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Outside Looking In

The people won this fight against the state

First published: May 29, 2015 at 11:45 am
Last modified: May 29, 2015 at 11:45 am

Turns out you can fight City Hall. Or in this case, a state agency with an awkward name.

The state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities oversees programs such as Jefferson Rehabilitation Center’s sheltered workshop, called Production Unlimited. Two years ago, OPWDD (hereinafter referred to as “the state”) decided that workers in programs such as the one operated by JRC were being “oppressed” because many — but not all — of them were receiving wages below the state’s minimum. And they were being oppressed because they were not working in a mainstream environment.

O’, political correctness, thy name is silly!

There was a building outcry over the state’s decision, one that reached a crescendo late last year when it became apparent that thousands of developmentally challenged people across the state were about to lose an important anchor in their lives. Sheltered workshops, and especially JRC’s, provide purpose and pride to their participants.

They allow people of many stages of intellectual development to have meaningful jobs, many of whom could not survive in the standard workplace for reasons that are not of their own devise. The workshops also foster collegiality and socialization that many people could not otherwise experience, and a sense of accomplishment that is directly tied to their ability to be a productive member of the larger society.

The state’s rationale in its decision to close sheltered workshops is flawed to the extreme. First, the bureaucrats decided that participants were being shortchanged by not earning the minimum wage. They did not take into account a number of realities. First, participants in these workshops who are earning the lowest wages are incapable of living independently. As a result, their need to make a living wage is brushed aside by their larger need to be taken care of by someone else, whether their family or an agency.

In addition, the services provided by the lowest earners are of such an elementary nature that if the sheltered workshop had not entered into a contract to provide them, they would be done in the private sector by machines. At some point, the state must consider that for the most severely challenged clients, the wage is secondary to the other personal benefits derived.

The bureaucrats also decided to end the system because the clients were in a setting that was too insular; they did not have an adequate chance to interact with people who are not developmentally challenged. For some workshop clients, the interaction would be a benefit. For others, not so much. The wondrous part of the workshops is that their clients occupy a broad range of developmental states. While some likely can function in the outside employment pool, others simply could not. The sheltered workshop brings that broad range of skills together, making it completely egalitarian — no matter what the state may think.

Fortunately, the state has backed away from its solution to a nonexistent problem (there’s government at its worst). Now, it has decided it will make some rule changes that do not appear to be either onerous or inconsidered on the makeup of the employment pool at Production Unlimited, which will have to have 25 percent of its workforce not clients of JRC. JRC Executive Director Howard W. Ganter told the Times this would not be a burden on the program.

And how did this happen? According to Mr. Ganter, the organized opposition to the proposal, especially here in the north country, was overwhelming. The extreme push-back by clients, parents, JRC staff, companies that contract with Production Unlimited and advocates for the disabled caught the state’s attention, and ultimately forced a reconsideration of a bad decision.

The lesson here is, people have power. An individual acting alone is one thing; many individuals acting in support of a common goal is another thing entirely. Time and again, Northern New York has shown a resilient ability to unite in opposition to decisions and policies that run counter to regional interest — you only have to consider how the region forced the state to back away from its plans to eviscerate the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center as an example.

It’s good to live in a region in which citizen activism can be called up and channeled in a positive way. People of the north country, I salute you. Again.

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

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The Army’s PTSD SNAFU

First published: May 22, 2015 at 9:02 am
Last modified: May 22, 2015 at 10:02 am

The notion of collateral damage is well known in military circles.

The term refers to the often unforeseen effects of a planned action on people or property that are outside of the target of the action. With the U.S. Army’s decision to move its post-traumatic stress disorder treatment onto military posts, River Hospital is reeling from the collateral damage it is suffering from that decision.

The small Alexandria Bay hospital has had a resurgence in the past couple of years as its River Community Wellness Program, which focused on PTSD treatment for military members, has grown from 10 to 40 patients and was poised to grow by a significant number more with a planned expansion at the hospital.

