Monday, July 18, 2011

Planning for smart growth means planning for no growth

Perhaps the state of planning in Schoharie County is best represented by the apparent “get it all done at once” approach to repairing the bridges that move traffic through the county’s most populated and heavily traveled communities. If so, it is not surprising that the county planning department would continue wasting time and resources on an improbable (and unnecessary) expansion of water and sewer infrastructure along the Route 7 corridor in a time of severe public sector retrenchment and almost nonexistent private investment.

The narrow vision is reflective of what happens when the planning process is dominated by those who are either incompetent or self-serving (or perhaps both?). Sadly, it would seem that this is Schoharie County’s current predicament. Neither the county’s poorly conceived attempts to secure funding for the previously mentioned infrastructure projects or the Galasso vision of paving over the horizon for big box stores and large-lot residential growth (which the water and sewer expansion is expected to lead to) rise to the level of a vision of sustainable planning and development that the county needs or deserves.

In previous years, this model of laying new infrastructure to spur costly and unsustainable development was flawed (at best). In 2011, it’s completely asinine and comes with dangerous opportunity costs for ‘undeveloping’ communities that need to be focusing on ways to make life a little more bearable for the remaining residents who are either unable to leave or choose to stay for some inexplicable reason.

Until we as a nation grow the balls to tax the rich (who are doing quite nicely in this economy) ‘economic development’ efforts will continue to be nothing more than an endless waiting game. But there has to be something better than waiting for jobs to magically appear, especially when more jobs are being lost than can possibly be offset by any new ones that might come along.

Instead, county and local planners could be pro-active and leverage the resources that are available to ease some of the pressures faced by Schoharie County’s communities. Job one should be facilitating the transition of our dying downtowns into walkable /bikeable places where the jobless can live within their means and at least have access to some basic level of services, amenities and some semblance of community.

I still think that the Town, Village and County planning/economic development offices should be relocated to Downtown Cobleskill in the Newberry Square building. At the very least it would bring a blighted and underutilized building back online and allow residents easier and more convenient access. Potentially, the increased traffic flow to Downtown (for town and village court, various public meetings) would put potential customers in closer proximity to struggling local businesses on Main Street.

Another priority should be to site several access points in Downtown areas for individuals applying for public assistance (Medicaid, HEAP, food stamps, etc.). There may be many residents who are unaware of the benefits they are entitled to simply because they are unable to get to Schoharie County’s government office building or one of the community action offices. Instead of career fairs, county and local governments could hold regular ‘benefits fairs’ to insure that they are reaching as many people as possible. For the time being, state and federal entitlement programs represent a steady stream of money entering the county, and it should be pursued every bit as much (if not more aggressively) than the crumbs that are currently being sought to bolster the Galasso empire.

County planners should also look to rehabilitating various Downtown sites for use as single-room occupancy dwellings. New housing opportunities that reflect the emerging characteristics of the population (chronically unemployed and rapidly declining in economic status) should be developed in a way that actually leverages the remaining amenities and services in the regions downtown areas. The local housing stock is already moving in this direction (call them rooming houses, flophouses, welfare hotels, SROs…whatever), it’s really just a question of whether or not people will live in campers, barns and sheds in remote areas or in safe, clean and affordable units in downtown areas in walking distance to services and amenities that they could benefit from.

Further, there is no reason that county residents must rely on obscenely inflated food prices at local supermarkets when the region is surrounded by farmland. County planners and local organizations should be building systems for channeling affordable, locally produced food directly into our communities, bypassing the large-scale processors and costly logistics and distribution networks used by retailers. As energy prices continue to soar, the benefits of making these changes becomes plainly obvious and critically necessary.

Sadly (or perhaps not) the region cannot sustain or support unlimited development of hotel chains and pharmacies. Whoever told county planners and local officials that this is the case was wrong, and they should stop listening to them. If the Galasso’s believe that new infrastructure will pay for itself, then let them pay for it! While these changes need to happen on a grassroots level, there also needs to be regime change at the county level, or at least a dramatic change in direction.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Consolidation and growth machine politics

Previous efforts to consolidate municipal government and induce future growth in Cobleskill have faltered due in large part to a lack of cohesion among local elites. The push has largely been led by local developers and their proxies serving in local government. These pro-growth interests see consolidation as a means of streamlining planning and zoning functions and more easily extending infrastructure to desired growth areas.

However, these efforts have been pursued piecemeal and furtively for the most part because Cobleskill’s downtown business interests, most notably the Cobleskill Partnership, Inc., have strongly resisted efforts to dissolve the Village into the Town. Obviously, they understand that further development in the Town of Cobleskill or the Town of Richmondville will come at their expense.

What’s more, dissolution or consolidation means a relinquishing of power (i.e. the power of extending water and sewer to proposed developments, or the power of planning and zoning) at the most local levels of government. Understandably, citizens who currently hold that power are not likely to voluntarily give it up, perhaps even if it means reductions in government costs and thus lower tax rates.

Though a citizen’s committee established to explore dissolution of the Village dissolved only itself last January, the push for consolidation has recently picked up a head of steam in the form of Village Mayor Mark Nadeau. Not only has Nadeau been enthusiastically pushing a significantly broadened conception of local consolidation and partnership, he has also continued the piecemeal consolidation of individual town and village services, even proposing an ambitious plan to dissolve the village police department into the county sherriff’s department, a plan which was recently beat back by local opposition.

This gradualist approach to consolidating individual services is particularly troubling. Last year’s efforts to shove village dissolution down voters’ throats was met with substantial outcry from village residents who wanted no part of it. When asked outright if they support dissolution of the village, the answer is a resounding no. However, it is unclear if village residents understand that Nadeau and Galasso are simply going ahead and doing it anyway piece by piece.

But at this point you should at least be aware that Nadeau and Galasso are interested in a bit more than saving a few pennies for strapped local taxpayers. When Mike Sellers, Sandy MacKay and Carol McGuire were on the Board of Trustees, Cobleskill’s development interests were focused mainly on projects just outside the Village so that they could conceivably connect to Village water and sewer systems. But even that seemed to elude them. However, with Mark Nadeau, Mark Galasso and Howard Burt on the Board, the horizon has shifted dramatically.

Cobleskill’s pro-growth faction is now playing at a much more ambitious region-wide consolidation of government services – everything from police and fire protection to land use planning to (naturally) local infrastructure. This would not only open up huge swaths of land to development but it would grant a virtual monopoly over that growth and development in Cobleskill and Richmondville to a Nadeau-Galasso power axis already taking shape.

The plans currently being undertaken arguably represent a classic and essential strategy of growth coalitions: the manipulation of government activity designed to induce growth and direct that growth to locations that benefit members of the coalition. This would mean putting in new roads, selectively expanding local infrastructure and enacting favorable land use and zoning regulations.

When you begin to put the pieces together, just as Nadeau and Galasso apparently have, you begin to see a plan not for consolidation of municipal services but for consolidation of political power. You see a continuous corridor of apartment complexes and chain stores from Howe Caverns to West Richmondville Road, a “second Main Street” of strip malls developed along an expanded MacArthur Avenue that will divert traffic away from the first Main Street, and hillsides dotted with subdivisions full of unaffordable McMansions.

But is all this scheming really worth their while? Currently, it seems unlikely that significant additional commercial growth could be supported by the region’s population. Therefore, even with water and sewer hook-ups, the chain stores may never come. Additional market-rate housing doesn’t quite seem that feasible either. Look at the intersection of South Grand and Mineral Springs Road: Nadeau’s own condo project seems to have been stalled for years.

The real question then is, How much damage can they do in their desperate attempts to stimulate growth even if they don’t manage to pave over everything from Central Bridge to East Worcester? Unfortunately, quite a lot. For example, an extension of MacArthur Ave. might well open the door for an additional strip mall or two (which would probably not be a good thing). However, extending that side street to completely bypass Downtown could be disastrous. The diversion of vehicular traffic could be the coup de grace that turns Main Street into a boarded up skid row.

Another possibility is that opening up additional parcels to growth could simply result in the shuffling around of existing businesses, creating nothing but more vacant buildings and more headaches. We’re already seeing this with the new Rite Aid that is being built across the street from the CVS that is currently being built. Even worse, these schemes may entice businesses to leave Downtown Cobleskill for locations further afield, i.e. the Maranatha complex. The result could be a highly inefficient and unsustainable reshuffling of local businesses for the benefit of a handful of landowners and land developers.

