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Globe Metals project taking shape

I went on a quickie tour today (Tuesday) of the Globe Metals plant in Niagara Falls, which is being retooled to produce high-grade silicon for use in making solar panels.

The plant was closed five years ago and was a mess when crews began work in July. It's still kind of a mess, but they're on target to begin partial operations by the end of the year. The main building is huge inside, as the video above attests to. They've put on a roof and are replacing the sides. There is a ton of work left to do.

About 100 construction workers are on site, rehabbing part of the plant, and construction on a 150,000-square-foot annex is set to begin by the end of the year. Globe expects to spend some $60 million by the time the plant is running at full capacity in 2012.

Globe will start with about 100 workers and work its way up to about 500. The state Power Authority is providing 40 megawatts of low-cost hydropower, a big investment on the state's part, as the allocation will save Globe an estimated $13.8 million a year.

As part of the deal, Globe will set aside 25 percent of its production for use by manufacturers in New York State. Local economic development officials have launched an initiative to lure solar panels manufacturers here.

But, really, the point of this post is the video, shot and edited by my colleague Joe Popiolkowski. It's only 49 seconds, so take a look.

I'll have more in an upcoming story that looks at what Buffalo and Niagara Falls are doing in response to global warming.

A pittance for public transit

Donn Esmonde provided insight in his column yesterday on a proposal the NFTA is considering to raise transit fares.

I'm here to provide a little outrage on the bigger picture.

Global warming is staring us in the face. Gas is $4 a gallon, or there abouts. Transit ridership is up and more people are riding buses and subways than they have for the past 50 years.

Bus and subway operators across the nation are struggling to keep up. High fuel prices hit them, too. Equipment is aging. There's more riders than seats on some popular routes.

Where is Uncle Sam in all this? You know, the guy supposedly trying to kick his addiction to foreign oil?

Well, he's partying like its 1986. That's the year Metro Rail opened and global warming was a vague concept.

Fact is, the federal government has beat a steady retreat from funding mass transit since at least Ronald Reagan's time. The feds used to help public transit systems pay for both operations and capital improvements. That ended in 1991. Now public operators get something akin to a block grant, to spend as they see fit.

Ralph_krandem The outcome is a rob Peter to pay Paul scenario.

Or, in this case, Ralph Kramden.

The federal government this budget year has earmarked $4.6 billion in formula aid to assist systems in urban and high-grow states starting to choke on their congestion.

Federal spending in 1986, adjusted for inflation, comes to $5.4 billion.

In other words: ridership up, global warming up, federal aid down.

To put it in perspective, the federal government's spending on mass transit in cities and high growth areas equals the bill for 13 days of fighting in Iraq.

How does this play out in Buffalo-Niagara?

The NFTA will get about $11 million in federal aid this year. The state kicks in about $47 million, although that's about $1.3 million less than it was counting on, thanks to the budget crunch in Albany. Local revenues, mostly a piece of the county sales tax and mortgage recording tax, comes to about $37 million. Passenger fares come to about $28 million.

In other words, fares cover about a quarter of the overhead. Which means more ridership means more deficits. It's like a loss leader, but the NFTA has no way of making it up, at least so long as aid isn't tied to ridership, which it isn't.

NFTA Executive Director Larry Meckler doesn't have a beef with the state, which, in recent years, has increased aid faster than the rate of inflation. So have the feds, for that matter, but its a pittance compared to what it used to be and bolstered by earmarks wrangled by our Congressional delegation.

"It's getting tougher and tougher to get dollars," Meckler said. "We shouldn't have to beg for money for mass transportation.

"If you can get people on buses and trains, I think it solves a lot of problems."

Election sites: Smart, funny & otherwise

This is the presidential campaign where online media has come of age. There's a lot out there. Here's one humble(?) reporter's attempt to help readers wade through it all.

I'm going to start with comic relief. We need it. More with each passing day.

Campaign_button_paulson_4 First up, Indecision 2008, which features the handiwork of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Co. While it's good for yucks, the sad reality is that there's a lot more truth telling among the laughs than often can be found in the blah-blah-blah coverage of the "legitimate" network and cable news programs.

