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Cusack appointment an inside job

Cusack, kessel

Richie Kessel has worked hard to try and change the image of the New York Power Authority, but his appointment of former board member Elise Cusack to a $77,500 part-time job is a stark reminder that this leopard has yet to change its spots.

This is the same NYPA that has a boat load of employees making over $100,000 a year, that thinks nothing of paying security guards and laborers $60,000 a pop.

I'll give Kessel credit for cutting the bonus program a year ago and holding the line in contract talks since he came on board as president and CEO.

But creating a job for Cusack - no one else was considered for the post - and attaching a $77,500 salary for part-time work it is going to prompt a lot of folks to shake their heads and say "Same old NYPA."

As George Maziarz, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, put it:  "Seventy-seven-thousand, five-hundred dollars a year? Part-time? It's outrageous."

Kessel would have us believe Cusack's hiring is justified because she did a bang-up job on the board and NYPA has a big ongoing role to play in the development of Buffalo's inner-harbor.

Wrong and wrong.

Cusack was almost invisible during her nearly five years on the board. Hell, there was a year when she rarely even showed up for meetings.

And NYPA's role in CanalSide largely involves writing a check. The project is receiving some $100 million via NYPA through several deals negotiated over the years with Congressman Brian Higgins. The task of spending that money rests with the Erie Harbor Canal Development Corp.

I mean, how many state authorities do we need involved in the project?

If Kessel needs someone on his staff to interact with the CanalSide folks, he's already got employees  working out of a satellite office on Perry Street.

To say nothing of the several hundred people he's got working up the road in Lewiston at the Niagara Power Project.

To say nothing of the cast of thousands working out of HQ in White Plains.

When it's all said and done, Casack's appointment has the marks of a make-work position - and an inside job.

Meanwhile, Western New York is still waiting on Kessel to follow through on his pledge to share a portion of the profits generated at the Niagara Power Project.

He promised to share the wealth a year ago when Higgins introduced federal legislation to force the issue. While NYPA did come through with more money to help finance CanalSide, it has yet to commit money for economic development in Niagara County, where the power plant is located. 

Meanwhile, the Power Authority keeps acquiescing to demands from Albany to sweep its books of profits to help bail out the state budget. That leaves no money for the community.

So, while I'll give Kessel credit for doing more for WNY, I'll also point out that in some important ways, it's still the same old, same old.


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Two angles from Albany

There's lots to digest from Gov. David Paterson's State of the State address. For right now, let's talk about his proposal to eliminate the Empire Zone program.

Tom Precious explains:

A new Excelsior Jobs Program would be created under the Paterson proposal, with a focus on high-tech and clean energy jobs. It would expand research and development tax credits for companies engaged in those sectors and offer new money for capital investment by private firms. Firms in high technology, biotechnology, clean energy, and finance and manufacturing sectors would also get special tax breaks if they create and maintain a set number of jobs over five years.

At first blush, the proposal sounds like a step in the right direction, dare I say forward thinking, at least so far as the push to promote high-tech and clean energy. Western New York has particular potential in the latter.

This much is certain. Just about anything would be an improvement on the Empire Zone program.

The first-blush response from business interests is not positive. No surprise, given that Paterson wants to end corporate welfare as they know it. 

MaziarzAlso noteworthy out of Albany is news that George Maziarz is one of two Republicans to gain an appointment to a Senate Committee. He'll head up the Energy Committee, which he chaired for a spell in the final year of the GOP's control of the Senate the year before last.

Yes, he's from WNY, and yes, this might give him some leverage, or at least a bully pulpit, when it comes to the New York Power Authority, and yes, in theory, that's a good thing.

But I expect that Maziarz, for the most part, won't use the power of the chairmanship for much more than narrow political purposes. 

He was holding hands and otherwise cuddling with NYPA when George Pataki was governor and his appointees controlled the authority. Along came Eliot Spitzer, followed by Democratic control of the Senate and -- BANG! -- the authority became his public enemy No. 1.   

Maziarz became what I consider a phony populist, criticizing, after the fact, the relicensing deal involving the Niagara Power Project and blasting the authority for not allocating power to companies that were seeking outrageously generous subsidies and a modest increase in rates to municipal utilities outside the region that enjoy deep-deep-deep discounts.

