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Paterson settles into the job

I'm still trying to make up my mind about David Paterson, but the governor sure has been interesting to follow since succeeding Eliot Spitzer in March.

He didn't start out great -- beginning with admissions of cheating and doping isn't a good introduction, even though they're largely irrelevant -- and doing the three-men-in-a-room thing to pass a bloated state budget certainly wasn't encouraging.

Getting rid of qualified folks like Roger Kelley at the Power Authority simply because they were Spitzer appointees doesn't strike me as good government. Nor does adding staff to his office at a time of growing deficits. He wasn't part of solution to the failed effort to reform IDAs, either.

Like a lot of folks, I started thinking "What the hey?"

Paterson_2 Maybe he needed time to figure out the job, maybe the issues have forced him to assert himself, but no matter the reason, Paterson is showing more of late.

He's facing the state's fiscal problems head on while much of Albany remains in a state of denial. He got the State Senate to bite on his proposal to cap property taxes and in the process has managed to tick off a lot of folks who have had things their way for far too long. He took a decisive stance on same-sex marriages. He helped hammer out a good brownfields reform bill.

And, he ignored the pleas of his buddy, Mayor Byron Brown, and vetoed a bill that would have weakened the city's control board, a surprise move I suspect had a lot to do with his new best friend in Buffalo, Bob Wilmers, who was a force behind the establishment of the board. Let's see if he's willing to break ranks with Brown over land bank legislation that awaits the governor's signature.

I'm not saying everything Paterson has done of late is good. But he's not shying away from issues that too many in Albany would prefer he'd leave alone. More than anything, I find his evolution interesting. I'm not sure if the story will wind up with a happy ending, but it's fun following.

Here's a couple of recent analysis pieces, one from  New York Times, the other from Newsday.

What do you think of Paterson so far?

Flat wages, soaring profits

I'm reading "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Workers," by New York Time labor reporter Steven Greenhouse. I'm only a couple of chapters into the book, but already, the numbers make me wanna holler.

Worker productivity is up 60 percent since 1979. Not that it did the worketing stiff much good.

Wages during that period for 80 percent of U.S. workers -- non-supervisors working in the private sector -- are up 1 percent after being adjusted for inflation. Wages for men are acutally down 5 percent.

Who made out? Stockholders. Corporate profits from 2001-2007 jumped an average of 13 percent a year.

The working poor are getting hit especially hard. And there are lots of them. Almost one-quarter of the work force earns less than $10 a hour. Yeah, some of them are students, but many are a mom or dad trying to support a family. Raise a family of four on those wages and you're below the poverty line. Which is growing, by the way, up 15 percent, or 5.6 million people, from 2000 to 2006.

Greenhouse's findings are summed up by his Times colleague Paul Krugman:

"It's a great economy if you're a high-level corporate executive or someone who owns a lot of stoock. For most other Americans, economic growth is a spectator sport."

Part One of a Greenhouse interview on Democracy Now! is posted above. Part Two is below. They both run about 10 minues each.

Here's a book review from the New York Times. Read it and weep.

Village politicians circle the wagons

Mel_brooksSo I'm reading a story by Fred Williams about officials from 12 villages in Erie County gathering to denounce Kevin Gaughan's proposal that they merge with their towns, and a scene from Blazing Saddles immediately came to mind. It's the one where Governor William J. LePetomane, played by Mel Brooks, declares, in a fit:

"Holy underwear! Sheriff murdered! Innocent women and children blown to bits! We've got to protect our phony baloney jobs, gentlemen."

OK, that's a bit harsh, I admit. But, come on, among those leading the charge against consolidation is Terry Caber, the mayor of the Village of Farnham, population 322, who is essentially arguing that his constituents would somehow suffer if the village was swallowed up by the Town of Brant, population 1,906.

Franham has 200 parcels. Heck, my street may have more properties than that.

The village has five elected officials, or one for every 80 man, woman and child. All five were re-elected this spring without opposition. But they call it democracy.

Farnham has a one-man public works department. It's got a village hall. It's got a $319,000 annual budget, plus $99,000 if you count the water district, which costs village property owners $104,000 in real estate taxes.

All this for 322 people. At least back when the 2000 Census was taken. My hunch is the number is a little lower these days.

It's not as though Brant is lacking for elected officials to look out for the folks in Farnham. Or appointed ones, for that matter.