But hospital CEO Ben Moore III told the Times on Thursday that those plans have come to a jarring halt with the Army’s decision to pull its support of the program. Fort Drum officials notified Mr. Moore that efforts to save the program were “not fruitful.” As a result, the program at the hospital will end July 1, giving the hospital effectively no time to save it.

The little hospital on the St. Lawrence is once again on tiptoe, peering into the brink. It nearly closed in the late 1990s, escaped that fate by affiliating with what was then known as Samaritan Health Systems, then through the sheer willpower of a few river residents went back on its own in 2003. Not, however, without a fight: The hospital in the Bay had to threaten court action just to get all of its assets back from Samaritan so that it could afford to keep going.

Since then, it has not been an easy row to hoe for the facility. Declining third-party provider payments, reductions in Medicare/Medicaid payments and rising costs have kept all rural hospitals on the edge, and River Hospital has been no exception. The wellness program for PTSD patients was the brightest light that had shown on the hospital in quite awhile, and the planned expansion could have meant greater stability through a significant niche medical program.

The hospital is not the only loser in this decision. The soldiers who benefitted from it now face a very different outlook for their treatment, and some of them don’t like it.

WWNY-TV News quoted one soldier in the program who is more than disconcerted by the decision.

“Up at the program at the River Hospital, we’re not in uniform; there’s no rank involved; there’s no MOS, no job,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what rank you are; you’re all there to help yourselves and to get better. And when you move that onto a base, you lose that aspect.”

It’s impossible to argue with that assessment. The very nature of PTSD carries a lot of negative baggage within the armed forces, where the higher-ups have come agonizingly slowly to the notion that the problem is real, the disorder is singularly destructive and it is a direct result of military service.

And the hierarchical nature of the military works against the type of treatment that River Hospital’s program has found most effective. The program acknowledges the intermittent nature of the disorder and does not treat it as a chronic disease. That has been shown to be an effective protocol for treatment, and the “here whenever you need us” atmosphere is important. Whether that kind of program can be taken onto a military post, where informality is discouraged and perceived “weakness” is scorned, is far from certain.

U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Willsboro, has been enlisted to take up River Hospital’s banner in this. There is another famous acronym attributed to the Army that seems to apply here: SNAFU, which means, translated for a family newspaper, situation normal — all fouled up. If Ms. Stefanik and others can get this unfortunate decision reversed, it could be the difference between life and death for River Hospital.

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

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Hope lies over the rainbow

First published: May 15, 2015 at 2:38 pm
Last modified: May 15, 2015 at 5:19 pm

One of the things lost in crossing back and forth across America in the cramped seats of an airplane is, well, America.

Last week, two of my three stepkids, my wife and I drove from Watertown to Dallas. We had to pick up my stepdaughter in New Jersey.

So before we were done, we went through at least some of nine states — 18.75 percent of the contiguous 48. While we had to stick to interstate highways to get to Dallas in time for my other stepdaughter’s wedding, we saw a lot of often beautiful countryside nevertheless.

It was a trip that I have made many times in my life, from when my parents or grandparents would drive, with me in tow, between Delaware County and Tucson, Ariz. But it also is a trip I have not made in many, many years. To say that it was eye opening would be the mastery of understatement.

Beginning in Jersey and continuing through Dallas, we went through 1,500 miles of boom country. Pennsylvania cities, including Allentown, had crowded highways, busy industries and full manufacturers’ parking lots. Everywhere were signs of advancing prosperity.

We went by a big Volkswagen in America facility in Tennessee, an Olympus camera facility in Virginia and a glistening Lehigh Valley Health Care complex in Pennsylvania, which was adjacent to an impressive Lehigh Valley Hospital.

Rush hour traffic in Nashville was stop and go and as snarled as any busy city in the country. Memphis had signs of construction on scores of empty lots and reconstruction on scores of occupied ones.

