoughtful and comprehensive approach to rebuilding the city's neighborhoods.

What people want is more than than just demolitions. Yes, there are thousands of houses that need to come down, but what's missing in many neighborhoods is a plan, a vision for what comes next.

There's a growing frustration with City Hall and what many housing advocates see as its inability to deal with a problem as big as vacant housing.

Many also wonder if the Brown administration is truly interested in working with groups that could help. They point to the land banking bill passed by the state legislature and now headed to Gov. David Paterson.

The city, as well as the state Conference of Mayors, claims the bill fails to address their unique problems. They've asked Paterson to veto it.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen groups and individuals, including the University at Buffalo's Regional Institute, have voiced support for the bill.

Tomorrow: Mary Pasciak writes about some of the most outrageous pension abuses she has uncovered.

Familiar names on the police blotter

For this last week of August, five of my colleagues are providing guest posts on topics they've written on of late. Today, we hear from Vanessa Thomas, who has covered Buffalo police for six years. During that time, she's read thousands of crime incident reports, and I asked her to write about what she's found most striking.

Vanessa_thomas The most striking part about the crime incident reports I read is that I recognize some of the names of these criminals.

Some of these reports describe crimes  -- shootings, homicides, burglaries, fist fights, domestic violence, etc. -- that were so horrifyingly violent that I was haunted in my sleep on a few rare occasions.

It's frightening to read reports about the same people being arrested again and again, and the same people being shot time after time.

The revolving door of our criminal justice system has meant that I can rattle off the names of Buffalo's most notorious convicts and thugs, much like folks can recite their list of friends.

One of those names ingrained on my brain is Larry Kemp, a 25-year-old Buffalo man, who narrowly escaped death for years.

Kemp had been shot three times over a period of three years -- but it was the fourth shooting on Sept. 23, 2007, that claimed his young life.

Kemp had been virtually a living miracle, surviving a gunshot wound to his head and two separate shots to his neck during previous incidents.

I wrote about two of those shootings, including the article about his death.

It's no secret that Kemp was well known to police; he had a felony conviction for criminal possession of a weapon, but he also had family members who loved him.

Buffalo's streets can be a mean place for those dabbling in the criminal underworld.

Many criminals think they're invincible. They're not. I've written the stories to prove it.

Tomorrow: Phil Fairbanks follows up on his recent investigation into the city's runaway vacant housing problem.

Shrinking the county Legislature

For this last week of August, I'm turning to five of my colleagues who have graciously agreed to provide guest posts on topics they've written on of late. We're starting off with Matt Spina, who covers Erie County government. I asked Matt to write about the prospects of a proposal to shrink the Erie County Legislature.

Spina The prospects for a nine-member Legislature are most uncertain.

A Democratic lawmaker, Thomas A. Loughran of Amherst, has placed the challenge before all 15 lawmakers. If a majority accept it, the proposal would go to voters in November 2009, when the lawmakers are seeking re-election.

Loughran says the proposal would be the year's foremost campaign issue. Among the 15, Loughran seemed most impressed by civic activist Kevin Gaughan's call for distressed Erie County to take the sickle to its overgrown thicket of local politicians.

As you might guess, Loughran's proposal makes some lawmakers nervous. As of right now, it has support from just three or four other legislators. It needs eight to pass. A proposal by Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli might derail it.

Marinelli is creating a study commission that will look at length of terms, powers of legislators and the number of legislators, among other things. It would be appointed solely by her and a few other lawmakers. And its findings would have to be accepted by the Legislature as a whole before being put to voters.

In other words the Legislature if it wished -- and this is a cynical view -- could cherry-pick the most self-serving changes recommended by the commission and put them before voters, then discard the rest.

Oh yes, there probably would not be a referendum until 2010, a non-election year for lawmakers.

Marinelli says the call for a smaller legislature should be evaluated holistically, against other reforms that have been broached over the years. That's why she does not want to rush to shrink the legislature.

Here are the lawmakers who, so far, have endorsed the creation of a study commission: Edward A. Rath III, R-Amherst; Robert B. Reynolds, D-Hamburg; Timothy M. Wroblewski, D-Cheektowaga. They are willing to wait while it does its work.

And the lawmakers who have endorsed a nine-member Legislature: John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park; Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst; and Kathy Konst, D-Lancaster.

It will be up to Loughran and Gaughan to win more votes for their idea. Expect some bargaining. [If not nine, how about 11? 13?]

But Marinelli need not win any votes to create the commission. Her powers as Legislature chairwoman let her do it on her own.

Tomorrow: Vanessa Thomas writes about what what she finds most striking in the police blotter.

The story behind the story

Reporters are often asked how we come up with our story ideas.

Here's how I came up with the piece that's running on the front page of today's Buffalo News.

I wrote a story several weeks ago about Buffalo police withholding basic information from crime incident reports made available to the press. I cited one example in the lead of the story - a home invasion that happened in an unspecified location in the northeastern portion of the city.