The town elects a supervisor, four board members, two judges, a highway supervisor and a clerk. That's nine.

There's another 20 appointed officials serving on the planning board, the zoning board and the board of assessment review.

Barney_fife Brant has almost as many politicians (nine) as police -- a 12-man department, including the chief. No word on whether they've got a deputy chief with the first name of Barney.

Gaughan has calculated that villages in Erie County account for 9 percent of the population and 23 percent of its elected officials, whose salaries cost taxpayers $5.6 million in 2006.

(Update: Buffalo Pundit has linked to this item, and has included a hilarious YouTube clip that includes the "phony baloney jobs" scene. I'd never get away posting it on this blog, The News being a "family newspaper" and all.)

The "Blazing Saddles" reference notwithstanding, this is not a laughing matter.

IDA shenanigans in Clarence

Dashs_market State law was amended in 1993 to prohibit IDAs from giving benefits to retail operations, everything from dress shops to supermarkets. The six IDAs in Erie County followed up with a memorandum of understanding in 2001 that included the same requirement.

That didn't stop the Clarence IDA from helping to subsidize the new Dash's Market that opened in May at 8845 Main Street.

The site had been home to a couple of supermarkets in the past, a Jubilee and then a Latina's. The store was vacant when Dash's decided to open.

It's an upscale, modern market, complete with a drive through. The exterior is striking and inside includes a Spot Coffee, complete with a fireplace. And, get this, valet parking is available.

The Clarence IDA sanctioned the $5.1 million project, which included about $2.5 million in construction.

Dash's got a 10-year property tax abatement which will save it $110,000, a sales tax exemption on construction materials and non-production equipment worth $180,000, and a waiver on the county mortgage recording that will save it an undetermined amount. If Dash's floated a mortgage for the entire cost of the project, the savings would come to about $51,000.

The Clarence IDA used a "but for" clause in the state law and countywide IDA agreement to benefit the Dash's project. State law makes this exception when:

The predominant purpose of the project would be to make available goods or services which would  not,  but  for the  project,  be  reasonably  accessible to the residents of the city, town, or village within which the  proposed  project  would  be  located  because  of  a  lack  of  reasonably  accessible retail trade facilities offering such goods or services.

In other words, but for the subsidy, residents would be denied access to the retail service.

Buffalo has used incentives to help put a supermarket on Jefferson Avenue on the East Side and replace an aging grocery on Niagara Street on the lower West Side. Fair enough, as those communities might otherwise not have a supermarket.

But Clarence, one of the most affluent suburbs in WNY?

A search on Google Maps shows there are plenty of supermarkets that either border on the Clarence town line along Transit Road or are within a couple-mile drive. They include two Wegmans, two Tops, a Wal-Mart Superstore and, get this, a Dash's.

No access?

Technically speaking, none are in the Town of Clarence, and the IDA used that rationale to qualify the Dash's project.

"They didn't have one (supermarket) in the community," explained Paul Leone, director of business development for the Clarence IDA.

The IDA deal with Dash's new. But it's the one officials chose to crow about in a full-page ad that ran Monday in The News. The agency, in the ad, proclaimed the Dash's project "is a great example of how the IDA works for you."

Indeed, it does.

State salaries -- and subsidies -- in a time of deficits

A little number crunching I did on seethroughny while the howls of protest  continue over Gov. David Paterson's proposal to cut the state's deficit budget by $600 million.

-- There are 14,656 state employees who earn more than $100,000 a year.

-- Of them, 297 make more than $200,000. Many of the folks on this list work for the state university system. Other agencies that pop up include the New York Power Authority, the Long Island Power Authority and the Comptroller's office.

-- Four state employees make more than $500,000, led by Steve Strongwater, vice president of hospital affairs at Stonybook Hospital, who is slated to earn $715,851.

Mind you, this is out of some 263,000 employees listed in the database, and not all authorities are listed. Among the missing is the Thruway Authority. Also, the wages reported are base salaries and do not include, among other things, overtime.

I don't know if these numbers say something good or bad, but I think they're kind of interesting in light of the state's budget problems.

Before you union bashers, SUNY bashers, etc. start hollering, keep in mind that the state bestows hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tax breaks to corporations in the name of economic development, and that many companies fail to deliver the jobs they promised in order to qualify.

