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Perry White
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Outside Looking In

Time to love the one you’re with

First published: April 17, 2015 at 2:55 pm
Last modified: April 17, 2015 at 5:32 pm

The slow economic recovery that is creeping over the nation continues to elude the north country. Unemployment rates here continue to be in the state’s top five, and job losses are not being reversed.

And yet, about four dozen public and quasi-public agencies continue to pour resources into the same things they’ve been pouring resources into for decades. Industrial development agencies exist at the county and town levels; job development corporations join local development corporations in the search for better economic times. What have they achieved?

At very best, their records are mixed. Some of the most enduring successes have been efforts to strengthen and grow existing businesses. Timeless Frames, Car-Freshner, Curran Renewable Energies and Fockler Industries are but a few on the long list of established companies that have benefitted from IDA assistance.

Efforts to lure businesses here from elsewhere have been less successful. And in general, luring new manufacturing businesses here from elsewhere has had few successes.

On Monday in Canton, St. Lawrence University is offering “Opportunities for Strategic Business Development in the North Country” as a North Country Symposium. Its main speaker will be economist Michael Shuman, who will bring a radical message to north country economic development efforts: Forget about lobbying and cajoling manufacturing firms to relocate here. Instead, focus on growing your economy from the inside out.

In a delightful interview Friday morning on North Country Public Radio, Mr. Shuman said that the old model of economic development needs to be rethought and replaced. His suggestion: Do whatever it takes to make the existing businesses you have as successful as possible. He calls it “regional self-reliance.”

Mr. Shuman points out that the focus of the American economic engine has shifted, over the past 75 years, from a manufacturing base to a service base. And yet, the folks who are trying to drive economic development do not fully appreciate the change.

Here is what he says is the right formula: “I would say that the three basic rules of any successful economic development program is to focus laser-like on locally owned businesses, to try to promote those locally owned businesses that increase diversification of the economy and greater local self-reliance, and to try to identify businesses with great environmental and labor standards that can teach other businesses how to get a good triple bottom line.”

To a degree, the promotion of Car-Freshner, Otis Technology and Curran Renewable Energies does exactly that. And that has been a successful use of development resources.

Now we should consider taking it a step further. We should be using these successful businesses as a resource not only for jobs but for other businesses that could benefit from their business acumen or could prove to be ripe for a symbiotic relationship with the businesses that are strong and vibrant.

Far too often, we read about the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency or Watertown Trust trying to figure out what to do now that a business that has received a loan from one or the other (or often both) of the agencies has gone belly-up. Perhaps the best economic development model would only start with the loan — it should carry with it the kind of post-loan support that might make the difference between success and failure. A mentoring program that can keep a new business owner on a clear path to success would be a great service to offer, as an example.

This is how Mr. Shuman put it on NCPR: “A far better approach, I think, is to create a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem. And what I mean by that is that you’re working, you know, with your sleeves rolled up with lots and lots of small businesses helping them, you know, improve their finance, improve their marketing, improve their collaboration with one another so they are more competitive as a team than they would be apart.”

We have to find a way to make economic development efforts more fruitful in the north country. We are not going to lure manufacturing here, and wind farms are not exactly a growth medium.

Mr. Shuman’s approach, kind of a cross between an economic microgrid and a “love the one you’re with” development strategy, deserves a chance. We have nothing to lose and lots to gain.

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

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Citizen journalists, unite

First published: April 10, 2015 at 2:09 pm
Last modified: April 10, 2015 at 5:30 pm

The latest in what seems like a persistent stream of dubious police killings of black men took a quick turn away from the other recent events when the North Charleston, S.C., police officer who pulled the trigger April 4 was, within 78 hours of the shooting, arrested and charged with murder. And he has already been fired.

When compared to the shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., the speed with which justice struck was breathtaking. But it was not necessarily because North Charleston officials are more interested in justice than those in Ferguson, although they might be. The jury is still out on that.

