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A blogging fool for a year and counting

For what it's worth, this week marks a year since I started blogging for The News.

I've written about 340 posts, which have prompted some 2,700 reader comments and about 355,000 page views. I'm averaging about 2,000 page views a weekday, about quadruple when I first started Outrages & Insights.

Imagine that, growth in the newspaper industry.

I'm having a blast. Who knew that a vital component to journalism involved finding the right video on YouTube to drive home a point?

During my career, I've always looked to ride the next wave. Computer-assisted reporting back in the '80s and '90s, blogging and other forms of new media today.

Two weeks ago I started posting tweets on Twitter. If you want to follow me, go here and sign on.

Roland hedley Don't worry, I don't bore people with what I'm having for lunch. I mostly give a heads-up to my latest blog post, although I'm hoping to broaden my horizons soon.

Work with me, people. I've got to catch up to Roland Hedley.


(Editor's note: We tried to message those commenting below, but since they didn't give valid e-mail addresses, we'll say it here: The News expects to have commenting on all stories within the next month. We're looking forward to it. Forums will soon follow.)

Red light? What red light?

So, I'm working a week ago Sunday, driving down Washington Street from the News office to Police HQ.

At the intersection of Seneca Street, a Buffalo squad car cruises through a red light, the officer behind the wheel talking on a phone.

I drive a few blocks up, approaching Chippewa Street, and the same thing happens.


I'm serious. Really.

So, I have a question for Mayor Byron Brown and the Common Council, who are intent on posting cameras around the city to catch drivers running red lights.

Will the rules apply to the cops?

'Cause if they do, this could cost the city a lot of money.

And if the rules don't apply, will the waivers granted police be a matter of public record?

Brother, can you spare a BlackBerry?

City Hall spares no expense to fight poverty. At least when it comes to the care and feeding of its bureaucracy.

For years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been grousing about the degree to which City Hall uses block grant funds to pay the salaries and benefits of city employees, including those in the two major economic development agencies.

It turns out that over the past few years, the anti-poverty funds have also paid for BlackBerrys issued to 15 employees of the agencies.

BlackberryFor the uninitiated, BlackBerrys and iPhones are the Cadillacs of the cell phone family. They do a lot more than cell phones. In the case of BlackBerrys, which are used more for business purposes, they enable users to, among other things, send and receive e-mail and access the Internet. For a more detailed description, go here.

No doubt they're nifty gizmos. The question is whether so many economic development bureaucrats need them. Rochester and Syracuse somehow get by without them. 

To his credit, Brian Reilly, the city's economic development czar, has cut the cost of the service since coming on board. And I don't doubt his contention that BlackBerrys make some employees more productive, although I think the head of the city's white-collar union might be interested to know that some of his members are working unpaid overtime to send out and receive hundreds of e-mails.

But the question remains: Is spending up to $30,000 a year a good use of anti-poverty funds?

Delaware District Council Member Mike LoCurto, who heads the committee that reviews the block grant budget submitted by Mayor Byron Brown, thinks it is not.

"It's not the way that money should be spent," he said. "We're the third-poorest city of our size in the nation and there's too much (block grant) money spent on administration. That money should be on
the street."

Oh, it's in the street, Mike. Just happens to be in the purse or pocket of city employees making the rounds.

LoCurto also isn't happy that the Brown administration didn't respond to a sweeping block grant information request the Council made until members voted March 13 to approve the latest budget. Included in the stack of documents was the list of who receives Blackberrys and cell phones. I obtained the list, had a hunch that the BlackBerrys were paid for with block grant funds, and started asking questions.

Bingo.

LoCurto acknowledges it's too late for the Council to do anything about the BlackBerry budget for this year. But the city's block grant spending program still has to pass muster with HUD. Perhaps the feds will take out the eraser. HUD certainly has found enough other fault with the way the city is running the program.

Brian Davis MIA

Some of Brian Davis' colleagues on the Common Council are not happy with his frequent absences.

