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Perry White
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Outside Looking In

The numbers game

First published: March 27, 2015 at 10:54 am
Last modified: March 27, 2015 at 5:19 pm

There are a lot of people who, presented a spreadsheet, vomit into the nearest lampshade or faint. And I’ll be the first to admit, anything that is nearly all numbers is daunting at very best, unless you’re a CPA or a CFO.

But spreadsheets provide an awful lot of information, and sometimes you have to swallow hard and read them. I did that recently with Lewis County General Hospital’s statement of operations for February.

The numbers it offers are discouraging at the best: They show a total net budget deficit in just the first two months of 2015 of $574,693. If that trend continues, the hospital will end with a deficit under budget of $3.45 million.

But wait — anyone with an imagination can make budgets work the way they want to. And there has been some sadly creative budgeting at the hospital.

If the current numbers were measured against last year instead of against this year’s budget, things are not quite as dire. Against last year’s actual numbers, the hospital’s performance at year’s end would project out at a deficit from last year of $2.21 million.

No deficit is good. But if the hospital had adopted a budget that factored in last year’s performance, all of its benchmarks would be more realistic and perhaps not so dire.

But the board of managers approved a budget that, in general, projected higher than reasonably predictable revenues and lower-than-predictable expenses. Thus, net patient care revenue is $1.3 million less than budgeted — but only $159,925 less than last year. Had the budget not shown what is pretty clearly an outrageous jump in patient care revenues ($1,160,059, or 6.5 percent), there would be a more reasonable view of how the hospital is performing year over year.

Likewise, measured against the budget, total operating revenue for the year is down by $950,561. Measured against the same period of 2014, however, it is down by far less — $642,770. And so it goes throughout the statement of operations, showing more dire results because of hopelessly hopeful budgeting than the reality seems to present.

Preparing a budget is not an exact science, but those who prepare the documents have some obligation to use the final revenues and expenses of the previous year as a baseline for each line item. There are many things that can be adjusted by figuring in known new revenues or expenses.

In the hospital’s budget, for example, they could have factored in a realistic amount for the hospital’s Interim Access Assurance Fund grant, which it received last year because it had less than 15 days operating cash on hand and which hospital officials knew would go through the first three months of 2015. They did not, and this presented a distorted revenue picture.

As for hospital-generated revenues, the board chose to significantly raise inpatient revenue even though the continuing trend is for reduced inpatient care. In fact, reduced inpatient care is the stated goal of both the state and federal governments, and reimbursements for care and aid to hospitals is predicated on the ability to reduce the number of total inpatient days. So why would the board of managers go along with a significant increase in this item in the budget?

A real problem is the nearly 50 percent increase in revenue from physicians’ offices. The revenue to date is up nicely over last year but shows a $432,226 deficit when measured against what is clearly an untenable budget number.

It goes on and on. There is no doubt that the hospital is facing tough financial times. But with this completely unrealistic budget, members of the board of managers have painted themselves into a corner that’s going to be messy to get out of.

Bad budgeting almost always leads to sticker shock at the end of the year. For example, while hospital officials are saying publicly that they had a surplus last year, that conveniently ignores the $3.6 million the hospital didn’t have to pay its retirement system contribution.

That was forked over, yet again, by Lewis County taxpayers. But members of the Board of Legislators have vowed the bailouts will stop.

If that is true, and if the hospital doesn’t take immediate steps to force some reality into this and future years’ budgets, there will be significant year-end deficits and something will have to give. Sadly, at the recent board of managers meeting, the board decided to wait until April’s meeting to consider whether it should make budget adjustments. That will take it through the first quarter with ever-more-dire numbers, making it that much harder to make the adjustments needed to bring the hospital’s finances in line with reality.

Many, many members of the Lewis County community want Lewis County General to remain a vital and viable institution. Many of them are equally dedicated to keeping it under county ownership.

But the board of managers needs to realize that the numbers game it is playing with its budget will more likely lead to the divestiture of the hospital by the county than any other action the board can take. And that will make it solely the fault of the hospital itself.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Love the warriors, ignore the wars

First published: March 20, 2015 at 2:48 pm
Last modified: March 20, 2015 at 3:07 pm

The cover story in last month’s Atlantic magazine was a long piece about the U.S. military. And while reading it, I couldn’t help but relate elements of it to the men and women of Fort Drum, and our general attitude about the military as an institution and its members as they do their duties.