There’s also the future costs of extending water and sewer lines to consider. These lines may not bring the promised sprawl, but they will still require regular maintaince. No matter, all the new roads and water lines will mean more money in the pockets of the old boy network of lawyers, engineers, and developers.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this strategy are the opportunity costs, particularly of not fixing up Downtown Cobleskill. As the plywood plague continues to spread, Main Street needs more money and ideas than ever. Yet Nadeau and Galasso would happily reduce Harmony Acres and half the block to rubble if it meant putting in a Walgreens.

This assumes that runaway sprawl development is not economically feasible. However, if land is readied for growth there should be no doubt that there will be new projects proposed. Will we be the next Clifton Park? No; and to suggest such is silly hyperbole.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't put the brakes on these schemes lest we watch Nadeau and Galasso throw away a ton of our money in a desperate bid to wreck what’s left of our local economy just to make a few bucks for themselves.

From work to welfare

The first thing people must understand about the current jobs crisis with its painful, intractable double-digit unemployment, is that it is not simply a temporary manifestation of the recent recessionary period. Rather, it arguably represents a much deeper set of structural trends within late capitalism that have been taking place over the past three decades or so.

Some of these changes have been orchestrated by elites, i.e. trade policies that have eviscerated America's manufacturing sector, and a financialization of the economy that prioritizes reckless speculation and guides Americans toward amassing crushing levels of debt to make up for flat wages. However, other changes have come about as a result of inevitable technological and economic ‘progress’ – computerization, mechanized production, and the rapid industrial development of competing economies.

Americans have been understandably reluctant to confront the reality that given these changes even the modest middle class existence achieved by the mid-20th Century is simply no longer feasible without accruing shocking levels of personal indebtedness. Yet we are increasingly finding ourselves in agreement with the oft-repeated but nonetheless popularly resonant prediction that future generations can no longer expect to be better off than their parents.

The second thing we must understand about the jobs crisis is that it is far worse than it appears. The government’s official statistics put the unemployment rate at around ten percent. But the problem with the official unemployment rate is the fact that it ignores so-called “discouraged workers” – those who have been unemployed for so long that they have simply given up hope of finding a job.

Some estimates put the number of discouraged workers at between 10 and 15 percent of the population, on top of the ten percent who are officially ‘unemployed’. If not addressed, chronic joblessness and its spillover effects will ripple throughout our entire society. Therefore, the first thing we must do is end the numbers game that artificially deflates the number of people who are actually unemployed. The current formula merely encourages denial and we don't need more of that.

But the denial is not merely limited to those who refuse to face the true dimensions of the crisis. It extends as well to those who believe that we can stimulate our way out of the crisis with a few puny jobs bills.

The Myth of Job Creation

At the political level, the solutions are predictably hackneyed and uninspired – and that’s the best of it. The response from the political right has been downright idiotic. The political elites orchestrate a 700 billion dollar giveaway to Wall Street and the banks, an asset bubble results in hundreds of thousands of home foreclosures and neoliberal trade policies have left us with a ‘real’ unemployment rate of anywhere from 10 to 25 percent. Unsurprisingly, the old cliché still rings true: the rich get richer. Yet amid all of these catastrophic instances of capitalism’s malevolence, the largest and most vocal outcry has come in the form of a deranged populism that enthusiastically enlists itself as shock troops for even more draconian and brutal free market practices.

From the political left we have a disastrously misplaced faith in economic stimulus legislation, and among the more starry-eyed: dreams of a new ‘green economy’. But how many jobs can we actually create with a pathetic stimulus bill that amounts to three or four percent of the GDP? Recall that it was not such spending programs during the New Deal that lifted us out of the Great Depression; in fact it was a different ‘economic stimulus’ plan altogether that did the trick. It was called World War II and government outlays for the war effort amounted to nearly 40% of GDP! The current stimulus plan under discussion could be as small as $150 billion. Any job creation that came about as a result of such a bill would amount to a barely noticeable drop in the bucket.

Claims that a green economy could create a large enough amount of jobs to revive the American economy are well-conceived and tempting to believe – especially considering the fact that we ought to make investments in various forms of green energy anyway, regardless of its job creation prospects. However, hopes of green jobs significantly reshaping America’s economy look more and more like green pipe dreams when held up to the light of scrutiny.

As the U.S. gradually begins to increase its investments in alternative forms of energy (wind power, solar power, geothermal, and increased efficiency) what is to stop other countries from exporting lower-priced, higher-quality supplies to the United States, especially given the fact that European and Asian countries already have an advantage? Even U.S.-based companies that could competitively produce parts for wind turbines and photovoltaic panels, or electric cars for that matter, could do so much more efficiently in other countries like China. Admittedly, there are jobs to be created in the construction industry making sure new and existing structures are LEED compliant; but the number of jobs will surely dwindle once the majority of homes are retrofitted and homeowners and existing contractors become familiar with the practices.

From Work to Welfare

The inescapable fact is that in an economy that has perfected the art of eliminating jobs (stock price-boosting layoffs, massive downsizing, outsourcing, computerization, mechanization, etc.), for the government to attempt to ‘create’ jobs is tantamount to trying to sweep the sand off the beach. Rather than squander limited resources on unneeded infrastructure, policy makers and voters must heartily confront the new economy reality of the 21st Century: that there simply are not and will not be jobs for a substantial portion of the population.

Policy makers must redirect their energies and resources accordingly. The situation calls for a dramatic paradigm shift away from traditional Keynesian stimulus economics and toward large-scale welfare spending for it’s own sake. Bold and innovative thinking will be necessary to bring the millions of unemployed Americans under the umbrella of new and existing social welfare programs. Medicare and Medicaid must be dramatically expanded so that they can absorb the coming flood of new applicants. The Aid to Families with Dependent Children program will most likely need to be reconstituted, the food stamp and WIC program will need to be expanded, and new HUD housing projects, particularly massive numbers of dormitory-style SRO facilities, will need to be constructed. Funding must be allocated for things that have intrinsic value to Americans, such as food, housing, healthcare, schools, basic necessities, libraries, cultural resources and gathering halls, etc., not just because they will create a few jobs, but because these are the things that will make life more livable for the majority of Americans.

However, these are only the most basic of spending measures that will need to be undertaken. Policy makers will need to find other more creative ways of allowing the unemployed to both subsist and somehow not turn the U.S. labor market into a nasty race to the bottom. A few things will need to happen. First, the Social Security system will need to be drastically overhauled. Instead of a pay-as-you-go program that requires that people are working to pay into the system, Social Security should be re-envisioned as a retirement/welfare program paid for by steep corporate taxes. This way, rather than raising the retirement age, which would probably be necessary under the current system, we could actually lower the retirement age to about 50 or 55, removing a significant number of people from the labor market and providing them with a longer and better retirement.

Second, we must dramatically increase spending on education at every level all the way up to colleges and universities. Why? American students must be globally competitive when they move abroad to find jobs. We still have a first-rate higher education system in this country and we ought to use it to our advantage. American students should be subsidized all the way through college and graduate school enabling them to earn the necessary advanced graduate degrees to successfully compete in European, South American and Asian job markets. This too will provide a critical relief valve for America’s overcrowded labor market as well as the potential for a better life for young Americans willing to migrate to countries with more opportunities. This could also provide some economic benefit as many will migrate and send money back to family members still living in the United States.

But before you go thinking that all this will be a giveaway to the jobless at the expense of those who are still working, you had better think again. Such a massive welfare system will be just as necessary to prop up the employed as it will be for the unemployed.

Consider the leverage that employers will have in the labor market as increasing throngs are desperately searching for work. With virtually no unions left to speak of, real wages could conceivably plummet dramatically over the next quarter century. This alone will necessitate spending hundreds of billions on welfare programs simply to keep unemployed Americans from becoming the scabs of the 21st Century who undercut whatever remains of the American workforce’s bargaining power.