Add Empire Zones, IDAs and electric power discounts and you're approaching $1 billion a year. So far as I can tell, those programs remain untouched in the governor's package of cuts.

Wilmers using M&T to screen job candidates

The Albany Times Union has an interesting story on how Bob Wilmers is using his M&T Bank to vet job candidates for top jobs at the Empire State Development Corp., which he heads as chairman.

Reports the paper:

The search for a new CEO for the state office and two other ESDC managers -- chief operating officers for upstate and downstate -- seems to be treated like a bank function.

Besides the unusual arrangement of a public-sector agency director reporting to a private-sector business leader, the candidates for the three top posts are sending their job search materials to the bank, which also does business with ESDC.

The candidates are interviewing through the bank's human resources department, and even submitting to personality tests that bank job applicants undergo.

Wilmers has already effectively farmed out media relations to M&T. When I've called to try to schedule an interview with Wilmers, the ESD spokesperson has referred me to the M&T press operation. Wilmers, by the way, isn't doing a whole lot of interviews. I'm among those waiting.

Authorities generous with our money

You've gotta love state authorities.  I know I do. As a reporter, they're the gift that keeps on giving.

I've got a story in today's paper on a generous severance package granted former New York Power Authority CEO Roger Kelley, whose resignation was demanded, and received, by Gov. David Paterson in June.

Kelley left the job July 31, and before departing, he negotiated a severance package with NYPA Chairman Frank McCollough, who has also since resigned. Kelley was only on the job for 13 months and earned an annual salary of $246,750.

The severance deal gives him nearly $110,000 in walkaway money, plus reimbursement for undisclosed expenses he'll incur for the next six months (I'm guessing health insurance). The authority also will pick up the cost of a job placement service.

Kelley's two predecessors left the job without a dime.

It was no secret that members of the authority's governing board were taken aback when Paterson sacked Kelley, and the severance package may be its way of trying to make things up to Kelley. Still, these are public dollars.

Enough with NYPA. Let's turn to the New York Thruway Authority.

When we last heard from them, they were raising tolls. What we didn't know is that the board members raising tolls were getting the authority to pick up the cost of their health insurance, despite a warning from State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in February 2007 that the compensation was illegal. Board members are supposed to serve without compensation.

State Comptroller Tomas DiNapoli has completed an audit that showed the authority continued to pay the premiums of policies for five current and former commissioners until March of this year. The cost: $51,667.

Said DiNapoli: "This is just one more example of the need for the Thruway Authority to look at its own finances first before it hits up the public for more money.”

True dat.

One more thing. This nifty new Web site has added the Power Authority's payroll to its extensive list of databases.   

Before posting the payroll, which is current through May of this year, SeeThroughNY did an analysis that found the authority has 1,567 employees earning an average of $83,853 a year. 

Nice work if you can get it.

I imagine Thurway Authority payrolls will be posted before long.

 

Spokesmen as shields

Spokesmen have their role in a sprawling bureaucracy like City Hall or the Buffalo Police Department.

They can be traffic cops, pointing reporters in the right direction, scheduling interviews, running down documents. In other words, facilitators.

Sometimes, they speak for the boss, at least on mundane topics. Fair enough.

The current crew running city government is using its spokesmen for an additional purpose: to shield them from tough questions from the press.

Witness Wednesday's interaction between Mayor Brown and Brian Meyer, our City Hall reporter. Meyer asked the mayor about the police department's decision to strip crime incident reports of basic information. Brown refused to comment.

"Every organization has a spokesman, and ours is Mike DeGeorge," the mayor said.

Gee, I didn't know the buck stopped at Mike DeGeorge's desk.

(Update: Several hours after this post went live, Brown ordered the department to stop deleting key information from crime reports. So he stepped up. Here's a link to story.)

Brown usually deflects question to Peter Cutler, his press guy. Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson has his own flack, DeGeorge. School Superintendent James Williams has Stefan Mychajliw and used him to do most of the talking during the McKinley High School fiasco.

Between them, these spokesmen cost taxpayers over $200,000 a year in salaries, plus benefits. DeGeorge drives a city-issued car, as well. Not that you find him traveling to crime scenes much anymore and answering questions from newspaper and TV reporters on the scene.

What ever happened to the notion of decision makers answering questions about their actions?