When I was 18, my freshman year in college, I was swept up as was almost a whole generation in the furor over the Vietnam War. My belief that the war was unwinable, misdirected and thus unconscionable caused a rift between my father, a World War II veteran, and me that was at first nearly cosmic, but which narrowed considerably by war’s end.

Shortly after my 18th birthday, the draft lottery was held. My number was 312, ensuring that unless China attacked the U.S. mainland, I was not going to be drafted.

Thus it was that I never served in the military. And it was at about this point in history that the realities of military service and the understanding of the military by average citizens began to diverge.

James Fallows, author of the Atlantic story, maintains that this growing chasm has led to a seismic shift in the public’s response to both the warriors and the wars. The entire first half of the 20th century and beyond was dominated by veterans of two great wars and families who sent those soldiers off and prayed, often futilely, for their return.

Soldiers in the all-volunteer armed forces are being drawn from a considerably smaller pool than when the draft was used to populate the military. As a result, far fewer families have members who serve. As a result of that, Americans’ personal connection with the military has continued to wane.

The Fallows article has many tributaries and offers any number of conclusions. But along its meandering path, it points to a seldom-discussed effect of an insulated military.

He posits that the top-down structure of the military, with so many officers seeking a lifelong career path, has resulted in a stultified command structure because career officers are at extreme peril if there are negative assessments in their personnel jackets. Fallows quotes some boots-on-the-ground soldiers as saying that such a “failure to launch” attitude complicates their jobs and often causes unnecessary danger for troops.

Back in the Walmart or Macy’s, the Applebees or the Rainbow Room, meanwhile, people go about their everyday lives thinking almost nothing about military successes or failures, all the while loving our boys in khaki and camouflage. It’s kind of a “love the warriors, ignore the wars” attitude that allows us to be sucked into futile and futilely waged conflicts such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, and before that Iraq and Vietnam.

I fully expect a large and raucous crowd tonight at the Fort Drum rally and listening session at Jefferson Community College. Sadly, I suspect this will be a lot more about economics and a lot less about support for the military. We support the Army, especially at the post that pumps up to $2 billion into the local economy.

This support is important because viewed in the most dispassionate manner, Fort Drum is essential to the national defense. Its quick-strike capabilities are completely necessary to fight the battles of the 21st century.

And this community has a real, not a manufactured or paid-for, affection for the soldiers posted at Fort Drum. There are dozens of reasons we should support Fort Drum and none that we shouldn’t.

After that foofaraw is over, however, it would also be helpful for more of us to more fully investigate our military as an institution and our foreign policy that leads to so many ill-advised military decisions. I empathize with the Veterans for Peace movement because those men and women have lived the military life and, thus, have a more authentic voice to add to the mix.

The Fallows article, which points out how unfazed Americans are by the continuing military failures we’ve faced in the past 40 years, made me wonder why we are so eager to view our obviously failed military ventures as successes. By any measure, we failed in Vietnam; we failed in our first Iraq war because we had to go back there in a decade; we failed in Somalia; we failed in the second Iraq war because we aren’t even totally out of the country, and now we’re considering going back to battle Isis; we failed in Afghanistan because we may have to go back and re-engage the Taliban.

Under the old measure — who kills the most enemy and captures the most ground — the United States is nearly invincible. Under the new measure — are any objectives of the conflict achieved — our track record is abysmal.

Clearly, this is no fault of the warriors because they consistently do what we ask of them. It is, however, a major problem in our system because we fight for unachievable objectives, or we use the wrong tactics to achieve those objectives.

And this happens, in large part, because we are so disengaged from the military and the wars. There has long been a cynical view that as soon as most of the fallen have parents who are captains of industry and important members of the government, our war policies will become far more realistic.

In truth, if more captains of industry and important politicians were forced to be more engaged in war policies because the people demand it, we would stop putting our military in wars that can’t be won, and we might even start rewarding bold and innovative commanders.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Investors with no hope of returns

First published: March 15, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: March 13, 2015 at 9:29 am

Recent stories about payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements should once again be raising a public question about how PILOTs are arrived at in particular and economic development policies in general.

The request by the developer of the new and (he says) improved version of the Galloo Island wind farm has already raised the hackles of a lot of people, for more than one reason. Jefferson County Legislator Scott A. Gray fired back at Industrial Development Agency Executive Director Donald C. Alexander for his statements indicating this plan faces little opposition — thereby proving Mr. Alexander wrong to a large degree.

