Thursday, December 18, 2008

News That Matters - December 18, 2008 - Selling the Farm

News That Matters
Brought to you by PlanPutnam.Org

Good Thursday Morning,

On Tuesday this week, the Highlands Coalition held it's regular quarterly meeting but this time we also met to say goodbye to the New York coordinator, Teddy Eisenman. Due to a lack of funds, the NY regional staff has been laid off. This loss is not just one of qualified personnel, but one that will make it harder for communities to keep in touch with each other, to inform, coordinate and reach goals set when the Coalition was first formed to assist in the allocation of Federal funds from the Highlands Preservation Act which was passed in 2004.

At the time we were promised $10 million a year for ten years to assist and educate planning departments, public education and the preservation of open space lands in the Highlands. As it turns out, Congress screwed us over and cut that original funding from the $100 million (over ten years) to, well, nada. The Coalition still exists and the NY Region will still hold quarterly meetings but we'll be loosing a central organizing and informational body making our work all that much harder.

I wish Teddy all the best. We're going to miss his expertise, gentle manner and dashing good looks but some other organization is sure to benefit from our loss.

In the current race for who will replace Senator Clinton come January, A Siena College Poll released yesterday reports:

Andrew Cuomo - 26%
Caroline Kennedy - 23%
Kirsten Gillibrand - 7%
Brian Higgs - 6%
Tom Suozzi - 5%
Jeff Green - 0%

However, it's early in the game and my campaign is just getting underway. I have no doubt that in the end I'll be jetting off to Washington come January to be sworn in as your US Senator and I look forward to the next 6 years of public service to the people of this state. Besides, I look great in a suit.

Last night the Town of Kent's Stormwater Management Committee premiered four Public Service Announcements they made as part of their community education campaign. Representatives from several towns and the County were present and it went really well. Congrats to everyone who worked as hard as they did to make the PSAs. I won't review them here since I'm the guy that wrote and produced them so I'll leave that job to someone else. But damn, if I won't look good holding that Oscar... Afterwards I learned the meeting was broadcast live and will be replayed on Channel 8 if you get cable in that town. The PSAs are available for loan from the Town and low-res versions of them should be up on the Town's website pretty soon. I'll post them to the blog soon enough, too.

The Tilly Foster Saga: Tomorrow (Friday) at 1:30PM the Physical Services Committee of the County Legislature will be meeting at Tilly Foster to discuss terms of the proposed contract with George Whipple to run the Farm for the next 40 years. Over the past few days I've received phone calls and emails telling me that the contract is a good deal and that some of the most difficult aspects have been worked out but I am not convinced. A recently circulated copy of the latest version of the contract is, in many ways as bad - or worse - than the original.
For some reason, the Putnam Arts Council has become central in this battle but it's a straw-man argument. The issues at Tilly Foster have little to do with the Putnam Arts Council and everything to do with the viability of the proposed contract itself. Please, let's stay focused on that.

The main story is this: In its current form, the Contract sucks for the taxpayers and yet, in its defense, the only thing that has risen to the surface is that it will generate sales tax revenues for the county. In this economy? Apparently that's the new mantra rising from the depths of those desperate to unload responsibility for the Farm. The Farm, like the Golf Course in Mahopac, are both Bondi's Follies and it's no wonder he wants this deal so badly. But there are other options and better ways. It just takes vision and work and a Plan, three things lacking in the Executive offices.

In the latest incarnation of the contract we're told that even though it lasts longer than the expected life of the main dude, there is an out: if Mr. Whipple dies or leaves the not-for-profit entity this contract is actually with, the county can reassess the deal 12 months later. In other words, the Farm remains leaderless for a year while the county diddles its thumbs, the ship rudderless,  drifting in a sea of unmown hay.

The contract stipulates that the county will receive plans for major improvements 30 days before construction commences. Is that enough time to run it past planning? To re-evaluate SEQRA? The Legislature does not have veto power on these plans, they're only "informed" that they're happening. What recourse do we have if we don't like the concept of a wave pool for the Bed and Breakfast?

