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Obama, Take 2

How can Western New York parlay an Obama presidency into progress?

I posed that question to a number of people I've dealt with over the years and I got back two overriding themes.

Obama "gets" cities and thus we can expect a more enlightened approach to urban issues. And we've got urban issues.

We've also got a lot of green potential, and Obama also gets green.

So, we've got some things to work with. Not that we've gotten off on the right foot.

Over the weekend, Erie County Executive Chris Collins and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown held a press conference to unveil their respective county and city "stimulus package proposals." Really just a couple of wish lists of public works projects they'd like Washington to fund. Stuff including new docks at Erie Basin Marina, air conditioning for City Hall and numerous road repairs.

Collins and Brown couldn't even be bothered merging and prioritizing their lists, much less sitting down with the folks in Niagara County to develop a regionwide strategic plan.

Nope, it's everyman for himself.

This is what passes for leadership in this town.

Here's a flavor of what some of the folks who responded to my e-mail had to say, edited lightly for brevity and clarity:

Mike Clarke, executive director of the Buffalo office of the Local Initiatives Services Corp., a non-profit that underwrites local housing and community projects.

Obama, as our first urban president in many years, brings an understanding of the needs and importance of vital cities to regions that can't be understated.

He knows that cities are places that can spawn innovation and interaction among closely aligned institutions like universities and medical centers. That they more efficiently serve more people at less public infrastructure and maintenance expense than sprawling suburbs. That they still contain the industrial infrastructure that built this country and that those spaces can be redeployed to create the engines of production for green technology by retrofitting them for wind and solar manufacturing. That they are the hubs for new modes of transportation through the development of high-speed rail. 

He also has two very city-oriented appointees on his team. Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarret has been involved professionally in housing and finance in Chicago. Incoming HUD Secretary, Sean Donovan, is an extremely intelligent guy and provides Obama with another uniquely qualified person who comes with a deep understanding of the needs of cities.

Henry L. Taylor, director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo.

"Urban policy is going to be a significant component of Obamaism, and this bodes well. This will probably be reflected in the reinvention of HUD, greater collaboration among federal agencies and a transformation in federal – city relations.

This is good news for cities like Buffalo, but for the city to take advantage of the situation, I think we have to identify the top developmental priorities and formulate a strategy to link economic development to the regeneration of distressed communities.  Within this context, there are three areas of great promise.

1. Brownfield development and green industries—the numerous brownfields in the Buffalo-Niagara region could become green gold.  Many brownfields are located near or adjacent to distressed communities.  This creates a wonderful opportunity to link brownfield regeneration to community redevelopment.  Within this context, the Buffalo region is already carving out a niche in green industries. The key is to create a regional brownfield strategy that leads to synergistic development, rather than competition.  On this point, infrastructure initiatives ought to be tied to brownfield regeneration and bolstering the competitive edge of the city.

2.The Buffalo-Niagara region has a strong focus on knowledge-intensive industries, especially medical institutions and universities. This creates two interrelated opportunities for the regions. First, strategies, similar to UB’s 20/20 program, should be encouraged among the Meds and Eds to stimulate the development of quality, stable jobs and opportunities. Second, we must find creative ways to use the total institutions – Meds and Eds – from their purchasing power to intellectual prowess to work toward attacking the problem of distressed neighborhoods. The problem of urban distress is the most urgent problem facing the City and Meds and Eds can play a significant role in solving it.

3. The city needs to develop new and innovative approaches to battling neighborhood distress. The Obama administration will be looking to support innovative distressed neighborhood programs, such as the Harlem Project with its comprehensive approach to revitalization. "

Walter Simpson, co-founder of the Western New York Climate Action Coalition.

My hope is the Obama will focus so clearly and forcefully on climate change that Mayor Brown and other community leaders in local government, business, education, etc. will get off their duffs, develop climate actions plans and start addressing this problem.