Saturday Night Live is worth keeping an eye on, given its opening skits the past two weeks.

I recently came across this political humor site, which had me in stitches. Among other things, it tallies the wisecracks made by Leno, Letterman and the other late night talk show hosts.

Here's my favorite, from Jimmy Kimmel:

"How are you going to be the vice president of the United States with five kids to take care of? She's got a four-month-old of her own, she's about to become a grandmother and she's partnered with John McCain. How many diapers can one woman possibly change?"

But seriously folks, I should move on to the mainstream news coverage. Yahoo! News offers a cross-section and is not a bad place to start. The major national dailies, starting with the New York Times and Washington Post are good, as is the new kid on the block, the all-Web Politico.

Campaign_button_rfk_2 Alternatives? The Guardian offers a European perspective via a Web site that is considered by many the best in the news business. Left-of-center perspectives on this side of the ocean can be found at Alternet and Huffington Post. Gristmill has top-notch news and analysis of the campaign as it relates to environmental issues.

I suppose I should list the official sites of Barack Obama and John McCain, if for no other reason than it provides an opening to mention a couple of third-party candidates, Ralph Nader on the left, Bob Barr on the right, and Ron Paul, who was all over the place when he ran during the primary. You may not be voting for any of the minor party candidates, but their sites are worth visiting because they raise important issues that the Dems and GOP aren't addressing head on.

Campaign_button_nixon_2There are a few useful odds 'n ends. Factcheck is a non-partisan truth squad analyzing the barrage of charges and counter-charges. If you want to check on the latest polls go here. And if you're still trying to make up your mind, this interactive questionnaire from USA Today tells you how the candidates stand on the issues of importance to you.

Among state and local blogs, I like what the Buffalo Pundit is doing, and the political blog of the Albany Times Union provides both statewide election coverage and a daily digest of political and government news from around New York. And, of course, there's Politics Now from my colleagues at The Buffalo News, which offers a good blend of local, state and national coverage.

Interested in how politicians are raising and spending money? Go here for state elections and here for federal. Good stuff.

Any sites you'd add to the list?

Golisano's shell game continues

When I pressed Steve Pigeon a few weeks ago about any possible link between Mothers and Fathers  Demanding Answers, the anonymous group that attacked Sam Hoyt during the recent primary, and Responsible New York, he assured me everything was being done above board.

"I think it will all come out in the reports," he said in a previous post regarding financial disclosure forms to be filed with the state Board of Elections.

Well, guess what? The deadline has come and gone and Mothers and Fathers hasn't filed a disclosure report.

One was due earlier this week for fund-raising and spending activity for the 11 days prior and 10 days after the Sept. 9 primary, assuming there was at least $1,000 in activity. We know from the barrage of TV ads and direct mail flyers there was a lot more than $1,000 going on.

All Mothers and Fathers has filed is a form registering as a political action committee established for the purpose of opposing Hoyt in the primary. It lists the same mailing address as the one used on the organization's attack flyers -- that of a direct mail business in Long Island City.

The treasurer is listed as Abigail Rivera of 15th Street in Buffalo. I reached Rivera by phone Wednesday afternoon.  She confirmed that yes, she's the Rivera who lives on 15th Street. I told her I had a document that listed her as treasurer of Mothers and Fathers and asked her to confirm whether that was correct. She seemed taken aback.

"I don't remember. I'm not sure," she said before asking me to call her back in a few minutes.

I did, several times, and she did not pick up the phone.

I checked some records, made some calls, and found out she's a former county worker who was active in the Democratic Party when Pigeon was chairman.

So I called Pigeon. He offered the Sergeant Schultz defense -- he knows nothing.

Steve, what do you know about Abigail Rivera?

"I was not involved."

What can you tell me about the failure of Mothers and Fathers to file a disclosure report?

"I can't speak to it."

He concluded by once again assuring me that everything Responsible New York does is legal.

"We are complying with the election law."

Then, click, he hung up.

Nice talking to you, Steve.

Eventually I spoke to Henry Berger, the attorney for Responsible New York. Said he didn't know Rivera, didn't know much at all about Mothers and Fathers.

