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Brian Davis: Staying or going?

There's been speculation as to whether Brian Davis will leave the Common Council now that his record of fiscal irresponsibility has been documented.

My take: Davis isn't going anywhere, so long as his mysterious health issues don't force him to resign.

Why?

Mayor Byron Brown can't afford to let it happen.

If Davis were to step down, Democratic committeemen in the Ellicott District would nominate a replacement to the Council, which would have the final say. Committeemen aligned with the mayor used to control most of the seats in the district, but I'm told it's a toss up these days, making it uncertain they would nominate a successor to the mayor's liking.

Even if they did, five of what would be the Council's remaining eight members are on the outs with Brown, meaning they are unlikely to select someone aligned with the mayor.

Make that "highly unlikely." Adding another anti-Brown vote to the Council would give those aligned against Brown a 6-3 veto-proof majority.

Brown is lying low on the Davis controversy. No public pronouncements that I'm aware of, and Peter Cutler, his spokesman, said he saw no reason for the boss to comment when I called a couple of weeks ago.

Hey big spenders -- comparing local government spending

Yao ming OK, for starters, we know taxes and spending are high here in New York State. So the comparisons I'm about to make are akin to comparing the heights of all the centers in the National Basketball Association -- i.e., they're all big.

That said, the Empire Center for New York State Policy has come out with an interesting online tool that allows taxpayers to compare how local governments -- counties, cities, towns and villages -- are spending money. And by spending money, I mean, to quote the center, "effective property tax rates and per-person (i.e., "per-capita") values for the spending, debt and tax levels." Locales outside of New York City are included.

You can do a lot of different sorts, and I encourage you to play in this sandbox.

Me, I took a look at total spending per capita, and here's what I found out.

Counties: Most of the costliest spending is in Long Island and in rural counties, where economies of scale suffer. Erie and Niagara counties are a little below the median, which is to say spending per capita is a little lower here, about $1,600, vs. about $1,900.

Cities: Buffalo, at about $1,700 per head, is just about in the middle. Salamanca and Jamestown are sky-high, Niagara Falls somewhat high. Lackwanna is on the low end.

Towns:The median is about $580. Ellicottville spends the most of the locals, $1,343. Yipes! A lot of other towns in Erie and Niagara counties are well above the median, including Niagara, Amherst, Tonawanda, West Seneca, Grand Island, Cheektowaga, Wheatfield, Evans, and my good friends in Brant. Bringing up the rear, and I mean this is a good way, is Attica, at $134. Yeah, it's not in our immediate metro area, but I wanted to report some good news.

Villages:  The big spenders locally include Arcade ($4,650) and Ellicotville ($3,578). The median is about $1,000, which has me wondering what they're doing in Arcade and Ellicottville.

Again, I urged you to explore. I don't dare use the word "crowdsource," as my last effort fell flat. But feel free to share your findings with the class.

Budget deficit? Pay raises for the house!

Seems like belt-tightening is for other branches of state government -- certainly not the Assembly.

Nearly two-thirds of the Assembly's sprawling bureaucracy got hush-hush pay raises at the first of the year, the Empire Center on New York State Policy has found.

Sixty-three percent got raises, most of them 3 percent. But some -- 14 percent of the staff -- got raises of 4 percent or more.

The center found "pay raises disproportionately went to higher-paid Assembly employees."

All this at a time when state employees working for the executive branch are being asked to forgo a scheduled  3 percent pay raise or face layoffs.

I could say more, but I don't think any commentary is necessary. These facts speak for themselves.

Pundit on Golisano, Higgins and State Senate Dems

The Buffalo Pundit has some recent posts worth taking a look at. Topics include:

The alliance between Tom Golisano/Steve Pigeon and the Independence Party.

Opines the Pundit:

While I agree with a lot of what Golisano’s Responsible New York stands for vis-a-vis reformation of state government, his alliance with supremely political tin-pot Machiavellis indicates to me (and a lot of other people) that “reform” is secondary to “power”.

Brian Higgins gets hip with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Reform plan advanced by State Senate Democrats.