The striking difference in the two cases is the existence of a video of the confrontation. It clearly shows the victim, 50-year-old Walter Scott, running away from officer Michael Slager; it shows Slager pulling his semiautomatic handgun and quickly pumping off seven shots, then a delayed eighth shot, into the back of Mr. Scott.

It then shows Slager handcuffing Mr. Scott as he lay prone and dying, and then jogging back to where he fired the shots to retrieve his dropped Taser — which he then takes back and drops by the body of the man he shot. His official story, the one he reported to his superiors, was that Mr. Scott had taken the Taser away from him, making him fear for his safety.

Unfortunately for Slager, Feidin Santana happened to be walking by the scene of the confrontation. Mr. Santana alertly started filming with his iPhone as soon as he saw the brief struggle after Slager shot Mr. Scott with his Taser and fully captured Mr. Scott running for his life as Slager threw eight shots at the fleeing subject.

The video is graphic; it is disturbing; but, most importantly, it is probative. There is little doubt that the fleeing Mr. Scott was no danger for the police officer.

A lot of words have been and will be written about justice in America, about the penalty of being black, about the prejudices of many mainly white police forces in mainly black or at least widely integrated areas. I want to talk about the camera in the iPhone and the young man who wielded it.

The video is simply the most graphic, and most shocking, of a number of videos that appear to portray police violence. The death of Eric Garner, dead from the chokehold of a New York City policeman, included the haunting voice of the victim saying, “I can’t breathe.”

But that video did not sway people on a grand jury, who chose not to indict any of the six offers who subdued Mr. Garner to death. Or, maybe, they weren’t shown the video. It’s hard to tell since grand jury testimony is a secret by law, with penalties against anyone who makes it public.

Today, according to the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of American adults have a cellphone. Almost two-thirds of those are smartphones, but even the “dumb” ones can take video. When you add to that the thousands of fixed-base public cameras, it might behoove police officers and miscreants alike to be aware that if they do anything untoward in public, the chances are exceptionally good there will be someone there to record it.

The technology of the computer age does not march along — it races forward, almost faster than we can keep up. Consider that the telephone was essentially tethered to wires for almost 125 years.

In the ensuing decade, technology has made landline phones virtually obsolete. Communications, not all that long ago limited to paper and conversations, have raced past the television age and are on to streaming video.

And all of these changes have been geared toward taking our technology outside. As recently as the beginning of this century, most people who might want to call someone from an event and take still pictures and video while there would be lugging around a flip phone, a camcorder and a camera. Today, the iPhone does all of that — and instantly posts it to Instagram, iCloud or any number of cloud-based storage and sharing sites.

Young Mr. Santana, when he saw that a miscarriage of justice seemed likely in the shooting of Walter Scott, did the right thing. He presented his video to members of the Scott family so that they could seek justice. He told the family that he was still afraid of police retaliation against him, but the civic duty of making the facts public was greater than his fear.

It is this conviction that can create a nation of citizen journalists. We have five staff photographers — and a quarter of a million people in our readership area who, with everyday tools, can be our stringers. Suddenly, there is revealed an obvious benefit of the loss of privacy brought through advancing technology: Bad people and bad cops are far more likely to be revealed.

Keep your phones handy, citizens. Capture important public events, and offer them to the wider audience. Be like Feidin Santana — do the right thing. Your iPhone could end up making the world a little safer for all of us.

Perry White is the iPhone-toting managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net — and on Instagram.

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Unfunded mandates — or just an excuse?

First published: April 03, 2015 at 11:52 am
Last modified: April 03, 2015 at 2:26 pm

Jefferson County legislators have decided that it’s time to raise the local sales tax rate by a quarter of a percentage point to 4 percent, which, added to the state’s 4 percent tax, would total 8 percent on taxable goods sold in the county.

According to county officials, only this measure will allow the Legislature to avoid even higher hikes in the property tax in coming years. This is the same Legislature that has made something of a big deal out of telling residents, “We rely too much on the sales tax for revenue.”