And the IDA has already received letters, or at least one letter, from a Henderson landowner who strongly opposes both the project and its proposed PILOT. It appears the campaign in opposition is well underway and likely to gain speed as it goes.

Much of the opposition is directed at the wind farm. A large section of shoreline will be facing towers that can reach 575 feet (the developer has refused to reveal details before his state Article 10 application is filed next month), and this project will face fierce opposition on the basis of bird kills, visual pollution and degradation of land and lake assets.

With the opposition or without it, it’s time to ask why a wind farm would EVER be a legitimate operation for a PILOT. Keep in mind, PILOT agreements hamper tax collection; they don’t enhance it. The Galloo proposal, based on the estimates of the Jefferson County Office of Real Property, would result in three taxing entities collectively receiving an annual payment of about $900,000, about 29 percent of the $3.12 million they would be paid if the property was fully assessed at an estimated $153.7 million.

In a story in Friday’s Watertown Daily Times, developer William Moore said he can make this project work without any subsidies. But he was likely referring only to the recently expired production tax credit that gave developers 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour for all the power they produce.

It is unlikely that subsidy will return, at least not at any time soon. Its death has been the primary reason that virtually no new wind farms have been proposed through the past 15 months.

What Mr. Moore did not mention in his discussion with the Times was the local taxpayer subsidy. The town, county and school district would see vastly insufficient revenue based on the value this project would add to the tax roll.

It’s a little like giving a kid a bottle of soda but telling him he can drink only five ounces of it. The youngster would likely greedily drink the five ounces, but it wouldn’t take long for him to say, “Hey, why can’t I have the rest of it?”

And in fact, why should the taxing entities settle for 29 percent of the project’s tax obligation, especially since Mr. Moore says he doesn’t need any subsidies to make it work?

PILOTs should be reserved for projects that create jobs. Wind farms do not create jobs (see Maple Ridge as an example). I find it absurd that this IDA would push PILOTs for wind farm development, the benefits of which will never be seen in this county, while it generally disfavors retail projects, which demonstrably create jobs.

I’m lukewarm about providing tax abatement for retail projects. But compared to job-neutral projects, including wind farms, they’re a far better return on taxpayer investment.

And this IDA seems to have lost sight of this essential fact: PILOTs are investments that property owners are compelled to make, whether they want to or not. And those investments are spread countywide, since Jefferson County needs to participate for a PILOT to work.

As a city taxpayer, I don’t mind helping to finance a MetalCraft Marine in Clayton because the jobs created demonstrably benefit the whole county. I really object to making an investment in the Galloo Island wind project, for which I will pay some cost for 20 years and then get no return.

One of the commenters on one of our recent Galloo Island stories implied that the JCIDA cares more about raking in its fees than it does about supporting projects that will help Jefferson County and its communities. That’s a harsh view, but it does raise this question: Is the IDA doing a thorough, dispassionate and realistic review of projects that seek PILOT agreements?

To my mind, job creation, or in rare cases job retention, should drive the decisions on what projects are worthy of PILOT agreements and other IDA benefits. In 2014, there were 400 more jobs in Jefferson County than there are today. That represents a drop of about 1 percent.

Statewide, job totals have climbed substantially in the last 15 months. Jefferson County is regularly in the top five counties for unemployment percentage and the bottom five for job growth (or loss, as it happens). That makes it very hard to see where IDA policies are in concert with the need to build job numbers, to build true economic opportunity for county residents.

County leaders need to take a hard look at what’s going on in the economic development arena. Naming Scott Gray to the JCIDA board was a substantial step forward.

He understands that the IDA must consider the county’s needs instead of going off hither and yon, granting PILOTs that don’t help anyone but outside-the-county investors. The taxpayers of Jefferson County should not be forced to become investors without hope of recompense.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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One-way to solve the problem

First published: March 08, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: March 06, 2015 at 5:32 pm

“The school board has the ability to appropriate money and to set priorities.”

— Watertown Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham

With this statement, the mayor told Watertown City School District officials that, in effect, any solution to the unsafe situation on Knickerbocker Drive — a city street — is the district’s problem.

For years, traffic and parking on the short street that is home to Knickerbocker Elementary has created a hazard for students, staff, pedestrians and residents. As parents pour onto the street to drop off and pick up children, the driving lane narrows to an unsafe width and sight lines virtually disappear, making it a harrowing experience just to cross the street.