Seems like a simple short-term solution

The New York Power Authority has a block of unused low-cost hydropower earmarked for local industry -- Alcoa -- that's not being used up in Massena for the time being because of the economic downturn. Rather than selling it for a premium rate on the open market, as it does with unused industrial hydropower here, the authority  is looking for a way of getting it in the hands of local businesses.

The Watertown Daily Times reports the authority is contemplating a plan in which it would "lower the electricity rate for North Country businesses by selling abandoned preservation power from the idling Alcoa East Plant in Massena."

Under the proposal, NYPA would sell about 254 megawatts of electricity that has been used by the Alcoa East Plant and use the revenue to reduce the rates for industrial, small business, retail and perhaps nonprofits in St. Lawrence, Lewis and Jefferson counties. The plan would not include residential rate-payers.

One of the TV stations in the North Country reports Power Authority President Richard Kessel as saying, "Rather than taking that power and selling it into the market, if we can utilize it for the benefit of the North Country, that's what I think we need to do."

Hmmm.

Let's see. We've got 138 megawatts of unused power earmarked for industry located within 30 miles of the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston. That's nearly 20 percent of what's set aside for local industry. Last year, the authority sold the unused power and pocketed an estimated $45 million.

Rep. Brian Higgins submitted a bill last week that would require the Power Authority to turn over such profits in the future to a locally controlled development agency. In Massena, Kessel doesn't want things to get to that point. Rather than sell the power that will go unused in the interim, the authority is exploring ways to find other takers in the interim.

Sounds like an approach that could have application here.

We have a much broader business base than the North Country, so it might not make sense to spread it around, as the benefits would be spread a mile wide and an inch deep. An argument can be made that targeting the juice makes more sense.

Regardless, the concept of keeping the power within the community, rather than selling it to benefit the authority's coffers, makes a lot of sense.

It's not like the Power Authority  needs the money.

Last year it cleared a record $298 million, in addition to making a $119 million "voluntary contribution" to state government to help with the budget deficit. The authority profits are likely to drop somewhat this year, as energy prices have fallen, but headquarters is projecting a healthy profit nevertheless.

NYPA boss on profits and wind power

In the spirit of getting with the new media thing, I've composed this post to include seven audio clips of a conversation Richard Kessel, president of the New York Power Authority, had Wednesday with The Buffalo News' editorial board. I sat in.

Anyone who has heard Kessel in action knows he's capable of rambling on for 20 minutes without taking so much as a single breath and our chat the other day was no different. So, as an act of mercy, I'm presenting the highlights of the interview.

Kessel outlines the authority's plans to develop an off-shore windmill farm in Western New York and concedes that Rep. Brian Higgins is right in asserting the Power Authority should be returning to the region profits from the sale of unused power earmarked for local industry.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Richard Kessel on the following:

Higgins demand to retain profits in WNY, along with Gil Quiniones, the authority's chief operating officer.

Feasibility of wind power.

Getting windmill farm operating within five years.

WNY's wind power potential.

New York's renewable energy plans.

Timing is good for wind energy initiatives.

Potential for wind power to generate jobs.

This is an experiment for me, readers. Tell me what you think of this audio approach.

Progress on the power front

I'll give New York Power Authority boss Richie Kessel credit: He knows how to make a splash.

He made two of them -- big ones -- Wednesday in Buffalo.

Kessel, newFirst, he surprised a lot of people by essentially agreeing with Brian Higgins that profits from the sale of unused power reserved for WNY industries should remain in the community.

Keep in mind, the authority has been hoarding the profits for the past four years, an estimated $161 million, and repeating its mantra that the plant is a state, not local, asset.

Higgins revealed plans Tuesday to submit federal legislation to mandate the money stay in the community and - boom - Kessel pretty much agreed with him the next day. The ink was hardly dry on the morning newspaper.

"There is no question the New York Power Authority has not done enough with low-cost power staying in Western New York," Kessel said. "There is an extraordinary need to do more."

Not that Kessel agrees completely with Higgins. The Power Authority chief said he would want to use the money for energy-related economic development purposes, rather than infrastructure work and capital improvements to public facilities, as Higgins envisions.