Meanwhile, for years, when he held influence on the Energy Committee when the Republicans were in charge of the governor's mansion and the Senate, Maziarz did nothing to help WNY get a better deal from NYPA.

Among his legacy of failure:

  • Not pushing legislation, or otherwise working behind the scenes, to get WNY its fair share of the profits generated at the Niagara Power Project.
  • Ditto for revising the criteria for how local industry gets NYPA power to rein in subsidies that, in the extreme, total as much as $150,000 per job, per year.
  • Being a non-factorwhen the region was negotiating with NYPA when the authority sought to extend its license to operate the hydropower plant in Lewiston. Thanks to Rep. Brian Higgins, the region squeezed some extra money out of NYPA, but not nearly as much as WNY might have otherwise secured.

The contracts for big power customers will be renegotiated this year and look for Maziarz to push for a continuation of the status quo. That would allow him to posture as saving jobs, while also positioning himself for big campaign contributions from the corporations that would benefit from more business as usual.

Mariarz's appointment raises another concern -- just how did the Senate leadership decide that he should be one of only two Republicans to get a committee chairmanship?

Could the hand of Steve Pigeon be involved?

Let's see. Pigeon is chief counsel to Pedro Espada, the Senate majority leader, who, last June, bolted to the Republicans for a spell.

Moreover, Maziarz has been playing footsies with Pigeon and Tom Golisano for a couple of years, as evidenced by the $10,000 Responsible New York contributed to the Maziarz-controlled Niagara County Republican Committee in October 2008.

The Albany Times Union and New York Daily News have more details on the Maziarz's appointment.

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What to watch for in the new year

Here's what I'll be keeping my eye on:

Whether investigators indict a high-ranking member of Mayor Byron Brown's administration as a result of the numerous ongoing investigations.

How long it will take Erie County Executive Chris Collins to blow up the fragile majority coalition he is constructing on the County Legislature.

Whether the New York Power Authority will insist on allocating low-cost hydropower to companies with a future or simply continue the status quo. And whether any local pols will insist that NYPA stop repeating the mistakes of the past.

Chris collins Whether Collins' ego will override common sense that says you can't call Shelly Silver an anti-Christ and compare him to Hitler and expect to be a viable statewide candidate.

If Tom Golisano is going to tell Steve Pigeon that, no, you can't use my money to go after Sam Hoyt again.

If the Albany County District Attorney will indict Golisano and Pigeon for violations of the state's campaign finance laws.

Just how many state legislators, especially those in the Senate, are going to lose their seats come November. I think Bill Stachowski is the most vulnerable, and perhaps Dale Volker, depending on how smart the Dems are in fielding an opponent.

Whether the Common Council, quite possibly operating with a veto-proof majority, will move beyond sniping at the mayor and show some real initiative in shaping city policy.

Whether the mayor shows up for a board meeting of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp.
Will BERC make more loans in 2010 than it has employees?And will it give any more grants to barbershops?

Will anyone in city government wake up to the fact subsidizing another downtown hotel only undermines an already soft market?

Whether school boards across the state will stop crying poor. Actually, I know the answer to this question is "no."

Whether Gov. David Paterson's poll numbers continue climbing to the point where he might be considered a viable candidate.

Will residents in villages in Erie County heed the call for dissolution?

How big a legal bill Collins, Cheryl Green and Tim Howard will run up defending conditions at the county jail and holding center. 

Wait, Billy Fuccillo, you say you know?

Have a good weekend. I'll be back at it Monday.

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Good Richie, Bad Richie

First, the Good Richie.

Richard Kessel, president of the New York Power Authority, was in town Tuesday to announce progress in his efforts to make Western New York a hub for wind energy. The authority is going to request proposals from developers to construct and operate one or more off-shore wind farms in Lakes Erie and/or Ontario.

Kessel 3That doesn't make the project a slam-dunk to happen, but it's a step forward, and if it happens, Western New York would be home to the first, or one of the first, off-shore wind projects in North America.

Western New York a leader. Now that would be a good thing.

Also good are provisions in the request for proposals that give bonus points to developers that would purchase goods and services from Western New York companies. That could help seed a wind-power industry here, drawing on the region's industrial capacity.

Then there's the Not So Good Richie.