The reality is that this is primarily the city’s problem. Thus, the mayor’s statement was so absurd at so many levels that it’s hard to believe he uttered it.

First, of course, is the obvious fact: A dollar out of a city taxpayer’s pocket is a dollar out of his pocket. Every city taxpayer also pays city school district taxes. To suggest that it’s OK for the school district to raise taxes to fix what is largely the city’s problem is to tell everyone that the mayor doesn’t care about the taxpayers; he cares about how he is perceived by what he dreams is his adoring public.

It also ignores the clear fact that for the school district to solve this problem, it would have to engage in significant capital spending. For the city to solve it, it could first take an action that would have virtually no cost: Make Knickerbocker Drive a one-way street.

Despite the mayor’s hollow protests at how difficult this would be, especially to reverse, all it takes is a local ordinance and some signs. And the upside is that the city could then use those who choose to ignore the one-way designation as part of the city’s revenue stream by ticketing them.

“We can enact an ordinance to make a road one-way, but it isn’t as reversible as one might think,” Mr. Graham said at last week’s meeting. “It’s not going to get easily reversed.”

Seriously, Jeff? I do not remember any tortured path you had to tread to reverse Arcade Street, which for the whole time I have worked here was one-way southbound — until it wasn’t.

When the city put in its new city bus terminal, it quite facilely changed Arcade to one-way northbound. No council members were injured in this process. And had the council chosen to make Arcade two-way, all it would have taken is an ordinance.

The mayor isn’t the only silly City Council voice on this issue. Both Roxanne M. Burns and Teresa R. Macaluso have suggested that the objection of any Knickerbocker Drive resident ought to kill this proposal. Oh, pish-tosh!

The positions of Knickerbocker Drive residents should be considered. But this is an issue that transcends those viewpoints. If the street is made one-way eastward, residents coming from the Washington Street direction would have no farther to drive to get to their residence and, leaving, would have no more than a 2,100 foot “detour” going back in the other direction — although alternate routes could minimize or eliminate that.

A suggestion that the city install curbing on the north side of the street could mollify residents because that would keep cars off their lawns and properties, and probably give them a net benefit even with a one-way street. That, of course, would take money, but this is still the city’s problem, even if the school district seems to be paying the costs in unnecessary risks to students and staff.

And here’s a note for the parents whose bad behavior was revealed at last week’s meeting: Grow up and act like the adults you are supposed to be. Blocking driveways, parking on other people’s property, being rude to property owners and school staff is worse than simply boorish — it teaches your children that antisocial behavior is permissible, perhaps even preferable.

Even if you have no social graces, don’t curse your children by teaching them none either. It’s not a jungle out there; it’s a civilization. When you act contrary to that and your child sees it, it offers a lesson in behavior that no one should have to sit through.

This problem has persisted far too long. It needs a resolution, and the City Council has the opportunity to offer one that has virtually no cost and is easily reversed if it proves ineffective.

It’s time to stop dithering with this and try something. The wringing of hands has got to stop.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times and a proud and enthusiastic taxpayer of the city of Watertown and the Watertown City School District. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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City Council faces a legacy decision

First published: March 04, 2015 at 3:12 pm
Last modified: March 04, 2015 at 3:34 pm

The Watertown City Council took a step back from the edge Monday, giving itself a chance to yank success from the mouth of failure in its consideration of a $10 million rejuvenation of the arena at the Alex P. Duffy Fairgrounds.

The plan, which has grown in scope and price over the years, would ensure that the arena can remain a community asset for generations to come. It would provide 21st century facilities instead of the mid-20th century amenities it now offers.

It would offer an improved and expanded hockey facility, which could help keep minor league hockey here in the city. And it would make the facility more user-friendly for the scores and scores of junior skaters who train and compete and just simply have fun there.

What almost tripped this up Monday, and what still may trip it up, is the $10 million price tag. It is a lot of money.

But the city has an obligation to maintain its assets, an obligation that this council seems to have a hard time grasping. The Thompson Park pool is the most recent casualty of municipal neglect, closing last year with no indication it will ever again open.

The city-owned zoo went through a torturous path to a building to replace the aviary, which was falling down around the zoo’s ankles. And the arena has had virtually no attention in the 40 years of its existence.