Texarkana, Texas, which was a sleepy little burg when I was forced to hide from a tornado in a motel storm cellar in 1962, is now full of Clarion and Days Inn and Holiday Inn Express hotels — no mom-and-pop motels need apply. The highways are all new and smooth and sleek, and what was more or less a village 53 years ago is now a booming city.

Everywhere you turn in the modern South, from Virginia to Texas, you almost can’t escape the prosperity. Ironically, sitting in our Dallas hotel room and chatting while the TV was on in the background, I heard our governor’s voice and turned to watch a commercial touting New York as “made for business.” I couldn’t help but burst out laughing because I could just look out my ninth-floor window onto downtown Dallas and see block after block of reasons why New York, compared with Texas, is almost as far from made for business as you can get.

It has been so long since I’ve taken a real, true road trip that the concept of out-migration from New York has become an abstract concept. It is remote no more. The lush beauty, the busy economy, the great weather of almost every state I traversed must offer oases of hope for beaten-down New Yorkers looking for better weather, better jobs and an easier life.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo can bang the drum for business in New York, but he cannot fix the things that are broken for the upstate New York working family. Taxes at the very highest end of the spectrum, stagnant job availability and stagnant wages offer a growing gap between work and prosperity that has no ready answer and doesn’t on the surface appear to have a long-term solution, either.

I love my job, and I’ll stay until it’s time to go. But there has been a sea-change in my thoughts about our future after work is done. Upstate New York, and especially Northern New York, is, let’s face it, hard living.

After my trip, I’ve recaptured the vision of better weather and a markedly lower cost of living. That is a powerful argument for relocation. For the young just starting out and the veteran workers ready to lay down their tools, there are places not far over the horizon that really recommend exploration.

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

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Time to turn out the rascals

First published: May 08, 2015 at 5:48 pm
Last modified: May 08, 2015 at 5:48 pm

You have to admit:

The New York state Legislature is an equal opportunity provider.

In January, federal prosecutors filed corruption charges against the Assembly majority leader, Democrat Sheldon Silver. Monday, the Republican leader of the state Senate, Dean Skelos, was arrested on corruption charges.

So no matter what house you’re in or what party you lead, in our Legislature, you can take care of yourself first and foremost.

The corruption in Albany, and within the ranks of our congressional delegation, has gone way beyond the point of being a curiosity. It appears that politicians on the state and federal stage in New York state far too often view their offices as a way to procure personal riches or inappropriate power.

The stench has become nearly unbearable.

And despite the governor’s lip service to ethics reform, it doesn’t appear likely to get any sweeter any time soon.

On the home front, there hasn’t been a wisp of scandal generated by any of the Northern New York state delegation nor from U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro.

A glass-half-full kind of person would say we’re blessed with honest representatives.

A cynic might point out that none of our delegation has approached a leadership level that would lend itself to the kind of graft that can get you indicted.

Nevertheless, the entire state government is tainted by a nearly unending string of ethical morons, including former Gov. Eliott Spitzer, former Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a number of downstate state legislators and a handful of U.S. representatives from this state. Even the New York State Police is struggling to deal with an entire DNA unit that has been accused of falsifying its test results.

Individually, these miscreants damage themselves. Taken as a whole, however, they increasingly tarnish a state that already has its share of challenges. And taken as a whole, residents of this state should be outraged at the level of vile corruption in their government.

Silver was forced to step down from his leadership post, although his inclination was not to do so. Now the Senate will have to deal with a Dean Skelos who has a reputation as a brash and imperious leader.

Unlike Assembly Democrats who forced Mr. Silver from his leadership post, Senate Republicans have so far kept Skelos in place.

But there was some movement by week’s end to oust him, a movement that had no guarantee of success.

The people of this state deserve better.

While U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has been ridiculed for his zealous pursuit of corruption in the state Legislature, and accused of career-building with high profile cases, he is stepping in where state law enforcement officials and state and local prosecutors appear unwilling or unable to go.