I did not see the beginning of the green economy in the local project lists developed by the city and county.

Phil Wilcox, community affairs specialist with Local 97 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Last month, Empire State Development Chair Robert Wilmers reiterated a decades old challenge – we have few if any shovel ready sites in WNY available for development.  The main challenge is our industrial legacy leaving behind brownfields.The environmentally compromised sites have otherwise very valuable infrastructure: rail, truck routes, industrial sewers, and most importantly – electric transmission lines.  Liability scares off almost all developers.

Any green energy of other industrial development must have a site to locate with these transmission lines nearby – or spend in excess of $1 million dollars a mile to have them built – if you can get permission to site an electric line.  An example is the steel winds windmill project in Lackawanna – located on a brownfield near transmission lines.

Having major stimulus funds available and being hamstrung due to an inability to address the challenge of “no shovel ready sites” would be another lost opportunity for WNY.  These sites represent an enormous economic infrastructure need in WNY – each telling a tale of former prosperity up to and including the 1,600 acre Bethlehem site.

In the massive effort of restoring to “shovel ready” these multiple sites - drive the River Road from Buffalo to Niagara Falls – don’t skip Buffalo Avenue - there is another major opportunity.  Last Spring Senator Schumer was the keynote speaker at the Science Museum to highlight that the region had nearly the highest underrepresented unemployment in the country.  There exists a shelf-ready plan to train underrepresented individuals from brownfields impacted communities remediation skillsets. How could this not be running full throttle?

Readers, let's continue the dialogue.


Obama, Take 1

Barack Obama assumes the presidency today and not a moment too soon.

For starters, it means we're rid of the most incompetent president in the history of the republic. Practically everything Dubya touched turned to you-know-what.

It also means we're past the run-up to the inauguration and all the fawning by the press. The final straw for me was this Sunday's edition of the New York Times Magazine, with a huge photo spread entitled "Obama's People" that treated the subjects like for rock stars. I got a quarter of the way through it before closing the magazine in disgust. Journalism it was not.

People, I don't think it's going to get much better for a while. The press, like much of the nation, is smitten with our new president. The public I can understand - it's been a long eight years. But the press needs to get back to work.

The national press often isn't good on the big stories anyway - witness the way it played lapdog to Dubya after 9-11 and the run-up to the Iraq fiasco, how it never saw the financial meltdown coming. So anything resembling real scrutiny - as opposed to meaningless controversy - of the new administration is going to have to come from the wings. At least for a while.

Me, I'll continue to read the mainstream press, but I'm going to be seeking out voices on the left and right to round out the picture. I'm not talking wind-bag entertainers like Rush Limbaugh, but people with informed, intellectual heft. I suggest you do likewise. 

As for Obama, I, like almost all Americans, save those still lamenting Lee's surrender at Appomattox, hope he succeeds. He's certainly a bright, capable guy who seems to have much of the "right stuff" necessary to be a successful president, especially during these especially difficult times.

My fear is that he'll get sucked into Washington's political culture and the thinking that goes with it and we'll end up with a lot more status quo than the nation thought it was signing on for when it voted for change in November. I think we're already seeing signs of it in some of his key appointments and early decisions.

I like a lot of his senior appointments, starting with the cast he's assembled to deal with global warming. Smart, accomplished, top-notch people. And a lot of other progressive people elsewhere. Finally, some brains and competency.

But some of the key appointments involving big problems, starting with the economy and foreign policy, give me pause.

In Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, Obama has empowered two prominent members of the deregulation crowd that helped set the table for the financial mess we're in now. For encores, Summers got run out of Harvard and Geithner got nailed for failing to pay tens of thousands of dollars in taxes.

Yeah, yeah, I know, they're both "brilliant." So was Robert McNamara, and all he has to show for his smarts is 50,000 body bags shipped back from Vietnam.

I wouldn't trust Summers and Geithner with my 401-K, much less the national economy. Come to think of it, we did trust these two, among others, and look where it's gotten us.