Any farmer will tell you that if you don’t keep a good roof and solid siding on a barn, it will fall apart. It takes attention, over time, to keep that barn in good enough shape to serve the farmer’s needs.

At the arena, the city has both figuratively and literally let the roof fall apart. Unless council members commit to making the investment needed to bring this asset up to date, physically and mechanically, they might just as well send the Department of Public Works crew in there with an excavator and a bunch of dump trucks and tear it down.

There are no half measures that can be applied to this project, primarily because the city has ignored it for four decades. Now it’s time to pay the piper.

The quality of life in cities — especially small cities — depends a lot on its parks and its playgrounds, pools, ball fields and arenas. People need places to get out, to gather or to be alone, to work hard at playing or to relax and let their cares drift away.

The measure of any small city is often these extra things, these necessary but unmandated things, that add to the essence of life. We need a working sewage treatment plant and water plant, but we also need a park, a library, a playground, an arena.

If this City Council allows itself to be intimidated by the zeroes at the end of $10 million rather than be encouraged by the many citizens who believe the city needs this arena as an important municipal asset, it will fail its mission to the future citizens as well as those here now. And that would not be the legacy it should be pursuing.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Wanted: A government that works

First published: March 01, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: February 27, 2015 at 4:54 pm

As I write this, the U.S. Senate has passed a bill that extends the funding for the Department of Homeland Security through this budget year, ending a stalemate in that chamber of attaching an anti-Obama rider to the spending bill.

But the House of Representatives stands far from the compromise the Senate reached. And there is no certainty that starting Saturday morning, the folks at the northern border crossings at Collins Landing, Ogdensburg and Massena would be getting paychecks for their work.

The House on Friday morning leaned toward a bill that would fund the department for three weeks. That is the current definition of “compromise” in the lower body of Congress — solutions that are so rife with brinkmanship that they are not solutions at all. Members of the tea party and other ultra-conservative congressmen actually are so unshakeably sure of their political rectitude that they have no shame about not paying the hard-working Americans who are charged with keeping us safe from everything from smugglers to terrorists.

No matter how this is resolved, no matter what the vote is, the damage has been done. Congress continues to demonstrate how out of step it is with the American public.

A CBS News poll showed that irrespective of party affiliation, a solid majority of Americans, 60 percent or more, oppose the shutdown of Homeland Security. And previous polls have shown that a majority of Americans also are in favor of reasonable immigration reform, something this Republican Congress has the ability to take real leadership on.

Instead, what we get is a House whose leadership appears unable to forge a consensus that is necessary to govern. At least in the Senate, there is, if not true bipartisanship, an acknowledgement that some policy changes are possible, and some are not. That permits decision-making that includes compromise and concession — which is what governing is all about.

This is not a party issue. This is an issue of a Congress so badly divided over issues that it would rather let the patient die than accept a hybrid cure.

It’s hard to accept that some of the elected officials who are most strident about the threat to American society posed by terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaida are simultaneously the ones most likely to advocate shutting down Homeland Security in order to force President Barack Obama to abandon his executive order on immigration. The irony is, it appears none of them sees the contradiction in those positions.

There are voices of reason out there, members of the House who are in vocal opposition to the radical “tear it down” bent of their rabid colleagues. Two of them from New York have publicly announced they would support a “clean” Homeland Security spending bill in the best interests of the country.

One is the otherwise conservative Peter King from Manhattan. The other, and I say this with a great deal of admiration, is our own Rep. Elise Stefanik, who put the interests of her country and her constituents ahead of her party. This is an act of courage and of principle of which all in the 21st Congressional District should be proud.

Her intractable colleagues, however, are showing how unprepared they are to govern. Another King in the House, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, has loudly proclaimed that shutting off the funding for DHS wasn’t a problem because, “They get paid for their work, they just get delayed pay for their work.”

Hmmm. Perhaps the fact that this King doesn’t have an international border anywhere near his district makes him so callous toward government border employees. And I wonder, if several hundred of his constituents were DHS employees, would he be quite as dismissive of their plight?

The United States and the world are facing unprecedented danger from terrorist organizations. This is no time to shut down the agency that is directed to combat that danger.

And, from a longer view, we send representatives to Washington to govern. That is their job. That is why they are paid and given nice offices and staff to assist them. When they fail in their sole job — providing governance — they are the ones who are not earning their pay.

We could use a lot more people like Peter King and Elise Stefanik in Washington and a whole lot less like Steve King. At the end of the day, your average American wants a government that works.