Then he volunteered this: "I know we made a contribution to them, did some things with them."

But Mr. Berger, Responsible New York's disclosure report doesn't list any contributions to Mothers and Fathers.

"My understanding is the way we handled it is they did the stuff and we paid for it."

Arte_johnson_2 Interesting.

Or, sticking with the German soldier theme, "Very Interesting."

A review of Responsible New York's disclosure reports shows that, sure enough, it appears to be following the law. (Then again, I'm not a DA).

Of course, if it were an "authorized" political committee, Responsible New York would not only have to disclose its spending, but detail how it was allocated on behalf each individual candidate. Responsible New York, however, is an "unauthorized" political committee, meaning it does not have to disclose spending by candidate.

Nice, huh? This from the organization that lists among its eight mission points "True Government Transparency." Not to mention "Election and Campaign Finance Reform."

While perusing a number of disclosure reports I found some interesting stuff.

Responsible New York has spent $1.3 million of the $5 million Tom Golisano has plowed into the organization. In the 11 days leading up to the primary and the 10 days following, it spent $734,3584. That included $430,450 in TV spots, $148,000 in radio and $121,000 in direct mail. Most of that money was presumably spent in support of Barbra Kavanaugh and Baby Joe Mesi. Not that the report tells us.

Thanks to Golisano's largess, Kavanaugh raised and spent relatively little on her campaign, $33,321 and $29,525, respectively.

Hoyt, meanwhile, has raised $352,709 since the first of the year and spent $374,911, including more than $225,000 in the 10 days leading up to the primary. If the strategy of Golisano-Pigeon-Brown-Casey was to bleed Hoyt financially, it certainly worked.

All this said, I'm tired of writing about the Hoyt-Kavanaugh race. It was ugly and costly -- and it's over.

The reason why I've delved into it one more time is to document the less-than-transparent manner in which Golisano has Pigeon spending his money. 

Golisano has been preaching transparency in state government; applying that same principle to Responsible New York's activities would see it spell out precisely how much money it is spending on individual candidates.

I guess that kind of transparency is good for the goose, but not the Golisano.

Kessel to lead Power Authority

I don't know Richard Kessel from Adam. Or Eve, for that matter.

All I know is what I read in the newspapers, in this case, those downstate that have been covering him for years. And the coverage has not been positive.

Kessel_2To read Newsday, Kessel has been less than a stickler when it comes to finances and ethics. Over the summer, it described his tenure at the head of the Long Island Power Authority as "replete with ups and downs, including ... sharp criticism of the authority's spending and disclosure policies." Read this from yesterday's edition.

And to read the New York Post, the guy is a complete political hack. Read this and this.

Kessel is pretty good with the quips, however.

Here's the coverage of of appointment, my story in today's Buffalo News and pieces from The New York Times and Newsday.

Although Kessel has a Republican pedigree, as a disciple of Alfonse D'Amato, George Maziarz, head of the State Senate's Energy Committe, couldn't hide his disappointment with the appointment. Assemblyman Sam Hoyt wasn't exactly gushing either.

Perhaps most telling, the NYPA board was divided on the hire, and it's usually a rubber stamp on such things.  Elise Cusack and and James Besha both voted no.

Interestingly enough, Congressman Brian Higgins passed on commenting on Kessel, saying he didn't know much about him. Rather, Higgins said it's important to focus attention on Paterson.

"We have to redouble our efforts to get the political leadership in Albany to recognize its obligation to the Buffalo Niagara region as it relates to the Niagara Power Project."

Richard Brodsky, the Westchester County Democrat who is no friend to state authorities as the chairman of the Assembly committee that oversees them, offered this take.

"It's a an interesting appointment. Richie is smart, and he knows the issues. He's made more than his share of mistakes, but he's not afraid to shake things up and this is an institution that needs to be shaken up.

"It's an unconventional pick with downsides, but it has an upside."

"I've said this to Richie directly -- if I was to characterize where he didn't do as well as he
should have, it's where he became a spokesman for the governor. That did not serve him well and it did not serve (the Long Island Power Authority) well. When he was his own person, he helped LIPA improve.