You may recall that, back in April, when Congressman Brian Higgins called the authority out for continuing to pocket profits from the Niagara Power Project rather than sharing the wealth with the community from whence it came, Kessel surprised a lot of people by saying he was prepared to negotiate a deal to keep a significant share of the profits here to promote economic development.

Kessel said a deal would be reached over the summer.

There was no deal.

Kessel then said there would be a deal by the fall.

There was no deal.

Now, with Santa prepared to land in three weeks, Kessel said we'll see a deal no later than January.

We'll see.

Not only when, but how much, and for what.

In the meantime, tens of millions of dollars of profits that might otherwise be flowing to Western New York instead continue to make their way to NYPA headquarters in White Plains.

In other words, same old story.

Then there's Bad Richie.

You also may recall the investigation I did in 2007 that documented how NYPA is squandering much of the low-cost hydropower that is sold to local industries at a deep discount.

To refresh your memory:

Most of the power goes to a handful of companies that enjoy discounts that amount to some of the richest corporate subsidies in the nation, The News found.

Just two Niagara Falls chemical manufacturers -- Occidental and Olin -- get 29 percent of the low-cost industrial power earmarked for the region, although they employ only 1 percent of the workers of the 98 companies participating in the program. The discounted power last year saved Occidental and Olin an estimated $53 million, or an average of $126,155 per job.

And it doesn't stop there.

Dozens of other companies, The News found, receive subsidies considered excessive using benchmarks set by the federal government for several of its largest economic development programs.

Some of these industries have enjoyed generous subsidies for decades, thanks in part to what many say are outdated criteria that favor declining Cold War industries at the expense of new-economy enterprises.

Well, guess what, folks?

The contracts for most of this power are coming up on expiration, which could put it in play. But no. The Power Authority, under Kessel's leadership, plans on giving new contracts to most, if not all, of the current recipients.

"I expect most everybody will be re-upped," Kessel said Tuesday.

In other words, short of a rebellion, NYPA plans to continue to squander the most costly, and important, economic development tool this region has at its disposal. Better to prop up stagnant, sometimes dying industries, than to invest in the future.

This decision comes on the heels of NYPA's decision to give a big allocation of power to Yahoo! worth discounts of more than $800,000 per job.  A mind-boggling number -- wouldn't you say? -- for a project that likely will have little spin-off benefits, unless you include the photo op for politicians who flew in to attend the press conference called to formally announce the deal.

Yahoo! press conference

Folks, Richie Kessel has come to Western New York a lot more than his predecessors. He's slapped a lot of backs, said a lot of things we wanted to hear, even opened a satellite office of sorts in the Cobblestone District.

But the substance Kessel's actions isn't all that different from that of his predecessors. Not at least on the issues that are really important to this region. Nope, it's a continuation of the failed policies of the past.

Profits from the Niagara Power Project continue to flow to Albany, rather than into this community, and our share of the cheap power generated in Lewiston will continue to be used to prop up declining industries, some of which have been gorging at the public trough since JFK was president.

Yeah, Kessel's if-come wind project would be a good thing. But it doesn't make up for the continuation of policies that have hurt this region for a generation.

There's a better way, but Richie and Co. aren't interested.

As I reported two years ago:

“The potential of close to a quarter of a billion dollars of power a year is incredible. We’ve just been very short-sighted about the way we’ve looked at the potential,” said Sam Cole, a University at Buffalo professor who studied the impact of hydropower for the New York Power Authority.

“Given the political will, and efficient use of the power, practically every dream Western New Yorkers have for the recovery of the region could be fulfilled.”

Political will = efficient use of power = economic recovery?

Now that, folks, is a dream, unless and until people in this town wake up.

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Hard choices ahead on hydropower

We are approaching the moment of truth regarding cheap hydropower, the most potent economic development tool Western New York has at its disposal.

With the announcement that the New York Power Authority has awarded 18.7 megawatts of discounted hydropower to Steel Development, the region's inventory of unallocated power is 29 megawatts, down from a high of about 160 MW four years ago. That's out of a pool of 695 megawatts of so-called replacement and expansion power, WNY's share of the low-cost power produced at the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston.

At the same time, the folks at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership gave some interesting testimony last week to a group of state legislative leaders in town to hold public hearings on the nine economic development programs offered by the Power Authority.