And right now we don’t have one. More’s the pity.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Government through a frosted glass

First published: February 25, 2015 at 11:36 am
Last modified: February 25, 2015 at 11:36 am

New York state, at the direction of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, has started a massive purge of emails of state employees that are 90 days old or older. With those emails, no doubt, will go any number of state documents that are supposed to be available under Public Officers Law’s Freedom of Information section.

The task is not being accomplished without protest from any number of good government groups. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, New York Civil Liberties Union and the Sunlight Foundation, among others, have registered their opposition to the practice. Their valid point is that there is no practical reason to do this, since the state’s new cloud-based email system has room to store about 30 years of emails for every state employee, and doing this thwarts the purposes of the Freedom of Information Law by permanently destroying state records.

While not all emails are subject to the law — there are exemptions for intra-agency communications and other things — many of them are, and with such a quick trigger on the delete key, many of them will be gone before anyone has the ability to seek their public release.

This will have long-range effects on efforts by the press and public to follow the workings of state government. Any effort, for example, to track a continuing issue will be cut off at 90 days. And while emails can be protected from deletion, this takes a conscious act on the part of each state employee. The state has issued a lengthy guidance on what should be preserved, but people who have read it have said it is terribly complex, and includes 215 categories of records that should be saved. The presumption that thousands of state employees will proactively protect the public’s right to know is only slightly less absurd than the presumption that those employees will study and learn the guidelines for which records to save.

When Gov. Cuomo stood for office five years ago, before his first term, he vowed to make state government more transparent than it has ever been. In the ensuing term of office, he systematically ensured that, if anything, the opposite is true.

He has micromanaged the state’s flow of information to a degree likely never before seen — try to get information from any state agency that hasn’t been vetted through the governor’s office. And any dedication to the Freedom of Information Law on the part of the state agencies has been eroded during the Cuomo years; I have a “pending” FOI request to the state Health Department that is now going on two years without a resolution.

The policy on deletion of emails just begs for more bad actions on the part of state officials — as though this state government needs more incentives to behave poorly. Anyone engaged in questionable action has a significantly diminished chance of being caught when systematic record destruction is a policy of that government.

The ethical morass that this state is wallowing in begs for the transparency that the governor promised five years ago. It isn’t at all comforting to know that the governor does not use email to discuss any state issues. The Associated Press reported in 2012 that Cuomo “instead makes frequent telephone calls and uses the PIN messaging system from his BlackBerry cellphone, neither of which leaves a record of the communication.”

The AP discovered this when it filed a Freedom of Information request for the governor’s official emails, and found out there were none.

And the policy that allows the destruction of emails after 90 days was set up by executive fiat, when the governor approved a policy that stated “The Executive Chamber adopts the NYS Archives’ policy with respect to e-mails but goes further to state that all electronic communications, whether by e-mail, text or Blackberry PIN, will fall under this policy.”

Bob Freeman, the executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said that some 90 nations have enacted some form of freedom of information laws since he began with the committee in 1974. Many of them are ahead of the U.S. and New York state in the sophistication of their laws because the laws were written in the digital age.

New York’s law was not, and it suffers from that. Now only legislative amendment and court decisions determine how the law responds to technology that did not exist when the law was written.

Gov. Cuomo’s order on email retention is a massive step backward, from a technological standpoint. And, Mr. Freeman said, it appears to ignore a basic premise: it is the content of a record, rather than the record itself, that should determine whether and for how long it is a public record. That critical point has been trashed by this policy.

Thus sinks transparency. Thus sinks open government. And this further sinks the legacy of a governor who wants so badly to be judged to be great.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Time to put an end to polit-speak

First published: February 20, 2015 at 11:58 am
Last modified: February 23, 2015 at 10:37 am

We had a visit Friday morning from the nice young man U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik has appointed as her spokesman. He stopped by the Watertown Daily Times office to talk to us about press-related matters and to discuss how we can perhaps forge a better working relationship.

I think I shocked him when I told him the best way for us to do that is to put aside the polit-speak and meaningless party-line lip service and give us real answers to real questions.

Last week, in a story on the potential shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security, we tried to ask Ms. Stefanik what that would mean for the north country and what she thought might be done to prevent a border closure.

Her reply? “Blame it on the Democrats in the Senate.”