Obviously, this system can not be financed by taxes on the middle classes. They simply couldn’t bear it. Instead, political elites will have to come to terms with the necessity of levying hefty taxes on the wealthiest of Americans. State and federal income taxes must be raised on the highest incomes, inheritance and estate taxes must be increased and expanded in scope, capital gains taxes must be increased, corporate taxes and penalties for wrongdoing must be heavily increased and most importantly, there must be new taxes that cover the increasingly shadowy financial transactions taking place on Wall Street.

Remember too that prisons and the military will continue to be viable, if not quite humane, options for dealing with a surplus population. However, if we are actually able to provide people with their basic needs we should be able to preempt many of the life choices that necessitate incarceration and joining the military in the first place. De-emphasizing these priorities could potentially be a significant additional source of funding for the above-mentioned programs.

Conclusion: Redistribution or Restitution?

I sincerely hope these recommendations are not read as hyperbole or glib satire. The transition from desperate, pathetic and misguided economic stimulus spending to direct welfare spending must be made out of both societal necessity and a collective striving for decency in a global economic order that has been designed to meet the needs of elites at the expense of the people.

I’m sure many will regard these ideas with disdain and quite possibly hostility. Call it what you like, but do not dare call it “redistribution”. Since the 1970s American wages have stagnated while productivity has risen steadily. The incomes of working Americans have plummeted in an era of runaway corporate profits. Meanwhile, Americans have been forced to turn to consumer debt to finance the lifestyles that they have become accustomed to, essentially borrowing the money they should have been earning but at the usurious interest rates offered by the banks and credit card companies. Tax hikes on the rich that directly fund welfare programs benefiting the vanishing middle class is not and can not be termed “redistribution”. It is nothing more than restitution pure and simple; and it is long overdue - and about the only thing at this point that can bring us back from the cliff.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Downtown is the Real Loser in Cobleskill Town and Village Elections

A lot has happened in Downtown Cobleskill over the past few months: façade rehabilitation, sidewalk improvements, a community plaza. However, in this Tuesday’s election town and village voters overwhelmingly rejected the candidates most closely associated with those achievements. In the village, Trustee Sandy MacKay lost badly to brutish developer Mark Nadeau. The even more brutish developer Mark Galasso was returned to the Board of Trustees with almost twice the votes of his own running mate.

In the town council race, Brian Kaiser, of Cobleskill Partnership, Inc., the group responsible for the façade improvement program this summer, didn’t even come close to winning a seat on Cobleskill’s town board. I won’t try to sugar coat this election by pointing out what appear to be democratic victories in the town supervisor races in Cobleskill and Richmondville. These victories should not distract Schoharie County progressives from the fact that something went terribly wrong in the election for village officials and the Cobleskill Town Board.

Both Brian Kaiser and Sandy MacKay have been tireless advocates of Downtown Cobleskill. Yet when voters were asked who should represent them, they selected a slate of candidates that in large part shares their vision for Cobleskill with trustee Bob LaPietra, a man who recently pled guilty to election fraud charges and was just sentenced (this week) to three years probation. So what the fuck happened?

To some extent at least, we can thank the Times Journal for this outcome. In the months leading up to the election, hardly a week went by without the T-J obsessively covering every belch, snort and scratch by Nadeau. Conspicuously absent from the T-J was any ribbon-cutting fanfare or even minimal coverage of the new Main Street sidewalks (overseen by MacKay) or even any serious consideration of MacKay’s idea on how becoming a city could net the village an additional two million dollars a year in sales tax revenue.

But the fact that Jim Poole consistently gets it wrong is old news, as is the fact that Mark Galasso has more than enough money to buy himself, Bob LaPietra and all his crooked friends as many elections as they could ever want. Voters still overwhelmingly chose the candidates with the self-serving big fish in a small pond mentality and thumbed their noses at the candidates with a real record of accomplishment in this community.

But it’s not about MacKay and Kaiser. Hopefully they will continue in their efforts to build a viable and dynamic Downtown Cobleskill. Unfortunately, they will probably be slapped down at every turn by this entering class of goons on the Village Board who will likely rubber stamp every nasty idea that Mark Galasso and Bob LaPietra pull out of their asses.

Voters may have endorsed the simple, straightforward and appealing message of Nadeau and his slate (expand the tax base and lower property taxes) but they arguably didn’t consider the record of these candidates, they didn’t consider the range of implications of the political coalition that now has a majority, and they didn’t consider the full breadth of the toll that unchecked big box development would have on our local economy and environment. Stay tuned to witness the consequences of an uninformed electorate.

Cobleskill Planning Board Should Think Twice on Stewarts Re-Zoning

Given the recent spate of ill-conceived and ugly projects to get the Village of Cobleskill Planning Board’s approval it should come as no surprise that the Village seems poised to sit back and allow yet another development that will change this community’s character and quality of life for the worse. This time, Village trustees and planning board members are scrambling to find a way around the existing village zoning ordinance to allow Stewarts Shops to expand its gas station to an adjacent parcel (the former restaurant at the corner of West Main Street and Harder Avenue).

The current village zoning code limits new gas stations to village gateway (vg) districts. Stewarts Shops on West Main Street is one of several gas stations in the village that are not located in a village gateway district and are operating as non-conforming uses. In order to expand, the zoning status of the parcels in question must be changed either by granting a variance (unlikely in this case), expansion of the village gateway district, amendment of the existing zoning classification or the creation of a new zoning classification altogether. Seemingly off the table, however, is the option of simply leaving the zoning ordinance in tact and rejecting the proposed project.

Unfortunately, this course of action is unlikely as village officials are understandably eager to see two long-vacant parcels put back on the tax roll. But economic development is not the only concern here. The Planning Board must ask the equally important question: Does this re-zoning serve the interests of the residents it is going to immediately affect?

If allowed, an expanded Stewart’s gas station will result in an intensification of vehicular traffic that will most certainly inconvenience and very possibly endanger residents of Harder Avenue, Bridge Street and West Main Street, not to mention SUNY students walking to and from Downtown Cobleskill. The increase in cars turning in and out of the gas station would render that side of West Main Street a virtual no man’s land for pedestrians. Even worse, this would force pedestrians to cross the street to avoid the traffic and walk on the opposite side of the street.

There are also sizable opportunity costs associated with this development. For example, if Stewarts expands it will preclude the much more desirable possibility of somebody local buying those adjacent parcels and opening a business that could better serve not only village residents but SUNY students who live close enough to walk there.

I hope the Planning Board examines these concerns before doing something stupid that could have long-term negative effects on this community.

Fact is, this could present even more issues to the West End of the village if, for example, the Planning Board proposes to extend the village gateway district to the Stewarts site. This could open up additional parcels to similarly intense and inappropriate development. Hopefully, the planning board and the VBOT will carefully consider the manner in which they gut the village zoning ordinance so as to avoid any collateral damage down the road.

Overdevelopment in the village in and of itself is not the issue here. My complaint is that rather than looking for an end-run around the village’s zoning ordinance to accommodate a gas station expansion that will ultimately encompass an entire block in a residential section of the village, officials should ask what impact this expansion will have on residents of the west end of the village, and maybe even what they would prefer to see developed there.

A vote for Mark Galasso and Mark Nadeau (both developers) was a vote for the exact opposite form of government. Instead we have a government that bends over backwards for developers but would charge residents a fee to file codes complaints against slumlords. Apparently Cobleskill voters agree that the village’s historic buildings should simply be trashed and replaced with drugstores and mega-gas stations on every corner and that village government should be used to protect slumlords. Or maybe they’re just not paying enough attention.

From a taxpayer’s perspective, it’s a toxic asset

While one shouldn’t really expect much in the way of vision from a group of county planners and economic developers whose last best hope for the county was going after $90 million in federal stimulus money to build three new interstate exits, the dearth of ideas for dealing with the former Guilford Mills site is unfortunately even more depressing.

Here we have a building the IDA plainly does not know how to market, at least according to Ron “it’s too big” Filmer. We have dwindling support coming from the state for the Empire Zone program, and worst of all, we have a building that’s been rotting into the ground for almost ten years and, apparently, stripped for salvage.

Yet Schoharie County’s economic developer Jody Zakrevsky appears inexplicably optimistic about the buildings' prospects proclaiming that “from a marketing perspective, it’s an opportunity”. He’s obviously smokin’ the good shit. From my perspective, county taxpayers are now the proud owners of a multimillion dollar toxic asset.