That cynic I mentioned before might suspect that the prosecutors of this state are too timid, or too well-connected to the power structure, to do what they should be doing.

Their inability to do what the federal prosecutor is doing doesn’t speak well for them, no matter why they are sitting on their hands.

It’s time for a wholesale overhaul.

The crooks need to be turned out, that goes without saying.

But both houses of the Legislature need to change the way they do things.

Term limits for leadership roles are the first and most powerful change they can make.

They also need to break the downstate lock on leadership positions: Skelos is from Long Island and Silver from Brooklyn, and their predecessors have hailed from the same region, by and large, as far back as the average memory goes.

Not so long ago, Syracuse Assemblyman Mike Bragman mounted a serious challenge to be speaker; his effort was crushed by the downstate cabal.

And shortly thereafter, stripped of everything but his desk and telephone, he left the Legislature.

That example has allowed the leadership structure to further tighten control — and added a sense of immortality to the leaders who make graft seem both easier and acceptable.

Time to tell them it isn’t acceptable.

Time to turn out the rascals and put leadership in the hands of the capable and honest members of the Legislature who would never consider using the office for personal gain.

And time to change the rules to make it harder for this to happen again.

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

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Click, send, wave your reputation goodbye

First published: May 03, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 01, 2015 at 5:33 pm

On today’s cover, staff writer W.T. Eckert has produced a story that is one of those dirty little secrets that just about every household will say “No, not here!”

Sadly, the use of cellphones and tablet computers to send and receive nude or seminude pictures of teenagers seems to be ubiquitous — it isn’t a lower class thing, or an upper class thing; it’s just a thing that every parent should be doing everything imaginable to put an end to.

First, of course, parents are going to get past the “not here” response. Little angel or not, teenagers inhabit what often feels like a parallel universe to their parents. The things we did at that age, and have gained enough experience to warn our kids off today, are no longer relevant.

The era of hiding six-packs and Ripple outside the back gym door on dance night is so far in the rear view mirror that you’d have to go back two generations of cars to see it. Pot brownies (or chocolate hay, as one of my buddies dubbed them) and doobies behind the park gazebo are sooooo yesterday.

Technology is sweeping along, and it is sweeping our kids along with it. Three-quarters of American teens possess or have access to cellphones.

The average age that an American youth gets a cellphone is 13. Mobile devices, led by cellphones, are carrying the weight of technology right now (think of the Apple Watch). As you would sort of hope, young people are at the cutting edge of technological change.

My fear is that too many parents have one of two unacceptable responses to this tide: First are the “I don’t get the technology and I can’t keep up with my kids” parents, the “lost in a fog” crowd. The other are the “I get the technology, but I know my children would not do anything inappropriate with it” folks, the “head in the sand” herd.

While much of our society is more than happy to read about sexting and gasp “What is wrong with those youngsters?”, we would be much further ahead if more of us said, “What is wrong with those parents?” It seems that in our urge to cut the umbilical cords, we may be cutting the tethers that keep our kids’ feet on the ground.

My stepkids all quickly accepted my Facebook friend requests. I hope it’s because they trusted me. Their mom brought them up to think like adults. A key component of that is trust, and she never doubted her children.

But she did watch what they were doing, prepared to initiate any course correction that might be needed. They are the type of kids who responded marvelously to that touch on the rein.

But you can’t apply a light touch if you don’t know what course needs correcting. That takes observation and awareness.

If you have no clue what your kids are doing on their cellphones or their computers, you really should find out. As Mr. Eckert’s story points out, more than once, some children who got swept up in sexting were relieved when their parents found out; they wanted help with difficult peer pressure, but they didn’t know how to ask.

The temptations for young adults that are presented by technology are many, and the consequences for succumbing are severe. A teenage girl pressured into sending a nude picture of herself to a boy is at enormous risk of having that photo reach the same level of dissemination as a political handbill, boys being boys.