Then there's Hillary over at the State Department. 

Let's see, as First Lady she botched health care reform. As a U.S. Senator, she didn't do squat for upstate and blew the biggest vote of her career, giving Dubya the green light to got hunting for imaginary WMDs. As a candidate for president, she ran what most observers agree was a pretty crummy campaign. And of late, we've been treated to the news that she used her clout as a Senator on behalf of big donors to her husband's  foundation. 

Yeah, this is someone I want to entrust world peace to.

And the beat goes on.

We've got Eric Holder incoming as attorney general, a guy involved in some of Slick Willie's most-dubious dealings.

We've got Tom Daschle lined up to be secretary of health and human services. Maybe he can ask the doctors to help him regenerate the spine he shed as head of the Senate Democrats when they decided to roll over and play dead when Dubya declared war on the Constitution and human decency.

And then there's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who took time away from government in the late 1990s and early 2000s to work  as an investment banker, parlaying his contacts into millions of dollars. In the middle of it, he served on the asleep-at-the-wheel board of Freddie Mac during a wave of scandals.

Look, I know much of this stuff is child's play compared to the Bush crowd, but Obama promised us better.

A few of Obama's early decisions leave me wondering, as well, starting with the economic bailout.

He still favors big tax breaks as a way of stimulating the economy, even though the consensus is that they won't deliver much bang for the buck. He's pushed Congress to release a second wave of bailout money without fixing the problems with the first one, which has been an unqualified bust. And too much of the Phase Two money is earmarked for purposes that don't strike me as having much to do with fixing the economy. But it will give pols like Chuck Schumer an opportunity to play Santa Claus.

Then there's the company Obama is keeping.

I didn't have a problem with him palling around with Bill Ayers. But breaking bread with George Will and his right wing buddies is another matter. I'm only half kidding.

Memo to Obama: Don't talk to those people. They give bad advice and are part of the crowd we just put out at the curb. 

My grumbling notwithstanding, I think Obama has the potential to be a good, maybe great president. But I'm prepared to be disappointed.  

But they don't fingerprint burglary scenes

We may have the makings of our own little "gate" involving Mayor Byron Brown's possible use of the Buffalo Police Department for political purposes.

Artvoice first broke the story, and has done a follow. There's been followup coverage by The News and commentary by the Buffalo Pundit. In addition, New WNY Politics has done a couple of stories, here and here, but in reading them, keep in mind the site is run by a former sidekick of Joe Illuzzi.

Here's how Artvoice reported the story:

At seven o’clock on the morning of November 7, Syaed Ali and his family were awakened by a team of Buffalo police officers bearing a search warrant.

The warrant, signed by Buffalo City Court Judge Craig Hannah one week earlier, accused Ali of aggravated harassment and empowered police to search his home and seize any and all electronic equipment — computers, discs, cell phones, etc. — that might provide evidence of the charge. Police searched Ali’s home, carted away boxes of seized material, and took him downtown for questioning, without an arrest warrant, without reading him his rights, without allowing him to contact relatives or an attorney.

Two months later, Ali hasn’t been charged and he can’t get his possessions returned. The person that Ali says he was accused of harassing: Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

All this supposedly revolves around some nasty e-mails that have circulated about the mayor earlier this year. The Artvoice story goes on to detail some scary stuff, if Ali's attorney is to be believed, and coverage from some of the other media outlets goes further.

For example, Ali told New WNY Politics:

"The officers told my brother that they had an arrest warrant for me charging me with computer fraud and aggravated harassment of the Mayor of Buffalo. Yet, when a family member and later I asked them why they were doing this, two different officers replied, 'Because you made the Mayor really mad!' "

This is potentially explosive stuff and we all need to avoid jumping to conclusions. That said, the words of the mayor's own people are noteworthy, as much for what they don't say as what they do.