Whatever. It shows what a little populist rage will accomplish.

Members of our local delegation to the State Legislature, are you taking notes?

Kessel repeated his position at a press conference later in the day attended by, among other, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster.

"That was the most progress on the issue I've seen in my entire time dealing with NYPA, and that's a long time," Dyster said.

Higgins betterHiggins welcomed Kessel's remarks, but he's keeping his pedal to the metal.

On Wednesday, he filed the bill and gained support from Byron Brown, Chris Collins and Andrew Rudnick, following an endorsement from Dyster the day before.  

What's more, Higgins upped the ante by saying he wants the authority to give the locals control over not only how the money is spent, but how power reserved for local industry is allocated.

"The authority should give us the resources back and get ... out of the way," he said.

Kessel on Wednesday also announced a bold initiative that, if it pans out, could result in the construction of a $1 billion wind farm off the shores of Lake Erie or Ontario, and the development of a manufacturing, assembly and service sector to support the wind power industry around the Great Lakes.

The project is no slam dunk, but a couple of local wind power experts I interviewed for today's story in The News said they are impressed with the authority's first step, the issuance of something called a request for expressions of interest from wind energy developers. It partly reflects an approach outlined in a policy paper done a year ago for the Wind Action Group by the University at Buffalo Law Clinic.

In all, a strange, surprising day for those who have followed the Power Authority for any length of time.

Read the full story.

Higgins wants to keep power profits here

Brian Higgins is filled with populist rage these days over the record profits posted last year by the New York Power Authority.

The authority cleared $298 million, plus another $119 million it gave to state government as a, um, "voluntary contribution" to help close Albany's budget gap. Most of NYPA's profits were generated at the Niagara Power Project, which cleared $205 million.

Put another way, seven of every 10 dollars of authority profits were generated in Lewiston. Not that NYPA believes in profit sharing.

There are several reasons for the surge in profits last year, and one of them has triggered Higgins' ire. Nearly 20 percent of the low-cost power generated in Lewiston and earmarked for industry here in Western New York goes unused. In some cases, the power hasn't been allocated to a customer; in other instances, the juice has been awarded to a company that has yet to start using it.

In either case, the authority sells the unused power on the open market. So, instead of getting 1.6 cents per kilowatt hour from a local company, the Power Authority sells it for 5, 6, 7 cents per kilowatt hour on the open market. And pockets the money.

As I reported last year, this has been going on for several years, and while numerous politicians and business leaders have complained about it, no one has done anything about it. The Do Nothings include the members of our local delegation to the State Legislature. Higgins has stepped in to fill the void.

He is drafting federal legislation that would require the Power Authority to turn over the proceeds of the sale of any unused power to a locally controlled economic development corporation. If such a beast had existed last year, the authority would have written a check for about $45 million. That's not chump change.

The money would be used to finance infrastructure work and capital improvements to public facilities in Erie and Niagara counties. Roads, bridges, brownfield remediation, etc.

Higgins intends to use the bill to "bringing this issue to a head." The point isn't so much to pass the bill, although he's intent on doing so, but to use it as the starting point for negotiations with the Power Authority to keep more of the profits in WNY. The Congressman used a similar approach in 2005 when he led the charge to wrestle additional money from the authority for local projects as part of the deal that saw the authority obtain a new federal license to operate the Niagara Power Project.

Power Authority officials at the time were dragged into the deal kicking and screaming. There's been a change at the top, however, and Richard Kessel, the new authority boss, sounded downright conciliatory Tuesday when briefed about Higgins' plan.

While not sold on the particulars, Kessel said he agreed that the authority could and should be doing more for Western New York. He's been saying that since taking over last falland Higgins' challenge creates a sense of urgency on Kessel to act.

While he doesn't rule out sliding some cash our way, Kessel's priority is to get the unused power allocated. He's also got his staff checking to determine if more than the current 695 megawatts of power earmarked for local industry can be squeezed out of the Niagara Power Project. The plant was refurbished and expanded a couple of years ago and you'd think there is more juice to be found.