Many inside and outside City Hall say that idea runs counter to the culture that's taken root since Brown took office two years ago.

Late last year The News surveyed hundreds of community, business and political leaders about Brown's first two years in office. On balance, they gave him middling grades. Good on some stuff, like being smart, hardworking and even-tempered. Not so good on other fronts; a major beef was that he's too concerned with image, too isolated, too aloof.

One community leader described Brown as "isolated, insular." Another described the mayor  as "very thin-skinned [with] a need to look good all the time."

More recently, Aaron Bartley, a Harvard-educated lawyer and West Side housing activist, spoke of what he termed the administration's "clinical paranoia."

Bartley and others believe there's a big resistance to dealing with those outside the bubble the mayor and his senior staff have built around themselves. It's not just Bartley. I've heard it from block club leaders, business leaders, etc.

The activists who pushed the city to enforce its living wage law told me they couldn't get an audience with the mayor until they put up a tent city outside City Hall in September 2007 and vowed not to leave until he met with them. He finally relented after an overnight campout, and ensuing press coverage, but wouldn't let them into his office. Instead, they spoke in the hallway outside his office.

"This sort of closed-door policy, control approach is an impediment to progress," said Allison Duwe, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice, one of those who met with the mayor.
   

   

Sharing crime data with citizens

Mayor Byron Brown has ordered his police department to adandon its practice of stripping key information from crime reports and increased the number of personnel authorized to speak to reporters. Bravo.

Let's not stop there. A number of police departments across the nation are using the World Wide Web to disseminate crime report information. There's nothing stopping Buffalo -- and a whole lot of other local local departments -- from getting onboard.

Check out these sites:

CrimeReports.com, a site that Buffalo Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson expressed some interest in May. Not enough timely information for reporters working on deadline, but it gives citizens a window into what's happening in their neighborhood.

Philadelphia Police Department

A sample page from DailyCrimeReport, which looks like it operates independent from police agencies.

A template from EveryBlock, which provides citizens in a small but growing number of cities a range of hyperlocal information, including crime.

Then there's my favorite crime site, not exactly relevant, but a lot of fun.

Meanwhile, here's what you get from the Buffalo police. And Amherst. And Cheektowaga. Not exactly rich in useful content for citizens wanting to know what's going on in their neighborhood.

If you know of other good sites, please post a comment below with the link.

Police keep changing their story

A different day, a different reason from the police brass as to why they've stripped incident reports of basic information such as the address of crime locations. Here's a link to today's follow-up story.

Last October, Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson informed The News in writing that he planned on taking away online access to the reports altogether because it represented "a preferential position compared to the other media." I guess it was our fault only The News takes the initiative to access the records on a computer at Police HQ.

Tuesday, Mike DeGeorge, the department's flak, had a different reason: To protect the ability of police to conduct investigations. Never mind that we withhold sensitive information about ongoing investigations when the police ask us to, or that the street where a crime happens is hardly hush-hush information.

Wednesday, DeGeorge offered yet another reason. The department can't vouch for the accuracy of the incident reports. In other words, he said, we can't trust our own reports. I'm sure defense attorneys around town are happy to hear this.

I can hardly wait to see what DeGeorge has to say today.

The flip-flopping didn't stop there.

On Tuesday, DeGeorge said police officials had no intention of reconsidering their decision to strip incident reports of such basics as the location of the crime.

Wednesday, however, he told Luke Moretti of WIVB-TV, News 4 Buffalo, that the department was willing to work towards a solution. He added: "It's difficult to negotiate with people who don't want to negotiate back." Here's the story.

"Nobody from the city called me today," News Editor Margaret Sullivan told me Wednesday night, hours after DeGeorge spoke to Ch. 4.

"I spent months talking with city officials," Sullivan said, "thought we had a resolution, and then found out they unilaterally changed the understanding with no notice."

In the spirit of trying to resolve this, let me float this idea, one that ought to come naturally to a police department:

Follow the law.

The information the police are stripping out of reports is a matter of public record. Don't take my word for it, listen to Bob Freeman, the universally respected expert on this stuff, who serves as executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.

"In my opinion it's clear that there is a failure to comply with the Freedom of Information Law," Freeman told Ch. 4. "We have laws, and the laws have to be followed by everybody, including police agencies."

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