Underage girls who have sent nude pictures of themselves have been convicted of promoting child pornography — with themselves as the underage models. A lifetime of heartache and diminished expectations can accrue.

At the very minimum, parents must sit down with their children when the kids first get their hands on a cellphone and talk about all the bad things out there — and start with sexting. Make sure that talk takes root. And if you even have a glimmer of an idea that it won’t, find some peer counseling group to help you.

And don’t put your head in the sand. By the time you’ve cleared the sand from your eyes, your beautiful, innocent teenage daughter might be a registered sex offender — just because of a single bad decision. Click, send, wave your reputation goodbye.

Perry White is the social media aware managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him on Facebook.

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Both sides of the SASS debate have made errors

First published: April 24, 2015 at 6:07 pm
Last modified: April 24, 2015 at 6:07 pm

I have received a number of emails requesting that I write a column on the brouhaha surrounding the Thousand Islands regional application for designation as a Scenic Area of Statewide Significance — a process that has taken the fitting name SASS. It has a lot of people fired up, both those who see the designation as the best way to preserve the scenic wonderland that is the Thousand Islands and those who view it as yet more meddling in local affairs by that old bogeyman, the State.

There are important subsets of these groups. The pro-SASS group has at its core people who want more arrows in the quiver if they have to resume their fight against commercial wind farms along the river and lake. The anti-SASS group has a number of people, many of whom have a nervous self-interest, who are for wind farms and don’t want a scenic area designation to stand in the way of any new wind proposals that wander down the pike.

I am about to gore everyone’s oxen. On the one hand, I don’t see that big a risk from being designated as a scenic area. Because let’s face it: The single most important asset of the region, from a tourism standpoint, is its incomparable views.

People don’t come here to play miniature golf, ride go-carts or go to Mazeworld. They come here because for mile after mile along the St. Lawrence River, the views take your breath away. I have been to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and the Grand Tetons, and I still say that the first trip over the Thousand Islands Bridge is as breath-taking as any views in the country.

There are only two designated scenic areas in the state, one along the Hudson and the other on Long Island. The Hudson area — established in 1993 — stretches, with a few gaps, from Schodack Landing to the middle of Rockland County. The East Hampton district is wholly within the town of East Hampton on Long Island; it was created in 2010.

I can’t find any significant problems created for the residents of the Hudson area, which is now more than 20 years old. Development still occurs in that corridor, and it appears that life goes on. I can’t speak to the East Hampton area, because we don’t own a newspaper near there.

But the East Hampton situation — strongly suburban, tightly built out, a bedroom community for metropolitan New York — has very little in common with the Thousand Islands area. The Hudson area is more rural, more diverse and more like St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties.

Raising the Big Brother argument works only if opponents can point to actual situations where the state has stepped in and stopped or vastly altered a project that is otherwise embraced by the community. That they haven’t done.

The designation doesn’t review all proposed projects, only those that require a state or federal permit or receive federal funding. And let’s face it — the Thousand Islands is an area of statewide significance and concern.

We have an obligation to undertake reasonable preservation efforts, and that could preclude any state interference. And communities with local waterfront development plans are already under a requirement for state review.

The SASS program is not the threat to the region that its opponents make it out to be. And adequate local planning efforts would completely declaw the state by providing defensible local regulations that take viewsheds into consideration.

Now, before all the pro-SASS people begin crowing, consider this: Many of your actions in support of a SASS designation have bordered on the reprehensible. The most recent revelation: The steering committee has put out a list of an Expanded Advisory Committee that appears to have been populated by consulting websites and the phone book.

We have already spoken to a number of people who range from befuddled to outraged by their inclusion on the list. Jefferson County Administrator Robert Hagemann III, for example, has requested that all references to Jefferson County officials be removed from the “expanded” committee, ranging from Mr. Hagemann himself to legislators to members of the County Planning Agency staff.