Of course, there's the usual, "we don't talk about ongoing investigations," uttered by by Peter Cutler, the mayor's spokesman, and Mike DeGeorge, spokesman for the police.

Cutler, however, passed when given the opportunity by Artvoice to deny that a complaint from the mayor triggered the whole affair.

I found DeGeorge's words particularly interesting.

“It’s my understanding there was no formal complaint [made against Ali] from the mayor’s office."

Hmmm. No "formal" complaint, you say.

DeGeorge continued.

“Police routinely investigate matters involving the mayor. He’s the highest public official in the City of Buffalo, so there will be situations that come up."

So, Mike, what exactly is the "situation?"

"... to comment on specifics could certainly jeopardize not only the investigation, but security issues.”

Of course. Security issues. We should all stop asking questions.

A few other things have caught my eye.

Among them is the judge who signed the search warrant, City Court Judge Craig Hannah, who Brown appointed to the bench 11 days after taking office. The judge and the mayor go way back and Hannah has been a  major campaign contributor.

Then there's the way the police handled the auto accident a few years ago involving the mayor's son. Doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

This looks like a matter that someone needs to get to the bottom of. How about our new district attorney, Frank Sedita?

Since taking office a few weeks ago, he's been trying to show people he's a different cat than his predecessor, Frank Clark, widely perceived, among other things, as disinterested in the misdeeds of public officials.

Well, Mr. New DA, here's your chance to show the public you're really different than the Human Quote Machine.

I can't close without harkening back to blog posts I wrote on New Year's Eve and back in April about the introduction of police surveillance cameras throughout the city without any rules in place to safeguard against abuses. Some of you readers responded by dismissing such concerns as paranoid.

Well, I stick by those concerns, especially in light of these latest developments. In fact, make that a double.

Regional economy bad - and getting worse

Is the Western New York economy heading for an economic downturn the likes we haven't seen since Bethlehem Steel and company shuttered operations in the early 1980s?

Maybe yes, maybe no, but the latest newsletter released by two sharp economic professors from Canisius College gives reason for P-A-U-S-E.

For starters, George Palumbo and Mark Zaporowski essentially say we should stop this semi-happy talk rooted in the misbelief (Dubya spoken here) that our regional economy, including housing, is somehow weathering the financial storm better than the nation as a whole. Palumbo and Zaporowski write:

Those who claim that the local economy will not decline as much as the nation obviously have not noticed that the local economy has not yet fully recovered from the 2001 recession.

Here's a depressing set of numbers to back up that point:

547,500: non-farm employment in WNY in 1990.

548,000: non-farm employment the first 11 months of 2008.

That's right, folks. In 18 years, we've added a net total of 500 jobs. And since 2000, we've dropped more than 10,000 jobs, as employment was close to 560,000 back then.

The bad news doesn't end there.

SteelWhen you consider only "goods-producing employment," that is, good-paying manufacturing jobs, we're down from about 115,000 jobs in 1990 to some 105,000 in 2000 and about 80,000 in 2006, the latest year that subset of numbers is available. In other words, we're down some 25,000 jobs this decade alone.

To put that in perspective, when the Bethlehem and Republic Steel plants closed in the 1980s, we lost 9,400 jobs. So, we've suffered the equivalent of two or three Bethlehem-Republic shutdowns this decade.

And as bad as that is, it could get worse. In fact, the professors say it probably will.

The tenuous position of the American-based automobile industry places Western New York in its most perilous position since the demise of the local primary metals industry more than 30 years ago. The future employment of many of the 35,000 durable goods workers in Western New York will be determined on the floor of Congress rather than on the production floor. If the perception that total compensation packages for auto workers in the Great Lakes region is substantially higher than for the workers of transplanted auto producers in the South is correct, it is hard to imagine that the status quo will be preserved.

Oh, great. You professors have any more bad news?

Well, actually, yes.

Banking, another pillar of the regional economy, isn't exactly rock solid, they say.