Of course, this week you can understand why he might not want to spend much time in public. He might have to explain himself.

Money, money, money

Five state senators are asking Gov. Paterson to release $120 million in upstate economic development funds that have been sitting idle for a year, the Binghamton Press is reporting.

"Despite an overwhelming need for an upstate-focused economic-development strategy, the Upstate Fund has continued to lie dormant," said the letter, signed by Sens. Neil Breslin of Albany, William Stachowski and Antoine Thompson of Buffalo, David Valesky of Syracuse and Darryl Aubertine of Watertown. "We hope you will move quickly to issue these much-needed funds."

Gee, I thought having Bob Wilmers as chairman of th Empire State Development Corp. was going to avoid problems like this. Come to think of it, no major WNY initiatives have been forthcoming from ESD since Wilmers took over amid hopes that state economic development policy would pay closer attention to our neck of the woods.

The Buffalo Pundit weighs in here.

*********************

Chuck Schumer is helping Sam Hoyt raise money, the New York Daily News reports. Likewise, Hoyt is raising money for Andew Cuomo.

Interesting to note that it's Sen. Chuck Schumer, not, say, Gov. David Paterson or Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is coming to Hoyt's aid here.

No surprise, though. Schumer is rolling in the dough and doesn't need to fear Golisano's money, unlike pols at the state level. Might be one reason why no one has submitted legislation that would close the loopholes used by Golisano's Responsible New York to bankroll several races last fall.

********************

USA Today has a story on how the compensation gap between government and private sector employees is growing.

Overall, total compensation for state and local workers was $39.25 an hour — $11.90 more than in private business. In 2007, the gap in wages and benefits was $11.31.

The gap has been expanding because of the increasing value of public employee benefits. Last year, government benefits rose three times more than those in the private sector: up 69 cents an hour for civil servants, 23 cents for private workers.

*********************

All this talk of money makes me want to hear from the O'Jays. Hit it, guys.

Councilman Brian Davis, deadbeat

What do you call someone whose driver's license is suspended and campaign accounts are frozen, whose wages are garnished and who has been the subject of 10 liens and lawsuits.

Well, if you live in the Ellicott District, you would call him "Councilman."

Brian davis Brian C. Davis had a couple of financial problems when he was younger, but they've escalated since he took office in 2002. While he's got a reputation on the Council as being personable and even-tempered, public records and interviews reveal another side, someone with a history of avoiding his financial obligations and making himself scarce when the bill comes due.

You can find the details in Sunday's Buffalo News.

It will be interesting to see how Mayor Byron Brown, a political ally, and Davis' colleagues on the Council respond. The revelations certainly do not reflect well on City Hall. 

It also will be worth watching whether Buffalo police and District Attorney Frank Sedita III start asking questions again regarding allegations that Davis wrote -and bounced - a check to pay the rent at the Delaware Avenue restaurant that a city development agency loaned money to. Authorities decided in February to treat the bounced check as a civil matter, but as my story shows, Davis has a history in this regard.





 

Are we already soaking the rich?

As someone who believes in soaking the rich, I found this report  from the Congressional Budget Office to be a bit of an eye-opener.

Higher-income groups pay a disproportionate share of federal taxes because they earn a disproportionate share of pretax income and because effective tax rates rise with income.

In 2006, the highest quintile earned 55.7 percent of pretax income and paid 69.3 percent of federal taxes, while the top 1 percent of households earned 18.8 percent of income and paid 28.3 percent of taxes.

In all other quintiles, the share of federal taxes was less than the income share. The bottom quintile earned 3.9 percent of income and paid 0.8 percent of taxes, while the middle quintile earned 13.2 percent of income and paid 9.1 percent of taxes.

The five-page report is a little dry, but has some other interesting facts and tables. It held my attention, anyway. Given that your federal tax returns are due next Wednesday, it might be worth a read.

Regardless, this is worth a look. Hit it, George (with a little help from his friend, EC).