In the best of times, marketing this basket case of a building would be a daunting challenge. In the bowels of this recession I would say the chances are slim to none. Yet the county seems poised to sink millions of dollars into this property without any chance of recouping any of it, let alone the back taxes owed on the building. The costs of bringing the buildings up to code, marketing the properties, and then massively subsidizing any potential investors will insure that taxpayers are climbing out of a seemingly bottomless financial hole on this building for the next 20 years, and that’s IF anyone (anyone who is actually qualified) is dumb enough to buy it.

All of this puts the county in an unenviable position. However, there has to be a way to deal with these properties that doesn't involve the county subsidizing another deadbeat who will only leave us holding the bag again.

Maybe some out-of-the-box thinking is in order. Let’s say there were to be an unfortunate explosion or fire on the premises and the entire building was destroyed and burned to the ground. The county could collect on the insurance and then market the site as developable acreage. You’d have a much better shot at selling that property to somebody interested in developing, I don’t know, townhouses or retail perhaps…

Such an occurrence would be terrible and tragic, but you have to admit, it would be convenient.

But I should be careful; sometimes thinking outside the box can constitute a felony. Not that that’s ever stopped certain Cobleskill trustees in the past.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Is Cobleskill becoming disillusioned with dissolution?

The first thing that needs to be said with regards to Cobleskill’s evolving engagement with the issue of consolidation is that all bold and innovative ideas should be welcomed and explored enthusiastically. Maybe that even goes without saying. However, to anyone who has observed the process over the past several years this clearly has not been the case.

There has been talk and even some action on sharing services for a long time, but the process was given a major boost about three years ago when Mayor Sellers and Deputy Mayor Sandy MacKay applied for a grant to produce a study of the costs and benefits associated with various consolidation plans. The village won that grant and the product was a study by a Rochester-based group called the Center for Governmental Research. The CGR study outlined the various possibilities from outright dissolution to joining with the Town of Cobleskill and incorporating as a city. Despite the wide variety of possibilities outlined in this report, many of which offered benefits worthy of further consideration, a few members of the Board of Trustees, namely Mark Galasso, Mayor Sellers and now Robert LaPietra (strange political bedfellows to be sure) have been pushing relentlessly to dissolve the village while virtually ignoring all other possibilities.

It is tempting to offer cynical explanations as to why the Board is so singularly committed to dissolution. For much of the past five years the Town of Cobleskill has been eager to see commercial development along the village’s eastern boundary. In many cases, access to village infrastructure (water and sewer) has been crucial to making those projects happen.

Not surprisingly, the village has been hesitant to hand over access to its water and sewer services for projects that would divert shoppers away from Downtown Cobleskill and help to further erode the village’s tax base. The unintended result of this was that the village Board of Trustees had an unofficial veto power over suburban sprawl development in the town, a card they should very much want to play for a variety of good reasons. In 2008, Lowe’s backed out of its plans to build a store in the Town after a long and protracted effort to convince the village to extend services, an effort that arguably included open bribery of village officials.

Now that the membership of the Board of Trustees has changed to include a multi-millionaire developer, a slumlord who owns multiple local properties, and Mayor Sellers who is almost religiously committed to the idea of consolidation for consolidation’s sake, it makes sense that the pro-growth forces of Cobleskill would seize this opportunity to see the village, the last remaining check on rampant sprawl development, dissolved. Dissolution would have numerous implications but none as glaringly obvious as the fact that it would hand over control of the Village’s water and sewer infrastructure to the Cobleskill Town Board, a move that would open up the Route 7 and Mineral Springs corridors to intense commercial and residential development.

The real travesty in all of this is not that these forces have hi-jacked the process in an effort to grab the village’s resources, but that this has prevented a real conversation about the benefits of alternative plans for consolidation. Another village trustee, Sandy MacKay, has consistently raised the question of jointly incorporating with the town to form a city. Granted this is not a perfect option, as it would still mean that the village (notice use of lower case) would relinquish its control over water and sewer services. However, it would allow Cobleskill to take advantage of a variety of prerogatives that cities in New York state benefit from, including state-financed courts and an ability to both preempt up to 50% of county-levied sales taxes generated within its corporate boundaries and levy a separate sales tax, which could generate significant revenues without affecting county revenue streams.

It would also be possibly easier to devise a governance structure that limited the amount of power that residents of the village would give up in the process of consolidating with the town. For example, a ward system could be used to maintain the voices of village residents and insure that they are not drowned out by town voters in an at-large system.

I am not mentioning this option because I’m endorsing it, I just want to illustrate that there are alternatives to the dissolution scheme being offered up by Sellers, Galasso and LaPietra and that those alternatives deserve to be considered every bit as much as dissolution.

Mayor Sellers defended this scheme during the public comment section of a recent board meeting, claiming that it was not being “rammed through”. Clearly that was not the impression of a majority of those who spoke out at that meeting, nor is it the impression of this observer either. While I do not endorse any specific plan for consolidation, I encourage concerned village residents to attend more meetings and speak out against what they rightly perceive as a quick and dirty effort to place the question of dissolution on the ballot.

I also sincerely encourage concerned residents to watch this group of trustees very carefully, Mark Galasso and Bob LaPietra in particular. In large part, it is apathy that has led us to this point, especially with regard to LaPietra’s election last November.

However, that so many spoke out against their plans for consolidation bodes well for this coming election. I won’t get into endorsing specific candidates here, but it is obviously time for a change, and for voters to redeem themselves after last year’s fiasco in which they elected a man who is a confessed perjurer, a slumlord and a non-village resident to the Board of Trustees. I don’t know; it may be time to raise the bar, just a little.

Worst Laid Plans

A recent resolution passed by the Cobleskill Village Board of Trustees endorsing the proposed CVS Pharmacy development was, make no mistake, an utterly shameless and inappropriate attempt to preempt the Planning Board’s final evaluation of that project. Yet this is only a hint of what’s to come should Mark Galasso and Bob LaPietra continue to dominate the Board of Trustees. Be prepared for more of the same depressing vision for Cobleskill and, most likely, more naked attempts to bully those involved in making land use decisions.

The resolution was spearheaded by trustees Mark Galasso and Bob LaPietra (and, sadly, supported by Mayor Sellers). Galasso attempted to justify the resolution with the absurd claim that the planning board was out to deliberately sabotage the project. I call this absurd because there is no evidence that any planning board member was attempting to exceed their statutory responsibilities in reviewing the proposal and because, in fact, the planning board has every responsibility to heavily scrutinize a project of this magnitude. Instead, by injecting itself into and politicizing the village’s land use review process, Galasso, LaPietra and Sellers have in effect sabotaged and enfeebled the planning board, which was arguably what they set out to do from the get-go.

This latest episode, like the previous attempt by LaPietra and Galasso to remove Nelli Mooney and gut the village Planning, Environment and Codes Department, is best understood as part of a broader long-term strategy to reduce the public’s role in the village’s land use planning process and to marginalize those individuals who work and volunteer in that capacity. It’s no surprise then that consolidating the village into the town (a move which would have the same effect) is also strongly supported by Trustees Bob LaPietra and Mark Galasso.

Given this recent history, it is difficult not to see this latest attack on the planning board as fitting into a larger picture: a growth model driven entirely by land developers that gives short shrift to preserving the historic character of the village and the economic well-being of Cobleskill’s downtown business district.

Having said that, the pertinent issue here is not whether or not Cobleskill needs another pharmacy, although this is an eminently important question. The issue is whether or not Cobleskill’s village residents will be able to exercise their rights to review major land use decisions in their community.

It is not so much about questioning the wisdom of razing one of Downtown Cobleskill’s largest and most impressive Victorian mansions to make way for yet another pharmacy, when one already exists across the street, as much as it is about the public’s right and responsibility to do so and to have a process in place for insuring that developers don’t run roughshod over the community. The planning process that is lead by our community’s volunteer planning boards and zoning boards is meant to be a space not just for debate about the merits of such projects to the community, but a process (with teeth) that insures a community’s own vision for its future is upheld.

Unfortunately right now that vision is not one single vision, as might be represented in the comprehensive plan, but a series of competing visions being put forth and defended by a diverse group of stakeholders. Right now the village’s land use planning process exists solely as an extension of the political arena and as such is being driven by whatever forces happen to be able to manipulate it for their own purposes.