The strength and future security of the region’s financial services firms may be just one startling revelation away from weakness.

Palumbo and Zaporowski say local government has to get serious about steamlining and otherwise economizing operations because the money isn't going to be there to sustain business as usual. The feds and state can't be expected to prop up local government to the degree they have in the past, and local taxes are at the breaking point.

Something has to give, which could be a good thing if we weren't governed by politicians whose favorite phrase is "status quo."

Which leads us to a most-salient point -- the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of local and state economic development programs to generate the jobs and tax base we need to thrive as a community. The authors raise the prospect of ...

... an informed discussion about the true economic development impacts of many publicly subsidized projects that to some observers have been a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

And you readers think I'm harsh.

But the profs are right.

The public sector in this region has invested billions over the years to subsidize business in the name of economic growth. These days it's more than $300 million a year when you add up tax breaks granted under the IDA and Empire Zone programs and deep discounts on hydro-electricity produced by the New York Power Authority.

Yet we have fewer jobs than we did a decade ago and we're losing good-paying jobs at a dizzying pace.

Hey, guys, it's not working. I mean, it's really not working.

But the loudest voices we hear -- from the business community, anyway -- are protests over proposed reforms in these failed programs.

As for the politicians, well, I'm not hearing much of anything, aside from what's in the governor's proposed budget, unless you count changes in legal counsel to give IDA business to campaign contributors with the right party ties.

That's not change we can believe in.

(Now that you're through reading this post, read the report, as it's only seven pages and loaded with details and recommendations beyond what I've touched on here.)

A map says 1,000 words

For those celebrating the ascension of the Democrats into the Senate majority, check out out this map.

Long story short, there are five -- count 'em, five -- state senators from upstate, including two from the Buffalo area, Antoine Thompson and Bill Stachowski.

Downstate, meanwhile, has 27 senators in the majority.


Hmmm, let me guess, where will their priorities lie?

Meanwhile, new Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith has appointed members to a committee to consider reforms. Lots of folks from New York City. Some from upstate, no one closer to us than Elmira. The blog post, from the Albany Times Union has some interesting details on what the Dems have in mind.

Here's another story on reform efforts from a relatively new blog called Politicker NY. It's pretty good.

The NY Daily Balance, source of the aforementioned map, reports how one proponent of Senate reform decided to take the money and run. This blog packs a punch.

Finally, the Buffalo Pundit rifs off the same map today and floats an idea.

Schumer to the rescue - not

I see that Chuck "Where's the Microphone?" Schumer has taken time away from schilling for Wall Street to undermine efforts to rein in state spending.

My colleague Tom Precious reports:

Schumer wants to use federal bailout money intended to help the economy to, among other things, replace state school aid that Paterson wants to cut from the state budget ...

Paterson suggested the education money, along with what Schumer last week said could be $5 billion for the state’s Medicaid health insurance program, could reduce the need for some of the fiscal steps he recently proposed to close the state’s deficit, including some of the more than $4 billion in unpopular tax and fee increases ...

With the expected flood of money from Washington, Paterson stuck to his mantra that the state still needs to reform its spending ways — a prospect that likely will prove increasingly elusive as the cash from the federal government is drawn down to assist the state ...

If the state actually receives the amounts Schumer is discussing, lawmakers and special interest groups would have considerable ammunition to oppose Paterson’s plans to cut spending and raise taxes ...

Paterson has talked of changing a mind-set about how state budgets can grow each year beyond the revenues to sustain the spending. While the federal aid may help push off some of the more painful cuts the governor has proposed, it probably will do little to further his quest for meaningful spending reforms.

Paterson, on one hand, is all for bailout aid, as it would allow him to ease off on some of the politically unpopular tax increases and spending cuts in his proposed budget. But it sounds like he also realizes that the federal money will embolden the status quo folks he is fighting with.