"He's got to be the chief executive of NYPA, not the governor's assistant to NYPA."

Worse-case scenario, Kessel futher politicizes an already politicized organization and doesn't concern himself with upstate. Those concerns are being expressed in private by a number of folks.

Best case, he shows he dispells fears he won't look beyond downstate by leading the charge on reforms on how power and profits generated at the Niagara Power Project are used to benefit WNY. Right now, things aren't breaking our way. In more ways than one.

Newday reported this today on Kessel's intentions.

In an interview, he said his priorities include expanding the transmission system, cooperating with an attorney general probes of NYPA, and bolstering renewable energy. He said he will emphasize the upstate region, where "NYPA has to go the extra mile to help the people and the economy."

A modest IDA reform

Clawback is a dirty word in much of the economic development community.

It involves retrieving a subsidy granted to a business when it fails to deliver as promised. Typically, clawbacks are used when companies fail to create jobs as promised.

No local economic development agencies use clawbacks, but the Amherst IDA wants its brethren to embrace a limited use. Its board voted unanimously last week to recommend that IDAs throughout Erie County establish a uniform clawback policy when companies use fraud to obtain benefits.

Reported my colleague David Robinson:

The measure, proposed by board member Ayesha F. Nariman, is a scaled-back version of a claw-back proposal that the Amherst IDA rejected in April. That defeated proposal also would have imposed the claw-back on companies that failed to meet their job creation targets.

The Nariman proposal excludes companies that don’t meet their job creation promises due to economic circumstances. The only trigger for the claw-back provision in her proposal is if the tax breaks were sought in “an intent to defraud.”

The county's six IDAs agreed in 2001 to adopt uniform policies, so this proposal would have to gain the approval of the the IDA Leadership Council, which includes the agencies, the county executive and some other economic development types. The council meets again the middle of October.

"Any policy change would be all or none," explains Jim Allen, head of the Amherst IDA. "That way, no one is putting themselves at a competitive advantage or disadvantage.

"My sense it is will be passed. It's something whose time has come. The public is clamoring for a clawback in the event someone isn't playing by the rules."

This seems like an easy lift for the IDAs, as it's limited to fraud. Who can be against punishing a company under those circumstances?

Of course, the provision would have very limited application and would do little to satisfy those pushing for more comprehensive IDA reform.

Local IDAs don't want clawbacks extended to include a company's failure to meet job projections "because the numbers fluctuate," Allen said.

That's true, but the resistance goes beyond that, from what I've seen and heard from a wide range of local economic development officials.

They're concerned clawbacks would make it that much tougher to put deals together. OK, I can appreciate that.

But expanded clawbacks, enacted in numerous states, would also introduce a level of accountability that many economic development types would just as soon not interject into the process. If you had clawbacks, you'd have to go after under-performing companies and that would bring attention to the fact the public wasn't get a full return on its investment.

Darth_vader_2That's not a shot at Alllen, who, despite his Darth Vader reputation among some in the city, strikes me as a progressive guy when it comes to the larger economic development issues confronting this community. He doesn't dispute the notion that the region needs to rethink its approach. In fact, he's put more thought into how to fix things than anyone I've come across. Read this and you'll know what I mean.

Anyways, subsidies are failing to deliver as promised not just here, but around the country. Check out this new new report in Clawback, a blog published by the folks at Good Jobs First.

New Yankee Stadium: Field of Schemes

Yankee_stadium_2_7

I'm a big New York Yankees fan. That said, the financing scheme to build the new Yankee Stadium has a growing odor to it. We're not talking chump change -- the project's tab is $1.3 billion. (The photo above, via Newsday, was taken the middle of July).

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky has taken taken the Yankees, and their enablers in government, to task, as reported by the New York Times.

“This stadium is being built by the people of the city and the state of New York,” Mr. Brodsky said during a press conference at the north end of the new stadium, at 164th Street and Jerome Avenue. “In return, they’re getting almost nothing. This deal does not serve the public’s interest. It serves the Yankees’ interest.”