To be sure, the Village currently has a comprehensive plan in effect; however, bulldozing historic homes so that medium-box retail can be built is not really included in its vision statement. The plan is over ten years old, and perhaps it is time for a revision that reflects the need to balance protecting the village’s historic character with the need for economic development that increases tax revenue and jobs. It is perhaps also necessary to view these goals as competing in a kind of zero-sum game and to recognize that pursuing one over the other will eventually lead to diminishing returns.

Otherwise, local officials and developers will continue to proceed in an opportunistic fashion disregarding the former objective for the latter. This might not be so easy if village planners and planning board members had some vision in place as to how they should balance these two necessary but often-times conflicting imperatives. More importantly, it is perhaps time to replace our existing boards with people who will have the public interest (not their own) in mind.

Currently, the Board of Trustees’ efforts to quash debate have been successful, and this is lamentable. An open and vigorous debate would have weighed the potential jobs and tax revenues created by the project against the potentiality of Rite-Aid (which would be just across the street) being forced to close down, as well as the additional traffic generated by the project and the costly road improvements it will necessitate.

It could also have weighed the economic benefits against the less tangible costs of losing one of the village’s largest and prettiest Victorian mansions, not to mention the diminished pedestrian access and lost human scale of the block. Of course, a vigorous debate can lead to more than a yes or no vote, it could have led to amendments to the design of the project that really did serve to increase its chances of adding to the community rather than simply just being there, or worse yet, detracting from the community.

Yet these debates will not and can not occur when town and village boards are comprised of developers, real estate professionals and absentee property owners whose financial interests and economic instincts run counter to the goals of long-term comprehensive planning and community development. It is arguably worse when these developers populate the planning and zoning boards themselves, which they do in many places in Schoharie County.

Only the voters can insure that the planning process remains under the control of ordinary citizens and they can do this by not sitting home while a minority of their neighbors thoughtlessly elects land developers to their village boards who then unsurprisingly proceed to shamelessly push their own agendas.

As these officials attempt to shove consolidation and unneeded sprawl development down our throats voters should reflect on their plans for this upcoming Election Day. Will the deepest pockets in the town and village (i.e. the Galasso’s and Nadeau’s) continue running the show? I’ve heard it said, and sometimes agree, that people get the government they deserve.

Is it time for a ‘community plaza’ in Newberry Square?

Now that the Town of Cobleskill has backed out of its plans to relocate its offices downtown, other agencies and municipalities would do well to step up to the plate and take up where the town left off. Though the town’s decision not to move, as well as it’s refusal to seriously consider moving into the Newberry Square building is lamentable, they ought to get credit for at least making the effort. Most importantly, the Town’s recent interest underscores the Village’s own long-term inaction on this issue. For the past ten years there has been talk but little serious movement on bringing the Village offices back into Downtown Cobleskill.

Why not? The current location makes absolutely no sense. It deprives village residents of a user-friendly civic center that they could walk or bike to while also depriving the village’s downtown business district of a stable, long-term anchor tenant that would generate plenty of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The original move to Mineral Springs Road was dumb and the apparent unwillingness to move back is even dumber.

Not to mention the fact that Cobleskill’s Main Street is in desperate need of an upstanding tenant for the Newberry Square building, whose boarded up windows are currently pulling down everything around it. It’s one thing for a community to lack vision when it comes to sustainable long-term growth and development strategies, but it’s quite another when it can’t see the obvious benefits of a simple plan staring it square in the face.

But the village isn’t the only possible agency in a position to help revitalize Downtown Cobleskill by moving there. Virtually right next door to the village offices are the headquarters of Schoharie County’s Department of Planning and Development, Department of Economic Development and the Schoharie County Rural Preservation Corporation which handles Section 8 housing all located at 349 Mineral Springs Road. Imagine this; the folks from planning and economic development themselves helping to develop and revitalize a distressed building which could then serve as a community civic center or ‘community plaza’ drastically raising the stock of Cobleskill’s Main Street!

Even better, how about the village and county (and perhaps the town) go in on it together? I know, I know…obvious benefits…simple plan. Silly me, I guess.

Yay for Main Street!

I know I usually tend to do a lot of criticizing on this blog but occasionally it behooves me to give credit where credit is due. Over the past few months Cobleskill’s Main Street has come a long way, and this is a really positive example of the power of grassroots coalitions of small business owners and citizens working together to build on their shared assets.

Beginning a few months ago, Cobleskill Partnership, Inc. committed $15,000 to a matching grant program targeted at downtown business owners for lighting, signage and façade improvements. Slowly but surely I began noticing the changes throughout the summer. Some of the more sorely needed improvements include the replacement of that awful corrugated steel paneling above Pizza Shack as well as the plain grey facade on the building at the north-west corner of Main and Union with faux-brickwork.

The long under-utilized space at the western corner of Main and Division will also be undergoing changes as the result of a joint effort between the property owner and SUNY Cobleskill. What once was just a strip of planted trees will now be a small commons area with benches and chessboard tables.

To the shopkeepers who have driven these improvements this summer, way to go! It is now time for village officials to step up and support these efforts by going after additional grant monies for more improvements, to attract new businesses and to implement long-needed streetscape improvements, not to mention bringing Village Hall back downtown.

Friday, July 3, 2009

America an Undeveloping Nation?

As I contemplated Obama’s apparent endorsement of a plan to bulldoze fallow portions of rustbelt cities like Flint, Michigan, I began considering America’s larger economic and infrastructure dilemmas. By now, we are familiar with that nasty term ‘rustbelt’, especially us here in Upstate NY. However, looking around the country, at California’s economic crisis, at our inability to rebuild New Orleans, or just at the general dysfunction that hinders our nation’s ability to maintain a minimal infrastructure and provide basic services such as public transit and healthcare, which other developed countries provide as a rule, I realized, that the ‘rustbelt’ phenomenon wasn’t merely limited to places like Flint, MI, Youngstown, OH and Upstate, New York. Our entire country has become a ‘rustbelt’, warranting an entirely new classification to better clarify our standing in the world. ‘Undeveloping nation’ seems to capture it.

The idea of bulldozing deteriorating urban neighborhoods, which at first seems unthinkable, begins to seem more and more like our only option. If we really have so little vision for our own future and can not come up with sustainable uses for our historic industrial cities and the factories that made this country great, then a wrecking ball is perhaps a suitable and appropriate fate. But why limit this logic to the Flint, Michigan’s and Gary, Indiana’s of America? Why not have the whole nation simply cut it’s losses and ‘shrink to survive’?

Take the stimulus bill for example. The problem with Obama’s stimulus package is not whether it’s too big or too small to make a dent in America’s crumbling infrastructure and economic recession (which it is by far). Nor is it an issue of bad fiscal policy leading us to dangerous and reckless state interventionism, an argument that the Republicans are betting it all on. The problem as I see it is that spending trillions of dollars to maintain an infrastructure that was originally put in place to accommodate a much larger and growing economy is inherently a losing proposition. Few want to admit it, but the dams, levees, bridges and aqueducts that were built largely in the first half of the 20th Century, are outsized relics of an America whose best days were just ahead.

Everybody’s favorite new word seems to be ‘infrastructure’, as if throwing money at our ‘infrastructure’ will magically lift us out of recession and save us all. But the problem is not that we have neglected our infrastructure, which we certainly have, it is that the costs of maintaining that infrastructure are very simply going to outpace the amount of wealth being generated by our economy. Sadly, the degree to which Americans will be forced to ‘re-adjust’ to a lower standard of living and lower level of services has yet to be fully appreciated.

What’s worse, this is not just about spending enough money to meet our current and future needs. In the very near future, this outsized infrastructure will begin to present serious risks for future generations. Not only will we not have the money to maintain our levees, dams, landfills and nuclear power plants, but we may not have the money to safely decommission them either. With states and cities flat broke there will be no easy answers as to how best to deal with all those unstable, crumbling structures looming over us like giant, rust-covered swords of Damocles.