"A radically new approach" to fighting poverty

Drive down just about any major thoroughfare on the East Side and you see economic desolation. Yeah, there are a few pockets of success, but they are the exception. The urban landscape of, say, Genesee Street, is one part Beirut, one part Western ghost town. Haunting and depressing.

There are a lot of reasons for it, among them what Michael Porter, a professor at the Harvard Business School, believes is this nation's misguided policies when it comes to revitalizing inner-city economies. Porter maintains that wealth creation, through investment and business development are what ill turn around the nation's poorest neighborhoods.

Let's hear from him:

As inner cities continue to deteriorate, the debate on how to aid them grows increasingly divisive. The efforts of the past several decades to revitalize inner cities have failed. The time has come to recognize that revitalizing the inner cities will require a radically new approach.

While social programs will continue to play a critical role in meeting human needs and improving education, they must support--and not undermine--a coherent economic strategy. The question we should be asking is how inner-city-based businesses and nearby employment opportunities for inner city residents can proliferate and grow.

A sustainable economic base can be created in the inner city, but only as it has been created elsewhere: through private, for-profit initiatives and investment based on economic self-interest and genuine competitive advantage.

In short, getting inner-city economies back on their feet requires identifying and exploiting their competitive advantages, Porter says. Economic development planners have done this for the region, but not for the inner-city.

Inner-cities have four main advantages, Porter says:

  • Strategic location.
  • Local market demand.
  • Human resources.
  • Integration with regional clusters of companies linked by customer or supplier.

How can it work? A laundry service around the corner from the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus would be able to provide superior customer service and quicker turn around time than one based out, say, of Amherst.

Suffice to say the politicians and bureaucrats who control economic development in the city don't subscribe to Porter's theories.

Come to think of it, just what theories are they working off?

Since publishing "The Competitive Advantage of the Inner City," Porter has established a non-profit to help regions plan for attracting self-sustainable business, connecting entrepreneurs to capital and training business leaders who can create wealth in the communities that need it most.

You should check out his Putting the Inner-City First: Making the Case for an Inner-City Economic Development Policy.  And here's a piece he did for Inc. Magazine. Some provocative brain food.

And maybe, just maybe, someone in a position to get this guy, or someone from his shop, on a plane to come here and talk to us should get out his or her check book. What do we have to lose, except our status as one of the nation's poorest cities?

This is not to say that anyone should simply buy into Porter's approach lock, stock and barrel. In fact, his thinking about the role of community based organizations isn't exactly progressive. And he can come off as too dismissive of the importance of social welfare programs. 

But his major point - the need to create wealth in poor communities - is a keeper.

(I'd be remiss in not acknowledging the assistance of my daughter Erin, a political science major at Swarthmore College, in developing this blog post. She's smart on this stuff.)

Poverty 101 in the nation's third-poorest city

Poverty is Buffalo's No. 1 problem -- as evidenced by our ranking as the nation's third-poorest city.

What to do about it? Well, Mayor Byron Brown appointed a deputy mayor a year ago to answer just that question, but we're still waiting for an answer

William julius wilson No matter. Today and tomorrow I will delve into the issue, starting with a look at the root causes of urban poverty through the lens of Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, regarded as a pre-eminent expert, who heads the university's Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Center.

Wilson draws on research, rather than dogma, in concluding that the reasons for the kind of sustained poverty we see in cities like Buffalo don't fit neatly into the analysis offered by liberals (the legacy of racism) or conservatives (ghetto culture).

Wilson has a new book, "More Than Just Race," which was recently reviewed by the New York Times and Slate. 

The Times review said Wilson makes a "convincing case that both institutional and systemic impediments and cultural deficiencies keep poor blacks from escaping poverty and the ghetto."

The systemic impediments include both the legacy of racism and dramatic economic changes that have fallen with disproportionate severity on poor blacks.