Let me quote from the testimony:

The Buffalo Niagara Enterprise has made great strides working with solar panel and wind turbine manufacturers who have expressed interest in our region because of our proximity to both customers and supply chain, in addition to low cost hydropower. 

Currently, the BNE has nine active projects -- good projects, with real interest in our region, that come from the renewable energy industry, other advanced manufacturing sectors and that include brownfield cleanups and strong job creation as part of their plans.  Together these projects represent potential private sector investments of up to $4.7 billion here, and creation of nearly 5,500 new jobs. 

To land these projects, we (as a region) currently have approximately 40 MW of Expansion and Replacement power available…while the projects would likely require total allocations closer to 200 MW.

Indeed, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster told me the other day that he feels the region is putting itself on the map as a potential home to clean-tech industry and stands a decent shot at developing an industrial cluster -- if we play our cards right.

I don't expect that all seven of the projects mentioned by the Partnership will actually happen. Two or three, maybe.

The investment for, say, three projects, would approach 100 megawatts, with a payoff of something like 2,000 jobs, if the Partnership's numbers are in the ballpark.

Problem is, we don't have 100 megawatts to invest. Nope, we're down to 29, and that number is likely to drop further as NYPA finds additional customers before any of the big clean-tech projects advance sufficiently to obtain power allocations.

But, alas, there is a potential solution.

Long-term contracts for the major replacement and expansion power customers come due in several years and the authority is preparing for negotiations. The battle lines are being formed.

On one side are those who want to continue to treat long-term customers as though their allocations are a birthright, regardless of the bang for the buck.

On the other side are those who say we need to make the best and highest use of the power, and if that means some existing customers lose out, well, so be it, provided there is a net gain in jobs.

(News business columnist David Robinson had an interesting take in Sunday's paper.)

The reality is that a continuation of the status quo favoring legacy industries is going to limit the region's ability to attract new economy enterprises.

That's not an opinion, that's the reality.

Which means hard choices are on the horizon.

(As an aside, I've costed out the Steel Development deal, and it's on the pricey side, although less so than  Yahoo! at $810,000 per job over 15 years.

The Steel Development deal works out to a discount worth $32,325 per job per year over 10 years. The average annual cost per job for power allocated since 2006 is $11,833, so you can see the state is paying a premium for the 200 jobs that Steel Development would bring to the region.

The deal fares better, but not great, using a second measurement that considers how much investment projects generate per kilowatt of discounted power. Steel Development's $200 million investment works out to $10,695 per KW, vs. $11,451 for other projects awarded power since 2006.

In short, this is a generous deal.)


Smart study on dumb use of discounted power

In 2001 the New York Power Authority paid consultants to tell them what they didn't want to hear -- that the entrenched Replacement and Expansion Power program providing cheap hydropower to some 100 industries in Western New York wasn't working very well. Among other things, the report the team of mostly UB professors produced determined that 85 percent of the hydropower could be put to more effective use.

Then, in the waning days of George Pataki's days as governor, a blue ribbon panel charged with studying the state's nine discounted power programs, including the aforementioned Replacement and Expansion Power, said an overhaul was in order from Long Island all the way to Niagara Falls.

In 2007, The Buffalo News published an investigation I wrote that can be summed up with this line lifted from the main story: "The region is home to cheap power, high rates and huge corporate subsidies to a select few."

And the beat goes on.

Today, the Citizens Budget Commission releases a well-researched study of the state's nine discount power programs.

Its conclusion: Throw the circuit break on them and start over.

The programs, set up by legislation and managed by the Power Authority, all leave a lot to be desired, the study said. They don't align with the state's energy and economic development objectives and are tough to quantify and qualify because NYPA shields cost information from the public.

That's the bad news.

The worse news: The hydropower programs - Replacement and Expansion Power in our backyard and Preservation Power in Massena, which amounts to a huge handout to Alcoa -- are the least-efficient programs of all.

Consider these numbers from the Budget Commission's study, lifted from my story today:

Discounts for other discount programs offered by the state range from $247 to $630 per job per year. For the hydro programs, the cost ranges from $5,836 to $7,883 annually per job.