Over the next week, I got an e-mail from the mother of one of the victims and a brother of the other. Both families were upset about the crime and none too pleased about the way the police were handling it.

Imagine how they felt, a mother whose son had a shotgun placed to his temple, a man whose brother came away feeling that the police suspected he and his roommate of staging the whole thing.

They put me in touch with the two victims, who I subsequently interviewed, first at their new apartment, then at their old digs, the scene of the crime.

Next I headed to the police precinct to get a copy of the incident report. I wanted to compare it with the incomplete report I had obtained online at police HQ downtown. The report technician at the precinct wouldn't hear of it and sent me away empty handed.

I called the chief overseeing the precinct, who also refused, telling me that, aside from the phone numbers of the victims, the report I wanted had the same information as what I had obtained at HQ. I wound up getting a copy of the report from the victims and, of course, it had a lot of additional information.

What the reports had in common, according to the victims, was incomplete and inaccurate information. One example: both reports listed the wrong name for one of the victims and the online version misspelled the name of the other victim. Pretty basic stuff done wrong.

This underscores why The News has battled the department for more complete information than what it had been providing reporters the past couple of months. Information that is a matter of public record, including addresses and birth dates, allows reporters to do the fact checking necessary to publish accurate accounts.

If the victims are to be believed - and if I didn't believe them, I wouldn't have written the story - the police essentially blew them off. A couple of college kids ripped off in a crime-ridden neighborhood, no big deal. Process the paperwork and move on.

I tried hard to give the police their say. I did get an interview with the chief of detectives downtown and the detective in the precinct who is handling the case.

I was turned down when I asked to interview the officers who originally responded to the crime scene. I was also rebuffed when I asked for witness statements, even though the state expert on the FOI Law said such a blanket denial was overreaching by the police. The reality is the police aren't actively investigating the case.

I also was turned down for statistics that showed how often police fingerprint burglary scenes, as what I had been told in an interview didn't jibe with with others familiar with police operations had told me.

While the story deals with one incident, it raises questions about how the police go about their jobs dealing with the most common of crimes. FBI stats show that of the 19,393 major crimes committed in the city in 2006, two-thirds were burglaries and larcenies.

We write a lot about police efforts to solve murders, many of them involving gang on gang, and quality-of-life problems like loud music and barking dogs. But statistics show the vast majority of crime that goes on in the city involves stealing.

And if the experience of the two colleges kids I wrote about is indicative, Buffalo police are not very diligent about trying to solve them. But I can't tell you if the response in this case is the norm or not.

I did witness an officer a couple of weeks ago who hustled to solve a robbery in my North Buffalo neighborhood. I was doing yard work and, being the nosy reporter that I am - on and off the clock - I asked the officer what was going on when he left my neighbor's house. One of her kids had hold his cell phone stolen. The officer returned to the house two more times in the next 45 minutes, the second time with the cell phone in hand. I thought that was pretty good work.

I'm hoping those of you who have been burglarized will share your story below, or, if need be, through an e-mail.

Some clerks paid better than cops

One of my thoughts, as the report technician was holding up the crime report she wouldn't let me see the other day, was that I really can't expect some low-paid clerk to know the Freedom of Information Law.

Then I went to the office and looked up her salary. Linda Craig made $60,967 last year. For taking dictation from police officers and crime witnesses, fielding questions from the public, answering the telephone, photocopying documents and so on.

"The Report Technician is assigned clerical tasks within the Buffalo Police Department  so that uniform personnel my be released for the performance of work of an enforcement nature," according to the civil service job description.

Eligible applicants must have a high school diploma, or GED, and one year's experience as a clerk.

I got to nosing around payroll records of public employees we keep here at The News. There are a lot of report technicians employed by the police department. Each of the five districts has them, as do most of the detective divisions, such as homicide and sex offenses. Then there's a slew who work in central booking in HQ downtown. I decided to focus on them.

The base salary is modest -- $30,213. Not that anyone makes just their base.

No, far from it.

The 19 RTs in question last year earned anywhere from $2,147 to $64,940 in additional pay, most, if not all of it, in overtime. On average, the RTs earned an average of $50,520.

By contrast, the starting salary of a street cop is $47,288.

The earnings of two report technicians stand out. Suzanne Cairns made $95,153; and Faye Kwiatkowski, $91,554.

Not that 2007 was a record year for Suzanne. Her earnings were actually down from 2005, when she made $95,691.

Seniority scheduling is a wonderful thing. At least if you have seniority.

As for knowing the FOI Law, I suppose I can't expect the RTs to know it when their superiors don't.

It's not not in the police department, not just City Hall, but throughout local government.

I use the FOI Law a lot to obtain documents and I continue to be troubled by how few people in government who ought to know the law don't. Many gatekeepers of public records operate on the assumption that the information is private, as though it belongs to them, not the public that pays their salaries.