I can seriously imagine that ten to twenty years from now this country might be so broke and dysfunctional that major pieces of infrastructure like our own Gilboa Dam will essentially be abandoned and left to rot, with no one standing up to claim responsibility for them. This leads me to the conclusion that our smartest solution to the infrastructure problem may not be to sure-up or build more of it, but to decommission and safely dismantle some of these structures and systems while we still have the resources and know-how to do so.

For example, we might consider closing down some bridges and sections of highways. We’ll never be able to fix them all and it’s only a matter of time before they start collapsing and killing people. Of course this may not be necessary when increases in gas prices begin to force a majority of drivers off the roads for good. Perhaps we should also start shutting down the airports. Pilot salaries start lower than those of a Wal-Mart cashier, and we are outsourcing all the mechanical work. The airlines can only maintain existing standards with less and less for so long until the planes start falling out of the sky.

Throughout the U.S., many cities should simply be abandoned. New Orleans is a good example. It is doubtful that we can sure up those levees, and even if we did, complacency would set in in a few years and insure that they once again fell prey to neglect and budget cuts. New York City’s bridges and tunnels are also a major liability. They were all built at least over fifty years ago and are already showing their age. Yet, America will never again see the kind of wealth that was tapped to build these transportation systems in the first half of the 20th Century. Close them down now before the next disaster occurs and kills hundreds of people.

There’s no point in denying the inevitable. We should accept the writing on the crumbling wall. America is on its way to becoming a third world nation. Over the past 25 years, America has handed it’s economic dominance to China and submitted to a corporate-dominated laissez-faire economic orthodoxy that disparaged government-involvement in the economy as ‘socialistic’ and worshipped at the altar of so-called ‘free trade’. Conservative republicans, largely working in concert with democrats have strangled public education, abandoned our neediest cities, helped ship America’s manufacturing base overseas and used their control of the government to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that government couldn’t do anything right. They have heaped unending abuse on the public sector while encouraging the nation to puts its faith in some infallible free market. The end result of this is either a race to the bottom, or a slow, inevitable decline.

As I see it, those are our two options. The first is to continue on our current path, letting the rich look for better countries in which to park their wealth and spending billions on a bloated military, all while denying the fact that we are fundamentally a nation of losers incapable of providing services and producing goods on par with the rest of the world. The second option is to accept that we are a nation of losers on our way down. We tax the rich at 75%, slash the military budget (who are we to be running the world anyway?), and run up the biggest tab with China that we can get away with. Then we take that money, give all Americans free health coverage, a free I-Phone, and a monthly tax rebate check. Tell everyone to move into their parents’ basement, play Guitar Hero for the next 25 years and just enjoy the ride down.

Our best hope is a few good decades before our freefall into barbarity and cannibalism.

Why the county should ignore Bill Cherry

Though the act may have left him something of a self-made martyr for his cause, Bill Cherry’s recent resignation from the position of county budget director was essentially the grown-up equivalent of a temper tantrum, borne of his apparent failure to understand the limits of his own role and authority in the administration of Schoharie County’s finances. Yet it’s easy to sympathize with his frustration; when you think you have all the answers and no one listens to you, it tends to get on your nerves.

Clearly, Cherry’s position was not an enviable one. Schoharie County’s lack of any clear-cut administrative or managerial role thrusts an awkward list of responsibilities, in the form of it’s ‘budget director’ position, on already fully active department heads, which promises to test their time, skills and egos. Whether you agree or disagree with Cherry’s forceful admonitions to the Board of Supervisors (calling for hiring freezes and draconian budget cuts), you should recognize that these proposals come not from his skill or expertise as an administrator, but rather from his lack thereof.

For the past several years Bill Cherry has been something of a broken record, telling the Board of Supervisors to simply stop spending and stop hiring. This was understandable as Cherry is clearly capable of simple mathematics; meaning he could add up the amount of revenue coming in and clearly see that it did not match up to what the county was spending. These are very practical and common sense solutions and explain why Cherry has substantial support from county republicans. Surely it feels good to be able to take the high ground and give those out-of-control supervisors a public spanking. However, in an administrative role, these simplistic feel-good solutions don’t cut it.

This is why Schoharie County needs a professional administrator with the education, skills and experience to play around with the numbers, fine-tune the budget process, and insure that the county is effectively using its resources. We all want to see county government operate more efficiently, but service cuts and hiring freezes are not necessarily the healthiest answer in a recession, especially when the federal government is shipping billions of dollars to state and local governments to maintain services and increase hiring. Not only does the county provide an array of services that keep people able to live here and maintain property tax rolls, but county government is a source of employment for hundreds of residents and this helps to keep our economy afloat, especially during hard times.

Politically, it would solve the problem of tasking existing county officials with an impossible job and would eliminate the, shall we say, misunderstandings that arise from this situation. Put simply, asking other department heads to serve in this quasi-administrative capacity is merely a recipe for further frustration. It also places the Board of Supervisors in the very difficult position of having to override what is perceived as objective, expert economic counsel. The wise move for the county would be to fill all current vacancies and freely hire new staff as necessary. Yet it can not do so without disregarding the advice of Bill Cherry (or whoever else is in the position), whose advice will inevitably be given far more weight than it deserves.

Cherry’s own proposal that we replace the Board of Supervisors with a ‘professional’ county legislature completely misses the point. A full-time county legislature would only mean an additional set of elected individuals representing the county. Their particular skill level and ability to deal with complex financial problems would be no better or worse than those of the current Board of Supervisors. Not to mention the fact that a full time legislature could cost upwards of three to four times what the Board of Supervisors costs us in salaries and benefits. This plainly sounds as if Cherry’s personal anger with the Board of Supervisor’s is getting the best of him.

Let’s stop wasting our time and playing games. The county needs a single professional administrator to step in and find some intelligent solutions to a budgeting process that is far too complex to be left to overwhelmed department heads. Such a professional is needed, now more than ever, to take a more active role in the day-to-day administration of Schoharie County. There’s a lot more involved than simple mathematics. The county needs a finer set of tools to deal with the fiscal challenges at hand and should avoid the blunt-force solutions that Cherry is advocating.

Gaveled In for Life

The dysfunction and stalemate that has gripped Albany since the June 8th Republican takeover has only really served to emphasize that which most of us already know: our state government is in the hands of a cabal of shameless, self-serving creeps and we are powerless to do anything about it. Sure, this latest spike in madness or shenanigans or whatever you want to call it, has more people than usual talking, and proposing bolder and crazier solutions. But at the end of the day, nothing short of voting each and every one of these legislators out of office and instituting a wide range of reforms will result in any meaningful changes. Sadly, even with the current mess in the State Senate, this does not seem possible. This leaves only one real option to fed-up residents of the State of New York: shut up and deal with it.

Everyone who observes this crisis of governance has a few good ideas on how to clean up this mess. Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Long Island congressman Rick Lazio has suggested abolishing the assembly and senate and replacing them with a uni-cameral legislature. Hey, it works for Nebraska! But what’s to stop a uni-cameral legislature from being just as self-serving and corrupt as our current bi-cameral one? Nothing as far as I can tell. Probably just an empty gesture exploiting this mess to attract attention to his own candidacy.

Similarly, likely gubernatorial candidate Rudy Giuliani has called for a new constitutional convention. Plenty of good reforms could come out of this, such as tougher campaign finance regulations, non-partisan redistricting commissions and even possibly term limits. But they won’t, so keep dreamin!

Most likely, the next governor, who I’m betting will be a Republican, will get elected on a tidal wave of support for reforming New York’s broken government. But once in office they will realize that A. reform is impossible and B. they have more to gain by cooperating with the system. More backroom deals will be made, everything will go back to normal and money will continue to change hands, in other words, democracy as usual.

Of course, I’d be willing to bet that most New Yorkers would be happy to see our state government simply return to its status quo of corrupt backroom deal-making if it meant a return to some semblance of functionality. At least our municipalities would have those necessary ‘housekeeping bills’ passed and would get their damn money, right? What this essentially means is that all of us are just as in hoc to state legislative leadership for our own ‘member items’ as all those cowed little legislators. Still, I wouldn’t bet on a single incumbent being tossed out of office in November.

But will things ever go back to normal? Don’t count on it. If the Republican coup is allowed to stand and democrats recognize their leadership as legitimate, this would virtually guarantee that each election would be followed by endless backroom wrangling and scheming intended to sway the weak links of the majority party. If Republicans get away with this, they will do it again and again and again. Democrats need not worry, they will try to do it as well.