And Gary DeYoung, head of the regional tourism group, has requested that his name also be removed from the list.

Nearer to home, the list includes WWNY-TV 7 news anchor Brian Ashley, and Watertown Daily Times Editor Timothy Farkas and staff writer Katherine Clark Ross. None of these people was consulted, and their inclusion violates internal policies at both news gathering organizations that prohibit the editorial employees from participating in partisan activities.

If we have to cover the issue, our credibility is strained if it appears we are involved in promoting or opposing it. I haven’t even been enrolled in a political party since 1975.

Brian, Tim and Katie had no idea their names would appear on this list because none of them was asked to serve on it. And until we got a copy of the list, we didn’t even know those names were there. This is chicanery of the highest order, and the steering committee has lost an enormous amount of credibility by this and other not entirely straightforward actions.

For example: There is considerable dispute that the entire process ever had the level of municipal support that organizers claimed. Already, many towns and villages that were named as participants in the original study have voted resoundingly not to participate. That list may still grow. Much of the dissatisfaction appears to be from the way the towns and villages feel they were herded into the pro-SASS column before they were approached and provided with sufficient information to make their own decisions.

All of this has left the two sides bitterly divided. Steering committee chairman Ronald Bertram, Hammond’s supervisor, is at the eye of the storm. But it is pretty clear he is ably abetted in the way this proposal has gone off the rails. Those cronies appear all to be people strongly opposed to commercial wind development.

This has provided a textbook lesson on how not to promote regional planning goals. First, make claims you can’t back up. Next, minimize or ignore the points raised by possible opponents. While you’re doing that, let the narrative escape your grasp as the opposition fires up the citizenry by presenting what to you is likely a surprisingly forceful attack on the plan. Then, exaggerate your support so that your credibility, already low, dips below the zero line.

I believe that over all, a SASS designation would prove to be a benefit for the Thousand Islands. I don’t believe all the “Big Brother is watching” stuff, and I think the river should be shielded from wind farms.

On the other hand, I believe the anti-SASS group has run circles around the organizers and has built a core of support that people who want a scenic designation cannot entirely overcome. If a designation can be supported, I think the area included will be so truncated as to nullify any benefits it would have if it included the entire region. Such is politics: The race is seldom to the swift. More often, it is to the focused. And therein lies the difference here.

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

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A scenic area is home to an ugly fight

First published: April 24, 2015 at 3:17 pm
Last modified: April 24, 2015 at 3:19 pm

I have received a number of emails requesting that I write a column on the brouhaha surrounding the Thousand Islands regional application for designation as a Scenic Area of Statewide Significance — a process that has taken the fitting name SASS. It has a lot of people fired up, both those who see the designation as the best way to preserve the scenic wonderland that is the Thousand Islands, and those who view it as yet more meddling in local affairs by that old bogeyman, the State.

There are important subsets of these groups. The pro-SASS group has at its core people who want more arrows in the quiver if they have to resume their fight against commercial wind farms along the river and lake. The anti-SASS group has a number of people, many of whom have a nervous self-interest, who are for wind farms and don’t want a scenic area designation to stand in the way of any new wind proposals that wander down the pike.

I am about to gore everyone’s oxen. On the one hand, I don’t see that big a risk from being designated as a scenic area, because let’s face it: the single most important asset of the region, from a tourism standpoint, is its incomparable views. People don’t come here to play miniature golf, ride go-carts or go to Mazeworld. They come here because for mile after mile along the St. Lawrence, the views take your breath away. I have been to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and the Grand Tetons, and I still say that the first trip over the Thousand Islands Bridge is as breath-taking as any views in the country.

There are only two designated scenic areas in the state, one along the Hudson and the other on Long Island. The Hudson area, established in 1993, stretches, with a few gaps, from Schodack Landing to the middle of Rockland County. The East Hampton district is wholly within the town of East Hampton on Long Island; it was created in 2010.