Let's keep two things in mind. New York spends more on education than any state in the nation by most accounts. And the cuts Paterson has proposed would leave districts with more state aid than they had two years ago. He's simply proposing a partial roll back of this year's record increase in school aid.

The use of federal dollars to replace lost state school aid strikes me as pork barrel politics.

I fail to see how using federal money intended to promote economic recovery to instead allow schools to continue their free-spending ways helps the economy.

You want to give money to the states for, say, extended unemployment benefits that help people pay their bills, fine. But giving it to school bureaucrats keep spending in the style they're accustomed to? Ah, not so fine.

If this doesn't help the economy, what does it help? Schumer's re-election campaign, for one.

He scores points with politicians and school boards around the state, as the federal aid would allow them to sidestep making some of the tough decisions that the state's $15.4 billion deficit now demands. That provides him IOUs for his next re-election campaign. This misuse of funds would also give him an opportunity to portray himself as a friend of education and homeowners who pay property taxes to support schools on the local level.

I can see the TV ads now, can't you?

"When the state budget deficit threatened our schools, Chuck Schumer found the money to save Little Johnnie's school ... "

Ever see a White Knight with a microphone in his hand? Just wait.

We don't need to play a shell game, shifting taxpayer money around like this. In the end, it's all our money, regardless of the address of the tax man who collects it.

Moreover, we need to use the state budget crisis to bring some fiscal discipline to spending. Uncle Sam's money - and it's really ours, remember - shouldn't be used to let Albany off the hook. It only postpones the inevitable.

Buffalo through a Baltimore prism

I'm back from a long weekend in Baltimore attending a newspaper labor conference. While I spent way too much time in the hotel, I did manage to get out and see some of downtown (great baseball stadium) and its inner harbor. I came away with the same impression as when I visited Providence several years ago - that the city has made much better use of its federal aid and economic development resources than Buffalo has.

I'm sure some of the money has been used in ways I would object to - such as subsidies for companies creating low-wage jobs. But clearly a lot of money has been invested on infrastructure, on creating inviting public spaces, that has led to private-sector investment.

While walking Sunday along the brick sidewalks from my hotel, past the Baltimore convention center to the Inner Harbor, I compared what that walk in downtown Buffalo look likes.

Head down Main Street towards our waterfront from, say the Hyatt Regency, and the first thing you'll see is a block of vacant buildings. You stroll down a dated pedestrian mall and walk past numerous subway stops that are rusting and peeling paint. While a bit of an inner harbor is taking root at the foot of Main Street, the most striking thing visitors see - and hear - is the Skyway.

Another thing that has struck me in visiting numerous cities over the past decade is how they have managed to preserve the character of their neighborhoods, ethnic and otherwise. San Francisco is perhaps the most striking example of this, but far from the only. 

Buffalo's neighborhoods, on the other hand, have lost much of their distinction.

Yes, we have the Elmwood Village, and Abbott Road has some Irish flavor to it. Some people have tried to brand Hertel Avenue as a "Little Italy," but I don't see it. A few Italian restaurants and an annual street carnival does not make a Little Italy.

Poverty has stripped many other neighborhoods of the people and commercial vitality that once gave them an identity. Unimaginative urban planning and economic development policies haven't helped. What's left are many neighborhoods with transitional populations and dollar stores, pizzerias and corner bars. Places you'd rather not visit, much less live.

That's not to say the Baltimores, Providences and San Franciscos of the world don't have their ugly underbellies, or that they haven't made mistakes with some of their money. But they sure have been better preserving their neighborhood identities and putting a better face on their downtowns and waterfronts than we have. And that's sad, considering the huge amounts of money, federal and otherwise, that have been poured into Buffalo over the past 30 years.

People who don't get it

Writing my story about the New York State Legislature that appears in today's Buffalo News left me shaking my head.