Which, as I told her representative, is not responsive to the question. It is, rather, a regurgitation of the party line that I would suspect around 200 members of the House have, will or would spout to their local papers.

But we don’t need Ms. Stefanik to give us the party line — we can get that from John Boehner’s office or Mitch McConnell’s office or the Associated Press. What we need from Ms. Stefanik, and what every paper needs from its own member of Congress, is information on how events in Washington will affect the readers these papers serve. Because, as we pointed out to Tom Flanagin from Ms. Stefanik’s office, our readers are the constituents of the representative.

One of the reasons our government seems to be going off the rails is that spin and doctrine have taken over facts and opinions. If all a member of Congress can produce in answer to honest questions is disingenuous answers, it is the people who are poorly served.

To be perfectly honest, Ms. Stefanik is very new to her position, and she has already acquired a significant debt to the Republican Party for the support she received in her run for office. She may not be in a position to be an iconoclast at this point in her career, and that’s probably OK.

But ... she still owes the quality of candor to her constituents, and she still owes them information. It is not unreasonable, given the considerable economic ties her district has to the Canadian border, to want to know what will happen along that border if the Department of Homeland Security is shut down for lack of a current funding bill.

It is this kind of question that officials have to answer. Saying that it is the fault of Democrats in the Senate is like saying “Seven!” to the question “What color is that dress?”

Here is another caveat for the Homeland Security issue: Unbeknownst to us, Ms. Stefanik was touring the Middle East as part of her duties on the Armed Services Committee.

So getting her response to us wasn’t quite as simple as leaning in her office door and asking her. But, as I pointed out to Mr. Flanagin, a better response than what we received would have been, “Ms. Stefanik is out of Washington on congressional business, and we’ll get back to you.”

In my dealings with her, I have come to believe that Ms. Stefanik has the potential to be a fine representative of the north country in Washington. She is very bright and very quick on her feet. And as long as she speaks the truth, I don’t think she’ll ever embarrass herself or her district.

And I think she is better than the run-of-the-mill politician who survives on special interest PACs and verbal pabulum. But she has to prove that.

As for us, I’m instructing our reporters to stop putting self-serving and meaningless responses by any politicians in all of our stories. What’s the point? You don’t have time to read meaningless words, and we don’t have time to transcribe them.

Your representatives at every level of government owe you the duty of candor. It’s time to make them pony up.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Meth labs, coming to a neighborhood near you

First published: February 15, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: February 13, 2015 at 5:48 pm

It’s hard to keep up with the drug du jour.

The Watertown Daily Times and several other papers have been tracking the rise of heroin over the past couple of years, its use propelled by low cost and high availability. In many places in rural New York, the prevalence of heroin is being called an epidemic.

And judging by some Ohio papers I’ve recently read, much of that state’s rural areas are also facing a growth in the availability and use of “horse.”

All of which shows drugs for what they really are: a commodity, with price and use driven by the age-old rules of supply and demand. With heroin seemingly everywhere, the price drops, the use rises. At some random place in time, that will reach a tipping point, with demand outstripping supply, and the price will rise, and the use will drop.

As long as drugs can be treated as a commodity, and as long as we fail to find a way to make drug use unattractive that doesn’t involve prison bars, drug use will continue and drug dealers will walk among us.

And while heroin has been on everyone’s lips these past two years, it appears we are stumbling backward toward the time six or eight years ago when there were meth labs all over the north country. The Times has reported on seven meth lab busts since Christmas, little more than six weeks ago.

That is more meth labs than were reported busted in the total of 2014. And last January, we reported that St. Lawrence County had not had a meth lab busted since 2012.

Alas, that hiatus appears to be over. There have been meth busts in the past six weeks in all three counties, including a mobile lab that was busted last week by Watertown city police. The mobile labs are especially disconcerting; methamphetamine production relies on a lot of unstable elements (have you ever seen an accidental camp-stove-fuel fire?) and they must be cleaned up by haz-mat teams, so having them rolling merrily down the street through your crowded city neighborhood is not particularly comforting, personal safety-wise.

Arguably, meth users are right up there with heroin addicts when it comes to debilitating effects of drug use. It is highly addictive, especially when smoked; it can be used by smoking, injecting or taking orally. It can give an extended state of euphoria, which often carries a sense of being indestructible, certainly not something you want in an addict.

So after a lull, it appears that meth labs and meth use are once again ascending in the north country drug users hierarchy. As a commodity, it almost certainly never left, it just hit one of those periodic cycles where our wandering attention drifted over to the Next Big Thing — in this case, heroin.

