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No reason to celebrate

The headline in today's News reads "New Year's under surveillance: High-tech cameras, police foot patrol seeks to ensure a safe night."

The headline writer would have us believe the surveillance cameras are a good thing.

I would beg to differ.

Buffalo police rolled out their network of 43 surveillance cameras back in April, saying they expected to have about 100 in place by the end of the year. For tonight's festivities downtown, the police will also be using a mobile camera.

I noted in a post back then that they were operating the system without any rules or policies. Police, in essence, can do what they please with the cameras.

But they promise they will be good boys. It's not like they've gone on ticket-writing blitzes or withheld crime information from the public, or anything like that.

Police spokesman Mike DeGeorge said back in April that rules would be forthcoming and I have periodically checked back with him. A policy was drafted months ago and submitted to the corporation counsel's office for review. And there it apparently sits. Inquiries to the Mayor Byron Brown's office on what his law department is doing with the draft policy and the reason for the delay have been met with silence.

Buffalo police aren't real good with low-tech tools like finger-printing. They only dust one of every 10 burglary scenes. We're supposed to have confidence in their use of high-tech tools?

The potential for abuse is more than an abstract one. There's a history of abuse by both police and private security forces, as summarized in this listing and this New York Times story about how police there used their snooping powers to capture a couple's, say we say, "intimate moments." In September, the ACLU filed a lawsuit over New York City's planned use of 3,000 cameras in lower Manhattan.

Here in Buffalo, well, yawn. Nothing from the ACLU and the Common Council has a police oversight committee, but its members are not asking any questions, much less demanding action on this matter.

Our U.S. Senators, present and prospective

The Tom Precious interview with Caroline Kennedy included this doozy, when the Park Avenue Princess was asked about upstate New York:

“I do remember going with my Uncle Bobby (Kennedy) and I have friends who live not far north of the city, not far upstate. My daughter went to camp in the Adirondacks. So, it’s more vacationing. And I have, of course, friends who have moved from upstate down to the city.”

Oh, well, I guess it could have been worse. I mean, she could have said, "I have friends who are upstaters," or "I would have no problem if my son or daughter married an upstater."

About the most curious reason I've heard from people who support Kennedy's appointment to the Senate is "at least she's not a professional politician." I understand the sentiment on one hand, given the state of our state.

But, look, it's not a bad thing to be up to speed on the issues, or to have knowledge of the state beyond the Manhattan skyline, or to know more about what it takes to pass a bill than what's taught in a high school civics class.

Caroline makes the case that her family has a history of public service. She is correct.

But her father, her uncles, her cousins like RFK Jr., began making their marks in their 20s and 30s. Caroline has spend her adult life living a "I want to be alone" existence just like her mama. That hardly prepares her for the U.S. Senate.

As for our senior U.S. senator, Chuck "Where's the Microphone?" Schumer, the New York Times did a revealing takeout on him a couple of weekends ago. The upshot of the story: Schumer has taken tons of money from Wall Street interests in exchange for doing their bidding in the Senate.

Reported The Times:

He has embraced the industry’s free-market, deregulatory agenda more than almost any other Democrat in Congress, even backing some measures now blamed for contributing to the financial crisis.

Other lawmakers took the lead on efforts like deregulating the complicated financial instruments called derivatives, which are widely seen as catalysts to the crisis.

But Mr. Schumer, a member of the Banking and Finance Committees, repeatedly took other steps to protect industry players from government oversight and tougher rules, a review of his record shows. Over the years, he has also helped save financial institutions billions of dollars in higher taxes or fees.

He succeeded in limiting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies, for example, sponsored legislation that cut fees paid by Wall Street firms to finance government oversight, pushed to allow banks to have lower capital reserves and called for the revision of regulations to make corporations’ balance sheets more transparent.

I came away from the story thinking this guy is about as responsible as anyone in Washington for the mess Wall Street has put the nation's economy in.

Someone tell us, who are the Republicans talking about running for the Senate? One seat, either seat, doesn't much matter.   

Brother, can you spare a vote?

Yo, folks, help me out and cast your vote for your favorite Outrage or Insight of the year. I've had lot of people read the post, but not a lot voting.

The State Legislature isn't digging deep

OK, Christmas is over, enough of the nice stuff.

Let's talk about the State Legislature. Governor Paterson's proposed budget aims to close a projected $15.4 billion deficit. He wants to cut aid for all kinds of services and establish or raise no fewer than 137 taxes and fees.