I can’t find any significant problems created for the residents of the Hudson area, which is now more than 20 years old. Development still occurs in that corridor, and it appears that life goes on. I can’t speak to the East Hampton area, because we don’t own a newspaper near there. But the East Hampton situation — strongly suburban, tightly built out, a bedroom community for metropolitan New York — has very little in common with the Thousand Islands area. The Hudson area is more rural, more diverse and more like St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties.

Raising the Big Brother argument only works if opponents can point to actual situations where the state has stepped in and stopped or vastly altered a project that is otherwise embraced by the community. That they haven’t done.

The designation doesn’t review all proposed projects, only those that require a state or federal permit or receive federal funding. And let’s face it — the Thousand Islands is an area of statewide significance and concern. We have an obligation to undertake reasonable preservation efforts, and that could preclude any state interference. And communities with local waterfront development plans are already under a requirement for state review.

The SASS program is not the threat to the region that its opponents make it out to be. And adequate local planning efforts would completely declaw the state by providing defensible local regulations that take viewsheds into consideration.

Now, before all the pro-SASS people begin crowing, consider this: many of your actions in support of a SASS designation have bordered on the reprehensible. The most recent revelation: the steering committee has put out a list of an Expanded Advisory Committee that appears to have been populated by consulting websites and the phone book. We have already spoken to a number of people who range from befuddled to outraged by their inclusion on the list. Jefferson County Manager Robert Hagemann III, for example, has requested that all references to Jefferson County officials be removed from the “expanded” committee, ranging from Mr. Hagemann himself to legislators to members of the County Planning Agency staff.

And Gary DeYoung, head of the regional tourism group, has requested that his name also be removed from the list.

Nearer to home, the list includes WWNY-TV 7 news anchor Brian Ashley, and Watertown Daily Times Editor Timothy Farkas and staff writer Kathryn Clark Ross. None of these people were consulted, and their inclusion violates internal policies at both news gathering organizations that prohibit the editorial employees from participating in partisan activities. If we have to cover the issue, our credibility is strained if it appears we are involved in promoting or opposing it. I haven’t even been enrolled in a political party since 1975.

Brian, Tim and Katie had no idea their names would appear on this list because none of them were asked to serve on it, and until we got a copy of the list, we didn’t even know those names were there. This is chicanery of the highest order, and the steering committee has lost an enormous amount of credibility by this and other not entirely straightforward actions.

For example: there is considerable dispute that the entire process ever had the level of municipal support that organizers claimed. Already, a number of towns and villages that were named as participants in the original study have voted resoundingly not to participate. That list may still grow. Much of the dissatisfaction appears to be from the way the towns and villages feel they were herded into the pro-SASS column before they were approached and provided with sufficient information to make their own decisions.

All of this has left the two sides bitterly divided. Steering Committee Chairman Ronald Bertram, Hammond’s supervisor, is at the eye of the storm. But it is pretty clear he is ably abetted in the way this proposal has gone off the rails. Those cronies appear all to be people strongly opposed to commercial wind development.

This has provided a textbook lesson on how not to promote regional planning goals. First, make claims you can’t back up. Next, minimize or ignore the points raised by possible opponents. While you’re doing that, let the narrative escape your grasp as the opposition fires up the citizenry by presenting what to you is likely a surprisingly forceful attack on the plan. Then, exaggerate your support so that your credibility, already low, dips below the zero line.

I believe that over all, a SASS designation would prove to be a benefit for the Thousand Islands. I don’t believe all the Big Brother is watching stuff, and I think the river should be shielded from wind farms. On the other hand, I believe the anti-SASS group has run circles around the organizers, and have built a core of support that people who want a scenic designation cannot entirely overcome. If a designation can be supported, I think the area included will be so truncated as to nullify any benefits it would have if it included the entire region. Such is politics: the race is seldom to the swift. More often, it is to the focused. And therein lies the difference here.

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

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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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