My story today is likely to give ammunition to certain pols who have been screaming of lateover the authority's unwillingness to award huge power allocations to a couple of projects in Orleans County. I plan on writing a story in the near future on this, once I've done some additional reporting, but the numbers I've crunched so far indicate that neither deal represented a smart use of discounted hydropower. The subsidy per job would have been sky-high compared to almost every other power allocation the authority has made the past couple of years.

As my Power Failure investigation showed a few years ago, too many companies are already enjoying sweetheart deals. Since then, NYPA appears to be making allocations that get a better bang for the buck.

It's good to hear that Kessel recognizes his authority needs to do a better job finding takers for its unused inventory of low-cost hydropower. At the same time, NYPA needs to make prudent decisions that make the most of a very valuable economic development tool.

As for Higgins, the success of his tactic of using the bill as a starting point to negotiate better terms for WNY will depend partly on whether this community's Do Nothings close ranks with him to Do Something.

We'll soon find out.

The political maturation of Andrew Cuomo

The political evolution of Andrew Cuomo is the topic of an interesting read in the current issue of New York magazine.

Entitled "The Political Art of Anger Management," the piece portrays the attorney general and prospective gubernatorial candidate as a work in progress.

CuomosFor most of his life, Cuomo had known only one speed: all-out attack mode. But 35 years in politics—from seventies street fights against Ed Koch to being his father’s right hand in Albany to serving as Cabinet secretary in the Clinton White House—had shown him that he had better learn to see around the corner, around the next three corners.

The mistakes that nearly ended his political career came when he didn’t look far enough ahead or thought he could simply put his head down and bull his way through. The tendency had earned him a reputation as one of the darkest characters in New York politics—vindictive, arrogant, a bully with a nasty temper. Now, at 51, he’d found an appropriate target for his anger. But he’d finally learned when to back off.

Wall Street’s collapse has created a bonanza of juicy investigative opportunities for Cuomo, putting him on the national stage and giving him the opening to recast himself as a populist hero. Cuomo has craftily walked a fine line, knowing when to push and how hard, injecting himself into huge issues while staying mostly out of camera range...

While Cuomo has been masterfully manipulating public sentiment, his erstwhile political rivals have been taking themselves out of the equation—Eliot Spitzer by sleeping his way out of the governor’s office, and David Paterson by racking up a string of unforced errors. Circumstances have conspired to set up Cuomo perfectly for a gubernatorial run in 2010. But his newfound political acumen will be tested over the next year.

Last week, the pension-fund investigation reached higher up the rungs of political power, touching the Republican-connected Carlyle Group and Steven Rattner, the New York investor, Democratic fund-raiser, and Obama-administration car czar. Will Cuomo keep pushing the probe without fear or favor? Can he nudge Paterson aside without appearing to push too hard? Can he continue to ride the populist wave without running aground?

“The Andrew Cuomo I first met 30 years ago would not be able to,” a veteran political consultant says. “The Andrew Cuomo of 2009 is absolutely capable of doing it."

Not that Cuomo doesn't invite continued skepticism.

He used to think he could control everything, and he found out he can’t control much of anything. He’s become less obsessive.”

And more disciplined. Historically not one to shy away from the spotlight, Cuomo has lately allowed the attention to come to him. What’s particularly striking about his rise to national prominence is that it’s happened during a period in which he has turned down almost all interview requests, speaking to reporters primarily through conference calls.

His critics are not convinced that he’s a new man.

“Are you kidding me?” scoffs an elected official who has known Cuomo a long time. “Whatever virtues and defects Andrew has have only been concentrated by age ... ”

If Cuomo’s tenure at HUD produced murky results, it’s even less clear what he’s accomplished in his battles with Wall Street. His record draws ridicule from veterans of Spitzer’s pugilistic years.

“He’s been very, very weak on settlements,” a former prosecutor says. “In many cases he’ll find an issue and do a quick resolution that involves new industry standards or best practices and a smallish fine, and he’ll move on. As a lawyer and a regulator, he’s a lightweight.”

Less partisan observers, however, give Cuomo higher marks.

“He was the first person to get a real settlement in the auction-rate-securities case,” says John Coffee, a Columbia Law School professor and expert in securities law. Cuomo accused banks of misleading investors about the safety of these bonds. “The SEC may have extended the settlement, but it wouldn’t have happened without Cuomo being there first.”