You'd think the Legislature -- with its gold-plated operation, including some 3,500 employees -- might be in line for a funding whack.

Wrong, bureaucrat-breath.

Paterson's budget for the Legislature, based on this request from the Senate and Assembly, cuts spending by $6.2 million, or 2.7 percent. That leaves lawmakers with $219.8 million to spend.

Which means New York voters and taxpayers will continue to underwrite the third-costliest legislature in the nation. And, according to this study, the most dysfunctional.

The $6.2 million spending cut amounts to four-tenths of one percent of what's needed to come up with to close the deficit. The legislature can't do better than this?

By contrast, the proposed budget would raise the tax on beer and wine to bring in $63 million more next year. (Higher taxes on beer? Now that's an outage!)

While Paterson wants state employees to defer five days of pay and give up a scheduled 3 percent salary increase, his budget doesn't call for any financial sacrifice on the part of legislators. Their $16.9 million in salaries remain intact. Every penny. Ditto for their $2.9 million stipends for carrying out such important duties as being senior minority party member on numerous do-nothing committees.

Many of the other perks of incumbency also remain largely, if not entirely, untouched.

For example, the budget lines for postage and printing are down just a tad, $200,000, leaving the Senate and Assembly with $11.3 million for preserve-our-jobs goodies such as direct mail newsletters.

Anybody think the Legislature should lead by example? Maybe start by taking the same $63 million hit that we beer drinkers, and our wine-sipping wives, are about to take?

We could launch a movement, starting with a bumper sticker that reads: "I'm a beer drinker, and I vote!"

Hey, I could be onto something.

Happy Xmas

My favorite Christmas song.

Enjoy your holiday and take a few minutes to pray, meditate or whatever, for peace.

I'll be back blogging on Monday.

I blog, you decide

I didn't just riff off Fox News, did I? Forgive me, it must be the eggnog.

Seriously, folks, it's that time of year when newspapers roll out their "top stories of the year" features and I've decided to be a copycat. I've been blogging since April and have written some 235 posts. Tell me in the poll below which ones you liked best. I'll keep the poll open through the first week in January.

Here are the nominations:

Tom Golisano in 2008 went from being simply a rich guy who owns a hockey team to a rich guy who wants to be a major political player (again). This fall I revealed that his Responsible New York, quarterbacked by Steve Pigeon, was neck-deep in the smear campaign against Sam Hoyt. When Responsible New York failed to make the necessary disclosures to the state Board of Elections, Pigeon did his Sergeant Schultz imitation.

My most-read post of the past year was the one in which I reported Buffalo police were suppressing key information from crime reports they release to the press. Unfortunately, I've had to write several subsequent variations of this post, as there are members of the police brass who missed the "public's right to know" class at the police academy.

This one may be my personal favorite: Village mayors rally against consolidation. Leading the charge was the mayor of Farnham, population 322, which couldn't possibly merge with the Town of Brant, population 1,906. Not with phony baloney jobs at stake. The post features guest appearances by Mel Brooks and Barney Fife.

Developers at the public trough go crazy when Governor Paterson proposes changes in the Empire Zone program. I respond with tales of waste and naming names of those exploiting subsidy programs to fatten their bottom lines. The post includes my favorite line as a blogger, answering Jordan Levy when he asks who in their right mind would invest in upstate without a government subsidy. "Maybe a capitalist, Comrade Levy."

Elsewhere on the subsidy-abuse front, how about this ditty on the Clarence IDA's use of tax breaks for an upscale grocery on the grounds the town didn't have a supermarket within its boundaries. Residents actually had to drive their BMWs to the other side of Transit Road to buy their arugula. Oh, the inhumanity!

State government gave me a lot to write about. At one point I wondered aloud when budget makers were going to get busy with layoffs to help close the deficit. The New York Post picked it up as an op-ed piece. I also did a series of posts on wasteful spending by the State Legislature, including its army of attorneys. You gotta love the last one, if for no other reason than the Three Stooges video.

Elsewhere on the free-spending front, I did math that showed most school districts were using a record increase in state education aid to boost their spending beyond the rate of inflation. Meanwhile, back at City Hall, budgeting practices have resulted in Buffalo's biggest structural deficit ever, despite Mayor Byron Brown's claims of fiscal responsibility. Albany isn't just a capital, it's a sugar daddy.