A look at the major recipients of low-cost hydropower customers in Erie and Niagara counties further drove home the point.

Statewide, the authority allocated on average 4.4 kilowatts of power for every job created or preserved. But the allocation for Olin Corp. in Niagara Falls works out to 497 kilowatts per job. The allocation is 244 per kilowatt per job for BOC Gases in Buffalo and 202 for Occidental Chemical in Niagara Falls.

Ah yes, good old Olin and Occidental. As I reported in my 2007 investigation:

Olin gets a $24 million annual subsidy -- an estimated $150,359 per job. Occidental gets a $28.7 million subsidy -- calculated at $111,144 per job.

Occidental's employment has dropped over the past three decades to about 200 today, but the pay is pretty good, in the $40,000 to $60,000 range.

Candace Jaunzemis, Occidental's plant manager, noted the facility's current payroll, including benefits, is about $20 million a year.

The value of its discounted power is some $29 million.

Therein lies the problem.

You'd think the state lawmakers whose legislation allows for this would be shamed into action. But it hasn't happened.

Not when George Maziarz - who is now incessantly yapping about NYPA's shortcomings, real and imagined - was a power on the Senate Energy Committee back when the Republicans were in change.

And not ever when Robin Schimminger sat, and continues to sit, as chairman of the Assembly's Committee on Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry.

Most of the legislation governing the nine power programs is coming up on expiration, as are most of the authority's contracts with replacement and Expansion Power customers. Thus, an opportunity presents itself.

Rest assured, the Olins and Occidentals of the world are lobbying behind the scenes for a continuation of the status quo. There is no organized voice for change, but a few brave folks like Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster are saying something has to give. So maybe there's hope.

After all, Gov. Paterson's folks reacted to the upcoming expiration of the legislation authorizing Empire Zones by proposing that the program be chucked.

I know this is short notice, but five Senate and Assembly committee chairmen. including the heads of both Energy Committees, are holding a hearing at 3 p.m. today at the offices of the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, 665 Main Street, to take public comment on the future of the state's power programs.

On Wednesday, they'll do it all again at Niagara Falls City Hall at 10 a.m. The meeting notice for this hearing says the testimony is by invitation only, so you might want to get on the stick if you want to be heard.

Our senators do downstate's bidding

Here's how clueless Bill Stachowski and Antoine Thomspon are: The Democratic leadership trotted them out in Albany Thursday to plead for passage of an extension of the Power For Jobs program.

Trouble is, the program does Western New York little good. In fact, it's one of the ways the profits from  the Niagara Power Project are used to benefit downstate business interests.

Here's what I reported on the program in 2007 in my Power Failure investigation of the New York Power Authority:

The program was started in 1997 and was supposed to end in 2000, but lawmakers continue to extend it. In the process, they have required the authority to reimburse the state for an increasing share of lost tax revenue, now 100 percent. The program involved 599 companies as of a year ago, including 89 from Erie and Niagara counties, whose allocation of discounted power accounted to 12 percent of the statewide total.

Power For Jobs is now slated to end this June, but the authority as it now stands remains on the hook for another contribution of $175 million.

While Niagara power isn't the sole source of funding for the voluntary contributions, the Power Authority acknowledges the plant's profits do go a long way.

In other words, profits from our plant are being used to subsidize the operations of downstate businesses.

Rep. Brian Higgins is negotiating with the New York Power Authority to secure a portion of the Niagara Power Project's profits to benefit Western New York. The expiration of the Power For Jobs program would free up money towards that end. But we've got Thompson and Stachowski doing the bidding of downstate interests instead.

They're team players, all right. Just not our team.


Anti-bonus bill passes Assembly

A bill to prohibit bonuses to management and other non-union employees at state authorities - including the New York Power Authority, which handed out nearly $40 million in such pay this past decade - passed the state Assembly 122-0 yesterday.

The bill is sponsored by Sam Hoyt. A companion bill in the Senate is one of many measures on hold because of the coup chaos. 

Yahoo! continued

The Buffalo Geek has some salient thoughts on the apparent decision by Yahoo! to locate a server farm (1) in WNY and (2) in Lockport.

Says the Geek:

As I described last month, if a data center project of this scope is properly sited and planned, it can have a positive multiplier effect on the local economy.  Yahoo! is building these regional data centers to support their plans in the cloud computing space and the potential for independent application development firms and support industry is quite lucrative with this business model.