How will it play out? Good question.

He seems to be at the top of his game—actually, multiple games.

He’s moving his political rival aside while feigning uninterest in the governor’s job, and positioning himself as a champion of the taxpaying masses as he lines up campaign money from business titans. He has been very good, but he’s also been very lucky. It’s a combination that state government hasn’t seen in a very long time.

But Andrew Cuomo knows better than anyone how quickly the game can change.

Stay tuned.

Yankee Stadium: What $1.5 billion buys

IMG_2114 As a fan, I ventured to the new Yankee Stadium this past weekend to see if it is a worthy successor to The House That Ruth Built. As a taxpayer, I wanted to see what the Steinbrenners did with all the public subsidies used to help finance the new stadium.

The Yankees have given even their die-hard fans -- and truth be told, I'm one of them -- reasons to cringe for more than a year. The cost of the new ballpark, the extensive use of tax breaks and other subsidies, recent revelations that some of the work was done by companies blacklisted by the city, the monster contracts handed out during the off-season to C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira.

Oh, and A-Rod. The steroids. The hookers. Ugh.

With all this in mind, I exited the subway station at 161st Street, took a look at the new palace and quickly shifted my attention to the abandoned ballpark across the street. It's showing the first scars of demolition work.

"That's just not right," I thought to myself. A wave of nostalgia washed over me. But I wasn't here for a trip down memory lane, so I turned my attention the The House That George Built.

So, what does $1.5 billion buy?

A lot of wow factor.

The most storied franchise in North American sports, along with Les Habitants, has done a wonderful job tapping into its rich history and all the sentiment that comes with it. It starts on the primary entry point into the stadium in something called the Great Hall. 

Take a look.

IMG_2133


The first-level concourse is ringed by photos from each of the team's World Series championships. Again, a nice touch. All that history. All those memories.

Where the old ballpark was cramped and dingy -- historic as historic can be, but cramped and dingy -- the new stadium is roomy and breezy. You can watch the game while walking both the main and terrace levels.

There are numerous restaurants. A team museum. A giant team store with even bigger prices. And tons of  concession stands, and, as a result, short lines. 

Perhaps best of all, the trademark frieze adorns the entire roof line, righting the wrong that happened when the original ballpark was overhauled in the '70s.


IMG_2160

Yeah, the food and drinks are over-priced -- a beer and hot dog cost me $16. But even more noteworthy -- or, at least unique -- is that the overhead menus at concession stands list not only the price, but calorie count for each item. I'll bet a city law is involved.

My wife was hankering for the steak fries until she saw they were over 1,200 calories. She settled for garlic fries and their 500 calories.That and a Diet Coke cost $11. (And she didn't get the souvenir cup, adding insult to injury.What was the woman thinking???)

Speaking of high prices, the best seats in the house -- box seats along the first and third base lines -- cost an obscene $2,625. The "convenience charge" to buy online is something like $60. Half of these seats were empty on Saturday, which is why attendance during the first home stand fell short of a sellout after the opener. Serves the ownership right.

My seats, in the upper deck, five rows from the top of the stadium, two-thirds of the way down the left field line, cost $30 apiece on one of the online scalping sites. Not bad.

IMG_2156

My advice to anyone considering going this season is to get a cheap ticket and spend at least part of the game watching from the lower concourse. It's not hard to do. Also, avoid the bleachers, as a lot of the seats have an obstructed view thanks to a huge, hideous bar and restaurant built in centerfield.

IMG_2161The verdict -- even a Red Sox fan will be impressed. (Yeah, Bruce, I'm talking to you.)

I've been to a fair number of new ballparks -- Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and San Francisco -- and the Yankees have built a state-of-the-art facility that, at the same time, evokes history like nothing I've seen this side of Gettysburg.

Is it the old Yankee Stadium? No, for better and worse. But mostly for the better. It is neat. Really neat.

The stadium will tug on your heartstrings, as well as your wallet.

(I will go back to being my cynical self tomorrow -- promise.)

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