The poll is below. Remember, just one vote per reader. Check back Jan. 6 for final results.

Esmonde on government downsizing

Esmonde_2 I've got a guest post today from News columnist Donn Esmonde, who has written a lot about reducing the size of local government. As Donn notes below, the politicians haven't been open to the idea of letting voters weigh in on the issue. Too much democracy, I guess.

Take it, Donn.

The current litmus test for local politicians is whether they allow people to decide on the size of their own governments.

Count Amherst Supervisor Satish Mohan as the most recent politician to fail the exam. He has plenty of company.

Civic leader Kevin Gaughan's study of local government found that Erie County has a disproportionate number of elected officials: 439 (including judges), at an annual cost in salaries and benefits of $32 million. We have four times as many politicians as greater Baltimore and seven times as many as boomtown Charlotte. The political overweight adds to the taxpayer load and, claims Gaughan, promotes political infighting and lack of accountability.

Gaughan presented the information to the county's 41 separate town and village boards over the past year, with a proposal that each cut two members. To date, only Lancaster's village board agreed to put the downsizing question to a public vote (it passed last month in a 91-to-9 percent landslide).

Gaughan recently pressed the issue in West Seneca, bypassing the board's rejection by collecting -- with the aid of a volunteer army -- enough signatures to put the board-downsizing question on the ballot. West Seneca board members, in a painful irony, spent tax dollars on private attorneys in a court appeal that successfully denied citizens the right to choose.

Last week, the Amherst town board -- in a 4-3 vote -- stopped citizens from having a say in the board's size. The swing vote was Mohan, the UB professor who was elected town supervisor three years ago with a campaign of change. Apparently the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The lowdown on the Pitts hotel deal

A lot of folks have been scratching their heads the past few weeks over the city's selection of a waterfront hotel project fronted by former Common Council Member James W. Pitts. On the surface, the competing proposal from Ciminelli Development had a lot more going for it, which prompted Donn Esmonde to criticize the decision and characterize the winning proposal as "something that belongs next to a Thruway off ramp." He echoed a common sentiment.

The city desk asked me to look into the deal, which I report on in Sunday's Buffalo News.

Long story short, there were problems with both proposals and the way city development officials managed the selection process. The Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency could have rejected them both and started over. But Mayor Byron Brown was determined to go with the Pitts project and muscled the proposal through BURA. He appoints most of the board members and got his way.

For now, anyway. It's likely the Council is going to reject BURA's decision.

A lot of folks think the decision was political, and perhaps it was. But Pitts and Brown were not buddy-buddy when they served together on the Council, so I'm not so sure politics is at the root of it.

Me, I chalk it up as yet another example of the dysfunction that plagues economic development efforts, not only in Buffalo, but across the region. Brian Reilly, the city's economic development chief, has some good ideas on correcting the city's development process, but he didn't exactly distinguish himself on this project.


Ending corporate welfare as we know it

The most over-the-top reaction to Gov. Paterson's proposed budget -- which is saying a lot, as reading the paper conjures up images of a kindergarten class on a bad day -- comes from Andrew Rudnick.

The proposal to change the Empire Zone program is unethical -- unethical! -- says the $337,000-a-year president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

"What he's proposed is very stark," Rudnick said in yesterday's Buffalo News. "That's ethically wrong, bad business practice, and sends a terrible message to anyone considering a future investment in New York state."

No, Andrew, the Partnership accepting $50,000 from the New York Power Authority in 2005 and then coming up small as the community tried wrestle money out of the authority during negotiations to extend NYPA's control over the Niagara Power Project could be challenged on ethical grounds.

So could the downtown business community's hijacking of the Empire Zone program, intended to promote investment and job creation in impoverished and blighted sections of the nation's third-poorest city, to fatten their bottom lines.

But Paterson's efforts to introduce accountability into the program? Or revoking benefits to companies that fail to deliver jobs as promised? Or insisting the big business share the pain of the state's fiscal crisis?

I call that "about time."

For the past six years, I have spent most of my reporting time investigating economic develop programs in Western New York. One word constantly comes to mind: Squandered.

We've used industrial development agency subsidies to underwrite everything from dollar stores in North Buffalo to doctor offices in Amherst to upscale groceries in Clarence.

Federal block grant money aimed at combating poverty has ended up in the pockets of developers with unbankable projects.

Low-cost power that can help build a new economy is instead used to prop up fading industries.