Mr. Brodsky and other critics have argued that the city violated federal tax regulations by manipulating the assessed value of the land beneath the stadium so that the team’s annual payment in lieu of taxes would effectively equal the annual payments to bondholders, or debt service, of $56.7 million beginning in 2010.

Good Jobs New York has done some good work on this topic. Check it out here. Also, here's a recent story from Newsday on Congressional attendtion paid to the project.

More zeros than a Beetle Bailey cartoon

USA Today had a neat chart on its front page the other day that detailed how the federal government has been doling out our money to bail out the likes of Fannie, Freddie and Lehman Brothers.

The total -- $900 billion. As in, very close to a TRILLION!

What does a trillion dollars look like?

$1,000,000,000,000.

Beetle_bailey_zero_2You've got to read a lot of Beetle Bailey cartoons to see that many Zeros.

The math behind the $900 billion: $300 billion to refinance failing mortgages; $200 billion to troubled banks; another $200 billion to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; $87 billion to JP Morgan to bail out Lehman Brothers; $85 billion to AIG; and $29 billion to JP Morgan (again) to buy Bear Stearns.

And this was before Friday's announcement of an additional bailout - precise cost unknown, but speculated in the neighborhood of $700 billion.

Of course, this is the same federal government that stuck it to working people a few years back when it overhauled the personal bankruptcy laws.

Moral of the story: You can bungle away billions and Uncle Sam will bail you out, but you're in deep doo-doo if you lose your job and health insurance and then get seriously ill.

To put the $900 billion in context, the 2009 federal budget is $3.1 trillion. So Dubya and Congress thus far have agreed to dole out the equivalent of nearly one-third of the federal budget. And they're not finished yet. Not even close.

A lot of folks make a big deal out of federal earmarks, as well they should. Pork amounts to $18 billion this year. The bailouts thus far are 18 times that size. At least pork barrel gets us a road built once in a while.

Brown's losing streak continues

Interesting post on Buffalo Pundit today on the Len Lenihan-Byron Brown rift.

Opines the Pundit:

Any “war” between downtown and City Hall is a creation of City Hall’s, and they have only themselves to blame for any breakdown in that relationship. The Brown faction, with the assistance of former chair and metaphor for divisive politics Steve Pigeon, have failed to render the city council into a rubber stamp, have failed to garner enough committeepeople to mount a credible challenge to Lenihan, have failed to oust their nemesis Sam Hoyt, and have failed now to even present a viable candidate to replace Lenihan.

Judicial reform, of sorts

A state panel has recommended a half-a-loaf proposal to reform the state's unwieldy network of town and village courts. You don't have to be a high school graduate, much less a lawyer, to be a judge in these Hooterville courts. And your courtroom can be in a garage, as in, "You may now approach the bench, right between the snowblower and trash cans."

In other words, Flip Wilson could have really been a town or village judge in New York State. You know, "Here Come Da Judge." For that matter, so could Geraldine.

Reports the New York Times, whose 2006 investigation spurred a review of the system:

The 31-member commission, consisting of lawyers, town justices and state judges, stopped short of recommending that town and village justices — most of whom lack legal backgrounds and, in some cases, even a high school diploma — have training as lawyers. Instead, the commission said courts should provide defendants the option of having their case heard by a judge who is a lawyer.

The report’s recommendations did not include the sweeping reforms that some critics of the justice court system had called for, like abolishing the courts altogether and replacing them with a more uniform system of district courts used in many other states.

Of course, even the half-a-loaf approach is too much for some, including Mark G. Farrell, Amherst town justice and president of the New York State Magistrates Association.

Reports The News:

He took issue with the suggestions about legislation that would force consolidation of courts and the “opt out” clause.

Farrell predicted that with the current economic situation, many villages and towns will consolidate their courts on their own to save money.

With a few exceptions, it's not happening when it comes to any other aspect of local towns and villages. I don't know what makes Farrell thinks it will be any different when it comes to the courts. After all, there are a lot of phony baloney jobs to protect there, too.

Consider the Town of Brant, population 1,906. It's got not one town justice, but two. And they have not one clerk between them, but two.

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