I hate to think of young people strung out on crank, as crystal meth is known. Because it is so physically addictive, like heroin, it is a very difficult habit to shake.

It is relatively cheap, not the least reason for which is that its effects are more long-lasting than most street drugs. And it encourages its users to become producers and dealers as well; while the average guy on the street can’t manufacture heroin, anyone smart enough to use the Internet and shop somewhat circumspectly in hardware stores and pharmacies can build crystal meth.

We have heard for decades of the nation’s war on drugs. It has been about as successful for us as the Vietnam War.

Like whack-a-mole, every time a small dealer or meth manufacturer is grabbed over here, another one pops up over there to fill the void. We can’t carpet bomb the dealers and the manufacturers and the users because they are so much among us.

When you read about the heroin epidemic, keep in mind that heroin use, like other drug use, ebbs and flows on the drugs commodity market. It is the totality of that market that is disheartening and our inability to eliminate it that is our curse.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Sometimes nice guys finish first

First published: February 06, 2015 at 11:34 am
Last modified: February 06, 2015 at 3:15 pm

Sometimes, the skeptics are proven wrong.

And sometimes, nice guys finish first.

If you want some proof, look at state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

Mr. DiNapoli has had a remarkable career in public service.

He was elected to his local school board at the age of 18, becoming the youngest elected official in the state at the time.

He went on to serve in the Assembly in Long Island’s 16th District, he mounted a short-lived candidacy for lieutenant governor and, in 2007, was chosen by the Legislature to succeed Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who had resigned in a public corruption scandal at the end of 2006.

In 2010, he narrowly beat Republican candidate Harry Wilson, gaining a 200,000-vote victory out of 4.4 million votes cast.

In his next race, last fall, he was the highest vote-getter in the state and trounced his opponent, Syracuse comptroller Robert Antonacci, by 878,000 votes.

Mr. DiNapoli has been a breath of fresh air as comptroller.

In his first year in office, he sharply criticized the budget proposed by fellow Democrat Gov. Eliot Spitzer as proposing spending at an “unsustainable rate.”

He predicted that such spending would within three years create a $13 billion deficit.

Although Spitzer didn’t hang around long enough to see it, Mr. DiNapoli’s prediction proved to be prescient.

Even though Mr. DiNapoli was a Democratic assemblyman from a downstate district, when he donned the comptroller’s cloak, he took on the duties of that office with vigor.

He appointed a sagacious commission to look at the workings of the office and advise him on his duties.

So that even though his master’s degree was in human resources management, he stepped ably into the role as the state’s chief financial officer.

The comptroller’s office has always served as the state’s fiscal watchdog.

It conducted audits of state agencies, municipalities, school districts and fire departments, among other entities, and provided loose guidance on the state budget.

It continues those tasks but with a certain DiNapoli zest.

Under Mr. DiNapoli, the office has seemed to sharpen its pencils and broaden its view.

One example: rating municipalities and school districts for their financial prospects, generating lists of who is in dire peril, who is facing dire peril and who is at risk of facing dire peril.

While those listings have their critics — especially the school district ratings — they nevertheless alert taxpayers to districts in financial trouble and that they should pay attention to what their government or school district is doing.

Mr. DiNapoli’s office also has produced other guides whose primary benefit has been to taxpayers.

For example, the office recently issued a report on the soft condition of sales tax revenues across the state that graphically showed counties and municipalities that are at risk if they place too much reliance on sales tax revenues.

His report noted that while St. Lawrence County had seen sales tax revenues rise by 30 percent, it had raised the sales tax by 33 percent — meaning the county had an effective loss in sales tax revenues over the year.

This kind of comparative information is not easy to come by, and that has real value to citizens who can get a far clearer picture of how fiscally strong — or weak — their local governments are.

His reports encompass such things as school revenue streams, fiscal snapshots of municipalities and how the state’s industrial development agencies performed.

The comptroller’s website has a host of information in a very user-friendly form.

And unlike most other state agencies, that seem unable to give more than name, rank and serial number when contacted for information, people in Mr. DiNapoli’s office answer questions and return calls.

Nice guys do finish first, and New York has public officials of honesty, character and skill.

At a time in which the state has wallowed in yet another government scandal, it doesn’t hurt to take a look at one public official we can all be proud of.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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