And Empire Zone benefits have flowed to companies that are a cross between Who's Who in Corporate Buffalo and Fortune magazine's list of the richest Americans.

Warren Buffett's had two companies getting benefits, Geico and The Buffalo News.

Tom Golisano's hockey team and arena are getting them.

But enough about the billionaires. On to the multi-multi-millionaires.

There's Bob Rich and company, Jeremy Jacobs and his Delaware North, and M&T Bank headed by Bob Wilmers, the big business enchilada in town who the governor has installed to run the Empire State Development Corp., the state's top economic development agency.

And don't forget about Cellino and Barnes. Yup, lawyers are getting Empire Zone subsides, too. How do you think they can afford their TV commercials?

You add up all these gimmes from the assorted subsidy programs and it comes to $300 million, maybe $400 million a year.

Tell me, anyone see anything approaching a half-billion-dollars a year of economic growth?

I didn't think so.

The reason why is that the subsidies come without strings attached. Oh yeah, there's accountability -- sometimes -- but only in theory.

Investigation after investigation, study after study has shown that many to most companies fail to deliver the promised jobs and investment. The attitude is: "Oh, well, they tried."

The Empire Zone program alone is costing the state more than $600 million a year. Paterson wants to cut the drain on the budget by half. But the suits at the public trough are screaming, saying, in effect, the program is an untouchable entitlement.

"Who is going to locate a business or make a big capital investment in upstate New York without incentives?" asked Jordan Levy, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.

Maybe a capitalist, Comrade Levy.

Bill Clinton reformed welfare as we know it in 1996.

David Paterson is trying to reform corporate welfare as we know it in 2008.

You go, guv.


First take on state budget

I won't pretend that what I'm about to say is the byproduct of any exhaustive study to the state budget released Tuesday. But based on what I've read in assorted press accounts, including the fine work done my colleague Tom Precious, some things jump out:

The state employs 239,830 and has added 7,979 jobs since Paterson and his former boss, Eliot Spitzer, took office. In the face of the worst deficit in state history, Paterson proposes 521 layoffs. Come on, guv, get serious. Mario Cuomo wrote some 18,000 jobs out of the budget the last time the state had a major deficit problem.

The proposed $700,000 million cut in school aid has predictably sent the education establishment into spasms. Keep in mind that education aid this year went up a record $1.8 billion, and the guv is proposing taking back less than half of that next year. Which means districts would have more state aid in 2009 than they did in 2007. Further keep in mind that per-pupil spending in New York State is the highest in the nation. (Student performance is not). Already, superintendents are talking about cutting student field trips and the like, knowing it pushes a button with parents. Personnel costs, however, consume the lion's share of school budgets, so I have another idea: get real about those expenses. End pension abuses and negotiate labor contracts to cut out the goodies that are common in many school districts but rare in the private sector: allowing teachers and administrators to cash out up to 200 days of unused sick time; providing lifetime health insurance; and offering cash incentives to retire as early as 55, ten years before most of us can. Let's also keep in mind that teacher pay continues to grow faster than the rate of inflation in many, if not all districts. Teachers typically get two bites at the apple, an annual across-the-board pay increase, plus "step increases" every one to three years for additional years of experience. School spending needs to reflect the state's new fiscal realities.

Change to the Empire Zone program is long overdue. The News and Syracuse Post Standard exposed the problems more than five years ago and several reports from the state comptroller further confirmed the program's waste and ineffectiveness. It took a budget crisis for the governor to act; better late than never, I guess. Most other states offer incentive packages, so I'm not sure New York can unilaterally disarm, at least not without consequences. (Not that they all shouldn't knock off the nonsense. The only ones benefiting are the corporations playing one state off against another). The trick will be recasting the program in a way that promotes real economic growth that targets incentives. Dropping tax breaks for retail, as the governor has proposed, is a good idea, as retail rarely generates new spending. Rather, it just redirects it.

Finally, the governor's proposal does not make enough changes in structural spending to solve the state's fiscal woes. There are too many one-shots and skimming of money from state authorities, starting with the New York Power Authority and the profits it generates at the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston. That sets us up for more deficit drama next year, unless Wall Street rebounds with a vengeance. I'll give Paterson some credit for moving in the right direction, but solving the problem requires him and the Legislature to go a lot further. The politicians should start with their own operations: the governor's office has added more jobs, as a percentage of employment, than any division of state government the past couple of years, and the legislature spends more on itself than almost any state legislature in the nation.

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