Buffalo Pundit on Illuzzi and Hoyt

The Buffalo Pundit has a very intelligent post today on Joe Illuzzi's outing of Sam Hoyt's extra-marital affairs three years after the fact and three weeks before the heated Democratic primary.

Opines the Pundit:

The whole lurid story even made its way to the pages of the New York Times. Today, Illuzzi is a bit on defense because the stories of his criminal past have popped up all over, in the Times article and on Beach’s show yesterday. People are attacking his credibility, which is all well and good, but beside the point since no one is disputing the truth of the affairs.

In my opinion, unless the women were interns at the time of their affair with Hoyt, there’s nothing to see here. If they were both adults, the affairs were consensual, and he had no power or authority over them, then it’s a personal matter between Hoyt and his family and shouldn’t be fodder for chatter. Hoyt’s political life should rise and fall based on his results in Albany, not on where he drops his pants. Certainly it’s a moral failing on his part, and some voters may decide that he is unelectable based on that, and I understand that, and that’s fair. I’m not saying the stories shouldn’t have been published. What I am saying is that we really don’t need to be treated to all the titillating details, and we really don’t need to see the actual emails. There’s a fine line between publishing newsworthy information and piling on.

Furthermore, I think Kavanaugh should have come out much more forcefully to her opponent’s defense. As I indicated, this information was undoubtedly released by Hoyt’s biggest foes, and it was done to fatally injure him as a candidate, all to Kavanaugh’s benefit. If she sincerely feels so sad about what’s been done to Hoyt and his family, she should have said that she wants to talk about issues; she should have denounced Illuzzi, with whom she has an extra-large, prominent advertisement.

What do you think?

Two new faces at NYPA

The state Power Authority's governing board has two new members. That leaves one more vacancy to fill on the seven-member board, perhaps someone from Western New York.

The State Senate has approved the nominations of Eugene L. Nicandri of Massena and Jonathan F. Foster of New York City. They will serve five-year terms without compensation.

This, from a NYPA press release:

Judge Nicandri, whose legal work contributed to the establishment of the Massena Electric Department in 1981, served on the St. Lawrence County Court from 1985 until 2004, when he retired.  Jonathan Foster has 20 years of experience as an investment banker and private equity investor for major financial firms.

Here's a link to the press release.

Gov. David Paterson still has one seat to fill, that of retired NYPA Chairman Frank McCullough, who stepped down July 31. State Sen. George Maziarz, the Newfane Republican who heads the Senate Energy Committee that vets appointments, has made it known he'd like to see that vacancy filled with a Western New Yorker. Elise Cusack's term will expire next May, and the thinking is that the governor could fill McCullough's seat with someone from here and fill Cusack's seat next year with someone outside the region.

Meanwhile, the authority's top job, that of president and CEO, remains vacant. Roger Kelley's resignation took effect three weeks ago and Paterson has yet to select a successor. In the meantime, Gil Quiniones is running the show as acting chief operating officer.

Buffalo police still withholding crime info

If you're a reporter or a citizen, Buffalo police are still withholding crime information that's a matter of public record under the state Freedom of Information Law. I found out first-hand Tuesday.

I'm working a story about a home invasion that happened a couple of weeks ago in University Heights. I went to E District on Bailey Avenue to get a copy of the incident report, which presumably contains more information than the watered-down version available to the press through a database in police HQ downtown that fails to list even the address of the house.

The report technician was full of questions when I asked for a copy of the report. Who was I? What did I want it for?

I explained that I was a reporter for The News working on a story. Behind her protective wall of clear Plexiglas, she retrieved a copy of the report, held it up in front of me and announced I could not have a copy.

"According to our rules, if your name isn't on it, I can't give you a copy," announced report technician Linda Craig.

Craig was backed up later in the day by her boss, E District Chief Fred Young, who said police can withhold the report because it contains a phone number of a victim.

They're both wrong, says Bob Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government.

"A blanket denial of a request (for an incident report) is clearly inconsistent with the Freedom of Information Law." he said.

Freeman added that the issue was settled some time ago by the highest court in the state.

Police can redact sensitive information but can't use it as grounds to withhold the entire document, Freeman said.

Police refusal to release incident reports isn't just a problem for reporters. Vanessa Thomas, the paper's daytime police reporter the past six years, said she's fielded complaints from citizens who have been turned down by police when they attempted to get incident reports on crime in their neighborhood.

Keep in mind, this is not a matter of police giving the public incomplete information from incident reports. I'm talking about not giving them any information, period. No report, no nothing.

As for what the police are providing the press, the department has yet to restore all the information in incident reports that had been available before the recent flap. Police have resumed including the street address of the crime location. But the address of the victim, as well as their date of birth, is often missing.

All of this is public record under the FOI Law and had been previously provided by police. The News uses this information for fact checking purposes and does not release sensitive information when it could endanger a crime victim.

"It's still hit and miss when it comes to these reports," Thomas said. "Most police incident reports have incomplete information despite two separate memos from the top police brass."

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