The story has two angles:

(1) The latest update from the Brennan Center concludes the Legislature remains dysfunctional. As in, the Senate Ethics Committee hasn't met in more than a decade, but the chairman keeps collecting his $12,500-a-year stipend.
(2) The Legislature wants to shield itself from the painful reality by the state's budget crisis by making only a modest cut in its own operating budget, leaving it the third-costliest state legislature in the nation. New York has a $15.4 billion hole to plug - the Legislature is offering to kick in all of $6.2 million.

Add to this news that Senate leaders have cut a deal to allow the staffers of GOP members to stay on the job through the end of the fiscal year, March 31. Many of them would have already received their pink slips because the Democrats have gain control of the Senate. Not only will they draw three more months pay, but if the state offers early retirement incentives to reduce New York's payroll, these people could potentially cash in. Meanwhile, the Democrats will start adding jobs, increasing the Senate's already bloated payroll.

Talk about an outrage.

When you're done reading my story, check out today's column by Donn Esmonde, based on an interview with Seymour Lachman, a former state senator whose tell-all book, "Three Men in a Room" pulls back the curtain on how and why Albany doesn't work.

Then, I want you to get out of your chairs, I want you to go to the window, I want you to open the window and I want you to ...

Bureaucrats threaten to sideline students

It hasn't taken long for the school bureaucrats to put the knife to the throats of their students.

Faced with the prospect of a modest reduction in state aid, which would nevertheless leave funding higher than it was two years ago, school administrators are starting to discuss cutting sports programs.

The News reports today that the athletic director at the Iroquois School District, faced with what he considers worse alternatives,  has suggested eliminating 10 percent of each team’s games. He also expressed surprise that some ADs are discussing the elimination of modified and junior varsity programs.

This is a knee-jerk response by school boards and superintendents that we see every time there's any kind of fiscal turbulence. They don't first seek real economies, they try to push buttons with taxpaying parents by going after programs like sports and field trips. The goal is to keep the money flowing -- and to protect jobs.

Alas, I learned during my time covering the Buffalo school district that the term Board of Education is a misnomer. They really function as Boards of Adult Employment.

I'll restate what I said in a recent post -- the proposed state cuts in school aid are not draconian, and districts can weather them without a problem if they get serious about controlling costs. In fact, economies are long overdue.

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.

I find it ironic that, at a time when Gov. Paterson is trying to use the state budget to fight obesity, school bureaucrats are threatening to send students to the sidelines.

Ironic, but predictable.

Good thing Chris Collins isn't political

A few odds & ends:

The Erie County IDA is poised to change lawyers after a push from County Executive Chris Collins to solicit requests for proposals. The agency's governance board voted to drop Hurwitz & Fine, which has had the work for 18 years, in favor of Harris Beach.

“Harris Beach was far and away the most experienced of any of the respondees,” Collins said.

Harris Beach is also regarded as a "Republican" firm, whose stable of attorneys include Henry Wojtaszek, chairman of the Niagara County Republican Party.

Good thing Collins isn't a "politician" or I'd have my suspicions.

Meanwhile, residents are continuing to flee the Great Lakes region, including New York, a study by United Van Lines shows. The analysis of move-ins vs. move-outs shows the Empire State has one of the highest move-out rates in the nation, 55 percent. Then again, we're not nearly as bad off as Michigan.

The historical data pulled from United's migration study over the past 32 years shows an overall outbound trend for the Great Lakes region. Michigan (67.1%) again captured the top outbound spot, a title held since 2006. Indiana (57%) also earned the distinction of being a high-outbound state, continuing a 15-year trend. Other Great Lakes states that made the high-outbound list were New York (55.1%) and Illinois (57.2%), both of which have been outbound states since the survey was established in 1977.

Nothing surprising here, but worth noting.

I found the United Van Lines item on a site I just stumbled on called It bills itself as a "daily update of new reports from government agencies, ngo’s, think tanks, and other groups."

For those of you into such things, it's a site worth trying out.


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