Sure there are reforms that if passed could force these creeps to have a real bad day. For example, if we adopted a system of impartially drawn legislative districts, it would mean real, competitive elections, and our legislators would actually have to pay attention to the voters. But this will never happen. We could also implement term limits, making it impossible for weasels like Espada and Skelos to ensconce themselves in office for as long as they are able to favorably gerrymander their districts. But this too, will never happen. Then of course, we could also do away with legislative member items, well, yeah right! Better yet, why don’t we just ask these guys to be honest and ethical and focus solely on the ‘people’s business’?

What this all boils down to is that here in New York we have a caste of political leaders who are so beyond accountability that they feel that they can do whatever they want, which is exactly what they’re doing. It should make you angry, but not too angry. After all, there’s nothing you can do about it. This is only a democracy.

If anyone has any better ideas, I’m all ears.

Stuck with Them

As Cobleskill developer Mark Nadeau apparently announced his mayoral candidacy last week via t-shirt, I began seriously wondering if it wasn’t time for Cobleskill to return to two-year terms of office. It’s not that Cobleskill has had an especially bad run of non-credible candidates over the past few years, it’s that Cobleskill actually votes for them. Then, once they reveal themselves to be, oh I don’t know, pathological liars bent on personal vendettas, the voters are stuck with them for four long years.

With Trustee Bob LaPietra, Cobleskill has essentially been saddled with an absentee slumlord, an admitted liar and a brazen lawbreaker whose word clearly can not be trusted. Did voters adequately consider these potential character flaws when they elected him trustee? Maybe not, or maybe they just gave the guy the benefit of the doubt. Either way, the voters now have no recourse but to put up with him until 2012 when he will again face the voters.

Part of me wants to simply sit back and enjoy these candidates for their entertainment value. However, there’s actually a lot of damage they can do. Just consider the fact that if three of five of the current trustees had their way, there wouldn’t even be a village left to speak of. As it is now, the village is dangerously close to being dissolved despite not having sufficiently studied the move, and despite the fact that the studies that have been done actually show that Cobleskill might be better off becoming a city. This November there will be a referendum on the village ballot on the question of dissolution, not incorporation as a city. Will voters fully appreciate the consequences of voting for this, or will they be told that they are merely voting for ‘consolidation and shared services’, everybody’s favorite new buzz words? If LaPietra’s demonstrated ability to lie to voters during a campaign is any indication, this will be an interesting election.

In his short time in office, LaPietra has attempted to gut the village Department of Planning, Environment and Codes and charges residents a $25 filing fee for codes complaints. This man seems to be out to single-handedly dismantle the village of Cobleskill, and if possible, to do so from his winter home in Punta Gorda, Florida. Because of their poor choices, Cobleskill’s voters may not have a chance in four years to correct themselves.

Assuming the village isn’t dissolved any time soon, voters ought to have an escape clause when they get stuck with maniacs like this. Each village official should serve only two year terms. I’m all for bringing additional voices to the table and choosing from a variety of bold and innovative ideas and characters. But for cryin’ out loud, can we please vet these candidates with a little more scrutiny, or barring that, at least have the option of voting them out after two years once they’ve shown us their true colors?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The List Goes On (and on)

The now-famous Schoharie County “stimulus wish-list” that has been circulated to state and federal representatives has been hailed as a coordinated, quick-thinking effort by our county’s leaders to get out in front of what could be a huge opportunity. However, it’s a shame that with all this energy and “quick thinking”, this quite extensive list was the best our county could come up with. Looking over the ambitious list of proposed projects, what I find most disheartening is the utter lack of vision shown by our county’s leadership. Instead of long-term, forward-thinking ideas that will foster vibrant and sustainable communities, this list is a one-stop funding shop for all of the absolute worst ideas that have been floating around Schoharie County for the past ten years, as well as some entirely new bad ideas.

The projects for which the county is requesting funding range from reckless speculative ploys to outrageous boondoggles to pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams. And those are the good ones! Then there’s the outright scandalous $90 million dollars being requested for three totally unwarranted I-88 exits. The notion that these new exits would stimulate job growth is doubtful at best. However, they would pad the wallets of the local highway developers (Lancaster) who will most likely get the contracts. Some of that money will trickle down to the workers but other than that there would be little upside.

But the real danger in proposing these interchanges is that if even one of them is funded, at $30 million a pop, and this takes away all that money for other needed projects it will be a colossal and tragic waste for this county.

At best, most of the projects reflect a wide-eyed belief that if only a new exit is built here, or a new water line here, or a gas line here that the skies will suddenly open up and jobs will rain down. All while the promise of Empire Zone-created jobs goes unfulfilled after over two years of waiting. Anyone who actually believes the county’s projected job creation figures, well, there’s a bridge on Podpadic Road for sale.

As usual, little thought is given to maintaining our downtowns as livable and functional communities. And this is the real opportunity associated with the stimulus bill, and it’s the one our leaders completely missed.

All of our commercial centers in Schoharie County are in need of facelifts, and this is nothing new. But where is the money for downtown streetscape improvements and façade rehabs? Where is the money to rehab the upper-level apartment units in Downtown Cobleskill’s business district? For that matter, where is the money to replace those damn windows in the Newberry Square building?

I know that its hard to restrain oneself when the government is giving away free money. Even those who regularly decry government pork are going hog wild. However, a list of bad projects that goes on and on (and on) is a bad strategy for capturing federal stimulus dollars. Even if there are good projects on the list, which there are, they are inevitably going to be overshadowed by all the bad ones. A far shorter list, with a few solid (and less costly) projects that are long overdue might have gone a lot further. In the end, it may be that our county’s leaders have actually screwed up something as simple as free money. Nice one, guys.

Next Steps for Newberry Square?

The recent Schoharie County court decision overturning the Village of Cobleskill’s $20,000 fine against Newberry Square owner Henry Ioannou affirms what had long been apparent to anyone driving down Main Street over the past year: The village is completely powerless when it comes to getting this owner to step up and maintain this property.

That Judge Bartlett’s decision is legally questionable and probably ought to be appealed, is a moot point. I sincerely doubt that a different decision would have translated into a different outcome with regards to the plywood. This owner is a deadbeat and has obviously committed himself to not making any improvements to the property. And this is not an acceptable long-term solution for this community.

Last year there was talk of an investor buying the building and using Restore NY grant money to rehabilitate the upper levels. But that doesn’t seem to be an option. Apparently, there is new talk of another buyer, but don't hold your breath.

More than likely, the saga will go on, and the village will be stuck with a deadbeat owner who would rather pay a lawyer than a window installer. Which brings me to the question, if the village can’t find another buyer for the Newberry Square building, why don’t they just acquire the building themselves, through eminent domain, if necessary? For years, the village has been talking about moving its offices back downtown. Is there a more appropriate time and place for such a move?

As the private sector has failed to find a profitable use for the Newberry Square building, it falls on our local government to insure that this centerpiece of Cobleskill’s business district is returned to some productive use. The existence of village offices could insure a steady stream of customers into the building, making it’s several retail spaces, as well as those in neighboring buildings that much more attractive. The same could be said for rehabilitating the upper-level apartments, either as offices or residential units. As it stands now, Newberry Square's blight is pulling down the rest of that Main Street block and indeed Main Street itself.

Now that the courts have cut off the Village's legs with regards to remedying the current owner's mess, the Village has an obligation to look into more aggressive approaches. Moving Village Hall to Newberry Square could resolve many issues at once. At the very least, it's better than sitting around waiting for Henry Ioannou to call a window repairman.

Old Whine, New Bottles

Let’s not harbor any illusions about the recent passage of a compromise version of the so-called ‘bigger better bottle bill’. The only ‘green’ that Governor Paterson is interested in here is the $200 million+ in unclaimed bottle deposits that the bill will transfer into state coffers. Not that that in and of itself is necessarily a bad thing, given the financial crisis facing our state, and the fact that there is no conceivable reason why this money shouldn’t be used to help stave off budget cuts or tax hikes.