State-enforced racial discrimination created the ghetto: in the early 20th century local governments separated the races into segregated neighborhoods by force of law, and later, whites used private agreements and violent intimidation to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods.

Worst, and most surprising of all, the federal government played a major role in encouraging the racism of private actors and state governments. Until the 1960s, federal housing agencies engaged in racial red­lining, refusing to guarantee mortgages in inner-city neighborhoods; private lenders quickly followed suit.

Meanwhile, economic and demographic changes that had nothing to do with race aggravated the problems of the ghetto.

Encouraged by recently built highways and inexpensive real estate, middle-class residents and industry left the inner city to relocate to roomier and less costly digs in the suburbs during the ’60s and ’70s. Those jobs that remained available to urban blacks further dwindled as companies replaced well-paid and unionized American workers with automation and cheaper overseas labor.

The new economy produced most of its jobs at the two poles of the wage scale: high-paying jobs for the well educated and acculturated (lawyers, bankers, management consultants) and low-paying jobs for those with little education or skills (fast food, telemarketing, janitorial services).

And, as Wilson argued in an earlier book, “The Declining Significance of Race,”the success of the civil rights movement inadvertently made things worse for the most disadvantaged.

After federal law prohibited housing discrimination, successful blacks began to leave the inner city for many of the same reasons whites did: in search of better schools, less crime, lower taxes and a leafier landscape. This left the least well off behind in ghettos that were both more socially isolated and more economically depressed than ever.

Today many ghetto residents have almost no contact with mainstream American society or the normal job market. As a result, they have developed distinctive and often dysfunctional social norms.

The work ethic, investment in the future and deferred gratification make no sense in an environment in which legitimate employment at a living wage is impossible to find and crime is an everyday hazard (and temptation).

Men, unable to support their families, abandon them; women become resigned to single motherhood; children suffer from broken homes and from the bad examples set by both peers and adults. And this dysfunctional behavior reinforces negative racial stereotypes, making it all the harder for poor blacks to find decent jobs.

Concludes The Times review:

The urban poor need remedies that judges cannot order: public and private investment to create jobs that pay a living wage, training to help them learn new skills and understand the job market, and most of all a chance to move into racially and economically integrated neighborhoods where there are better opportunities and healthier cultural norms.

Addressing urban poverty is where I'll pick up tomorrow, focusing on the need for a healthy dose of capitalism in the nation's inner-cities, as prescribed by Michael Porter.



 

 

Not all state legislatures are dysfunctional

No near, yet so far.

Read this from the New York Daily News and weep.

Connecticut's state capital is just a two-hour drive from Albany, but its Legislature might as well be in a different world.

Democrats and Republicans work together to pass laws. Residents speak their minds in public hearings, and legislators listen. Bills are written and amended in the light of day. Everything gets posted online.

The story is part of a recent series called State of Shame, in which the Daily News focuses on our state government. (Links to stories can be found in the story I've linked to above).

One of my favs is a list of committee chairmen, their stipends and the number of times their committees met this legislative session, through March 31.

Suffice to say, there are a whole lot of stipends being paid for not many committee meetings, particularly in the Senate.

Take the Senate committees on Economic Development and Environment and Conservation, chaired respectively by Bill Stachowksi and Antoine Thompson. Each committee met twice, about par for most of the Senate's 33 standing committees. Stachowski and Thompson receive stipends of $12,500 each, which works out to more than $6,000 a meeting so far. Not bad work if you can get it.

The Assembly's 36 committees tend to meet more often, two or three times is the norm, as opposed to once or twice in the Senate.

Robin Schimminger, chairman of the Assembly Economic Development Committee, has held two meetings so far for his $18,000 stipend. Sam Hoyt, whose Local Government Committee is considering IDA reform, has met three times. Hoyt's stipend is $15,000.

These stipends are in addition to a legislator's annual salary of $79,500. And some of them get more than one stipend.

Which committee has met the least? As in never. In both chambers. Come on, guess!

Ethics.



 

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