Placing the data center in Lockport, away from the academic clusters and other related industry limits the potential for spinoff, such as it is.  While Lockport is a much better choice than Pembroke or Cambria, I wonder why New York State did not encourage Yahoo! to locate its facility in the urban core of Buffalo or Niagara Falls or even Amherst. 

Oh, wait…I know!  It’s because we don’t have a plan.  Practicing ad hoc economic development is no way to go through life, guys.  Here’s a lesson for local leaders, if you’re going to give away over $1MM in incentives per job created, you have the responsibility and right to dictate some of the criteria for site selection.

The Geek is right -- this region does not have a plan, or a strategy, when it comes to economic development. What it does have is a lot of businesses getting tax breaks and big power discounts because, well, they're there for the taking.  

Higgins' zig-zag, for better and worse

Hardly anyone, not even the folks at the New York Power Authority, are disagreeing with Brian Higgins these days regarding his assertion that Western New York ought to be getting more benefits from the Niagara Power Project. Not when it generates more low-cost electricity than all but a handful of hydropower plants in the nation, and not when it cleared $205 million last year, providing the authority with nearly 70 percent of its profits.

There is, however, lots to debate in the congressman's latest proposal on how NYPA ought to belly up to the bar.

Nearly two months ago, Higgins submitted a bill in Congress that would have required NYPA to return the proceeds from the sale of any unused power earmarked for local industry. It's been averaging about $40 million per in recent years. He got members of the local delegation to the State Legislature to sign on with companion legislation that was announced at a press conference Saturday.

The potential problem with that approach is that, if the authority were to do the right thing and allocate  the power, as it's been able to do for most of its 50-plus years, there wouldn't be any proceeds flowing back to WNY. The authority's decision last month, done at the behest of Gov. David Paterson, to give a big allotment of power to Yahoo!, even though the discounts add up to $810,000 per job, show just how easy it is to move power out the door if and when the authority is so inclined.

In a shift that Higgins doesn't see as such, the congressman now wants NYPA to return 36 percent of the plants profits to WNY for economic development purposes. Pegging a number to net revenue makes a lot more sense, in that the profits aren't going to go away.

Higgins calculates that his formula would generate about $65 million a year. My math tells me that, based on the profits last year, the number would be close to $74 million. Last year's profits were a record, however, and if you go back seven years -- low water levels in the two or three previous years resulted in abnormally low earnings -- the number would be $47.5 million.

Either way, a decent chunk of change.

How Higgins would spend the money, no matter the formula, is where the debate ought to begin.

For starters, he proposes that 60 percent of it come to Erie County. I think the folks in Niagara County, where the plant is located and where most of the low-cost hydropower is now allocated, might have something to say about that.

Also worth debate is how Higgins would spend the money in Erie County.

Some of it is earmarked for economic development that involves technology and good-paying jobs, primarily for the expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Some of it is for infrastructure that would, among other things, help open the Outer Harbor for residential development.

But a lot of it would be targeted for capital improvements to cultural facilities, in an effort to promote the notion of cultural tourism. Money to add gallery space to the Albright-Knox, help finish the Darwin Martin House, get the restoration of the H.H. Richardson complex off the dime, build an exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo and spiff up the Tiff Nature Preserve. Stuff like that.

My question: Is this really the best and highest use of our economic development dollars?

Once you get past short-lived construction jobs, how many good-paying jobs would be created?

How many in the future economy involving technology, clean energy and other other green-collar jobs?

And what would the Higgins plan do to address poverty in Buffalo, the nation's third-poorest city, and Niagara Falls, which isn't much better off?

One could argue that much of what's on Higgins' list would return a relative modest bang for the buck.

I understand his reasoning -- it's work that's ready to go, which could boost what many consider to be an important component of the regional economy, and which could capitalize facilities that maybe haven't gotten enough TLC.

But I'm sorry, you lose me with $10 million to help relocate a golf course and restore South Park to its former glory.

It's not that nicer parks and bigger art galleries and improved zoo exhibits aren't good things.

But they're not going to generate a lot of jobs, and especially not good-paying ones.

And that's what the name of the game ought to be.

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