The recently passed bill addresses several key aspects of New York’s deposit bottle recycling system. First and foremost, the bill places a 5-cent deposit on water bottles, i.e. the 12 oz. plastic containers that have been rapidly proliferating over the past ten years. Other provisions in the law include the transfer of 80% of unclaimed bottle deposits from the beverage industry to the state. The bill also increases the handling fee paid by the bottlers to stores and redemption centers from 2% to 3% and mandates New York State-specific UPC codes for ALL containers sold in the state to prevent out-of-state containers from being redeemed in New York (like in Seinfeld when Kramer and Newman tried to take a mail truck full of bottles to Michigan, where they pay out a ten cent redemption).

However, while the bill was heavily supported by environmental activists and public interest groups such as NYPIRG (New York Public Interest Research Group) as a way to increase recycling and keep plastic bottles out of landfills, the beverage industry has fought the bill tooth and nail, mainly because they were afraid of losing the hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed container deposits.

It now appears that this industry is planning a risky gambit to stir up old fears that the new law will cost consumers, cause people to lose their jobs, and that the new law simply won’t work. These are the same old complaints that the beverage industry has been using to kill the bottle bill for the past ten years. Not to mention the fact that these are the same scare tactics they used in the early 1980s when the current deposit-recycling system was put into place.

But the beverage giants are merely drawing attention away from the plain fact that they are the ones responsible for the problem of container disposal in the first place as they are producing the containers. Deposit-based recycling systems insure that the industry bears some responsibility for taking out its own trash. Otherwise, there is no incentive to look into more environmentally neutral packaging and bottling methods, as the costs of disposing of containers are subsidized by taxpayers and built into state and municipal property taxes in the form of curbside recycling programs, street cleaning services and procuring new landfill capacities.

Another complaint designed to gain sympathy pits the new recycling regime against the mom-and-pop grocers and convenience stores, who critics claim, simply lack the space to accommodate all the containers. But before you shed a tear for the small corner store owner, consider the fact that virtually no one redeems bottles and cans at small grocers and convenience stores. They take them back to supermarkets which have separate redemption rooms and reverse vending machines.

While these larger-scale grocers will likely experience an uptick in container redemption, the notion that they will be unable to accommodate the increase is absurd. And so it goes for the rest of the unfounded claims that the new law will drive up the costs of bottled water and break the backs of bottlers and distributors.

This legislation is an important update to a valued recycling program that recognizes the changes that have taken place in consumer trends and is in fact long overdue. Hopefully, lawmakers will keep this new bill on track to become effective on June 1st and understand that the fear tactics are nothing but a desperate end game by the beverage industry to cling to millions of dollars in unclaimed deposits.


The New York State Assembly’s Republican conference recently held another panel on how to stop the ‘brain drain’ as part of its “RemaiNY” initiative. This time, the events were held on Long Island, but previous forums were held in Upstate, which would seem more appropriate given the exodus of recent college grads from Upstate’s communities. In any case, over the past twenty years much has been made of the so-called ‘brain drain’.

But the issue always seems to be framed as if it were the responsibility of Upstate NY’s communities to adapt themselves to the needs of the young, ambitious and college-educated, when perhaps it should be the other way around. I look at everything that Upstate New York has to offer: a moderate climate, some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world, an extremely low cost of living, and some of the nations’ oldest and richest historical communities. I then have to wonder what it is exactly that the people leaving in droves are hoping to find.

Well you can get your answer by looking at the places these people are leaving for, i.e. New York City, Boston and Chicago metro regions. What do these places have that we don’t, besides heavy suburban sprawl, traffic-choked highways and gentrifying (read: unaffordable) inner city neighborhoods? Well, contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s not a lack of jobs that drives these people away from Upper New York, it’s a lack of jobs that pay a ton of money to fuel an obsession with status and material acquisition that has become the standard of the American way of life.

A person can easily live in a city like Amsterdam or Utica on minimum wage (maybe with a little help in the form of food stamps, WIC and Medicaid). But what, that’s not good enough?

That these people don’t want to live in MY Upstate NY is not something I consider a problem and I don’t believe that we should waste one second thinking about how to keep these people in this state. Let them go off and join their rat race. Good riddance!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Times-Journal Misses Mayor Sellers

About halfway through the Times-Journal’s ridiculous editorial entitled “In Absentia” I realized it was going to be one of those annoying editorials that made me want to call up Jim Poole just to tell him to shut the hell up. If you want to take a public official to task for not showing up at Board meetings and not responding to citizen’s calls, I can understand that. But in this case, the Times-Journal goes way overboard. In the editorial, Mayor Sellers is criticized not for his poor attendance at Village meetings, but at, get this, memorial day ceremonies! He is also skewered for not showing up regularly enough at the annual meetings of Cobleskill Partnership Incorporated, a voluntary organization of which Mr. Sellers is a committee member.

Why Mr. Sellers’ attendance is so absolutely crucial and essential at these annual CPI meetings? Oh yes, according to the Times-Journal it was an “opportunity to schmooze with local entrepreneurs”. Hey, good schmoozing opportunities don’t come along every day.

Sellers is also criticized for not being involved with the “remodeling” of the corner of Main and Division St. But if I remember correctly, there were plenty of people who “had a hand” in the project already. I seem to remember seeing all their faces in the obligatory Times-Journal photo-op a few weeks ago. Another missed schmoozing opportunity, I guess. If anyone can think of any more events in the village that the Mayor has missed please contact Mr. Poole at once.

Then the editorial informs us that Mr. Sellers is on vacation in Peru, a revelation most likely greeted with the loudest collective ‘who gives a shit?’ in recent memory. I am still scratching my head trying to figure out exactly how this constitutes news. I know that the Times-Journal loves to bash Sellers as the “no-show mayor” and I know that its hard to stray from the established talking point, but this is grasping at straws.

If anyone reading this has any contact with Sellers, be sure and remind him to send Jim Poole a postcard from Machu Picchu.

LaPietra’s Intolerable Acts

One wonders if getting slammed with a $25 dollar fee for complaining that your slumlord won’t fix the furnace is what the Boston colonists had in mind when they dumped all that tea into the harbor. Probably not, but that’s okay. We’ll just add irony to the list of things Village Trustee Bob LaPietra, who ran on his own ‘Tea Party’ line, doesn’t quite get.

At February’s first Village Board meeting, Cobleskill’s most patriotic slumlord attempted to strike a blow for deadbeat property owners everywhere when he introduced a motion to charge village residents a $25 dollar fee for reporting codes violations. Shameless, I know. But if that wasn’t bad enough he also made a motion to Nelli Mooney, head of the Department of Planning, Environment and Codes with two part-timers. If passed, these two measures would have discouraged cash-strapped tenants from filing complaints and removed an experienced village employee, effectively dismantling the codes office in the process. The message to village employees would have been simple: if you do your job by protecting village residents from people like me, I’ll have your job.

Though Trustee Mark Galasso supported LaPietra’s measures, they were blocked by the other three members of the Village Board (Linda Holmes, Sandy MacKay and Mayor Michael Sellers).

LaPietra’s abuse of power was so blatant that even the Times-Journal, which is usually supportive of LaPietra, had to take a step back and wonder what the hell this guy was thinking. They correctly point to LaPietra’s long and sordid history of flouting local zoning ordinances and building codes. As recently as several months ago, LaPietra was ordered by a state court to remove residents from the upper floor of a commercial building that was out of compliance with both the local zoning ordinance and the state building code.

The Times-Journal said LaPietra’s proposals “raised alarm bells”, and that’s reassuring. However, the editorial extended LaPietra little more than a slap on the wrist for his naked attempt to gut the codes office. They also completely failed to hold Trustee Mark Galasso accountable for his support of that attempt. This raises the question, far more urgent and critical than the Times-Journal’s “alarm bells”, of whether or not LaPietra and Galasso will be held accountable at all. LaPietra casually violates the law and then goes after the jobs of the people who attempted to stop him. Meanwhile, Mark Galasso, whose Daddy handed him a multi-million dollar highway construction company, wants to charge Schoharie County’s working poor $25 to file a complaint against their slumlord. It’s obvious that these two men have no shame. Jim Poole's ears are ringing, but where's the outrage?

Were I LaPietra or Galasso I would seriously consider holding off on the whole American Revolution theme as now would probably not be a good time for them to remind people of that whole tarring and feathering thing we used to do.