The problems with the sales tax are twofold: It disproportionately taxes the people on the lower end of the economic spectrum because they have far less money to spend, thus most of their money goes to essential purchases and they end up paying a higher percentage of expendable income on tax than a wealthier person does. And the sales tax, unlike the property tax, is unpredictable. It is susceptible to many factors outside the county’s control such as a weak Canadian dollar, a general economic downturn and even fluctuations in the price of such commodities as gasoline. The county can guess at how much sales tax it will take in over a year. But in the last couple of years, those guesses have been a tad optimistic.

The property tax, of course, is more reliable. The land values are set annually, and each year the county can come up with a tax rate by dividing the total taxable assessment by the amount the tax has to raise. Simple math — no guesswork required.

But as several legislators pointed out in the sales tax rate discussion, property owners are being hit plenty hard already. Many village property owners, who face an additional layer of taxation for the privilege of living within their village’s boundaries, are paying well north of $3,000 in total property taxes. The combined tax rate in the village of Dexter is $37.66 per $1,000 assessed. Even at an equalization rate of about 65, a house with a true value of $125,000 is paying more than $3,000 a year in combined taxes. That means that an additional $250 a month is being added to the average Dexter mortgage for tax escrow. And, of course, the more valuable the house, the higher that payment goes.

When Jefferson County legislators talk about the property tax, at the back of their minds must be the other property taxes that are exacted against property owners. And as one legislator pointed out, the county is falling behind on vital infrastructure maintenance and upgrades because it simply cannot tax enough to have the money for that expenditure.

What is the solution? I’m not sure there is a simple answer. But I have become convinced that there are a lot of municipal officials out there waving red flags to distract people from wondering why there isn’t an easy solution.

The red flag we hear the most is “unfunded mandates.” Between some minority party Assembly members, county officials and state county organizations, the cacophony that has been raised has reached the point where it could drown out the debate.

The Jefferson County 2015 budget lists nine major unfunded mandates: the DA’s salary, public defender and assigned counsel, Family Court attorney costs, payments to other colleges, community college charge-backs, mental health and hygiene costs, court commitments, Department of Social Services administration and DSS entitlements and programs (including the county’s $19.9 million share of Medicaid costs).

That’s quite a list. But as is often the case, look beyond the sound bite and the view changes a bit. All of these items provide services to residents of Jefferson County. Take public defender/assigned counsel, for example. Every level of government across the United States has an obligation to provide equal protection under the law. In our court system, it is critical that people have an adequate defense regardless of their economic standards. While our system seldom provides this in an ideal way, we nevertheless have an obligation to try.

A similar obligation exists in Family Court, which is the primary bulwark against shattered families and abused and neglected children. Family Court can and does save lives; it is an essential human service we should all be proud to contribute to.

And the money spent on mental health and hygiene is funded 68.9 percent by the state, 31.1 percent by the county. Why would county taxpayers not feel some obligation to pay this portion of desperately needed mental health costs?

And it goes on. After looking at the county breakdown of “unfunded mandates,” the only one I can completely agree with is the state’s requirement that the county pay $19.9 million in Medicaid costs. I don’t think this is fair because New York is the only state that places this burden on its counties. It should not.

Yes, the county helps to provide and pay for services that originate with the state. But as Jefferson County Legislator Scott Gray said, most of government is about providing services to people.

“These are our people,” he said. “We have an obligation to take care of the people who live here.”

I’ll go him one further: Government that does not provide services for its citizens has no reason to exist. What other possible purpose for government, at any level, could there be?

Roads, schools, public water, public sewer, emergency services, police protection, fair and unbiased courts, help for the old, the ill, the less fortunate — these are the things we expect. We should expect to pay our fair share for them.

It’s time to drop the unfunded mandate hooey and get back to the problem. When you spend five pages of your budget laying off your financial problems on someone else, it becomes pretty clear you have no real plan of your own to solve those problems.

It’s time to stop pointing fingers and stand up for ourselves. The cost of government is an enormously complex problem, and it requires a diverse series of actions to tackle. Perhaps the best first step is to acknowledge, out loud, that government is not and should not be free. We have an obligation to pay for what we get, and government has an equal obligation to provide most of the services it is providing us. Now let’s work on improving the system.

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

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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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