(Note: there is no plan for a wave pool, but you get the idea.)

The Farm will be able to erect any kind of a sign it wants with only the foreknowledge of the County Executive. I'm guessing the Town of Southeast's sign codes do not come in to play here.

In order to appease those who support the Putnam Arts Council (PAC) the newest version of the contract allows them to lease the top floor of Building #8 and share the lower floor with Mr. W's NfP for $1 a year for two years. After that they'll pay Mr. Whipple $500 a month for upwards of 38 years. Now, that's a sweet deal for the Arts Council and I'm hoping other communities will take note when their arts groups come calling. But I have a feeling the State Comptroller's office is not going to like this very much.

When it comes to subleasing, something which is going on at the Farm now apparently without a legal lease agreement, the county only has "we told you" access to anything new coming along and while the Legislature has the ability to terminate existing subleases, it does not enjoy that power over anything new.

Mr. Whipple can arbitrarily alter the hours the Farm is open to the public. All he needs to do is to "notify" the Legislature beforehand but there are no provisions for arguing the fact.

What will it cost for taxpayers to cover the utility bills, heating, cooling, electricity, etc., and to maintain the walks and roads in all weather conditions vs. the amount of monies generated from sales taxes? I just don't believe anyone could raise those kinds of funds through sales taxes alone from the Farm. So why not have a profit sharing arrangement? But that's not in the contract. While Ann Fanizzi, the contact's most ardent supporter, dreams that Mr. Whipple will build a bed & breakfast and turn the main lodge into full service restaurant, the county will need to foot the entirety of the utility bills and the maintenance of the roads and walkways leading to and surrounding them. I wish I had such a deal with my landlord!

Should we go into the insurance issues again? Oy!

Who takes over if Mr. Whipple passes on before the 40 years are up? Why has Mr. Whipple set a December 31, 2008 deadline? Why the headlong rush into a contract so vague it is sure to launch an Article 78 complaint? Wasn't there a trial period thing going on? There are so many valid and important questions to ask I just don't know where to start.

However, we need to know what the business plan is for the Farm. We need to have a concrete project placed before us and properly vetted through a full SEQRA process. The county was allowed to purchase the Farm after going through SEQRA and the new plan may violate portions of that original vetting. If it does, we need to run SEQRA from scratch otherwise we may be in violation of the MOA and State law. A full service restaurant will use a good deal more water and sewage than is currently in use there as well as increase traffic loads on Route 312. A Bed and Breakfast would do the same and we don't know what other dreams may come to fruition. These might alter the original environmental review enough to trigger SEQRA. We need to know and cannot take the County Executive's, nor Mr. Whipple's word. We need to do the studies. We need to have the facts.

(Why anyone would want to stay at a B&B on busy Route 312 with all those commercial trucks rumbling by is beyond me anyway.)

We need to set some conditions:
  • We should charge rent for any commercial operations or, at the very least, share in the profits.
  • Any permanent improvements to the buildings should meet, at the very least, LEED Silver standards to lessen the financial impact of paying for utilities.
  • There should be an independent citizens oversight committee charged with making sure that the contract is adhered to and with the power to recommend to the Legislature a veto of any plans Mr. W may have and the Legislature should have enforceable veto powers.
  • Use of any facility should be reserved for county residents and organizations first, before outside agencies, and at a lower fee.
  • The Legislature should have veto powers just as any landlord would.
I can think of dozens of others and I'm sure you can too.

If the county is intent on finding someone to manage the place then let's do it wisely with a well thought-out business plan that works and with one that turns a profit for the county. And no, we should not be paying the utility bills or insurance for a private enterprise. That's patently ridiculous.

In the end, I'm willing to bet those in favor of this deal on the County Legislature will have lots of pretty words to say; Sales taxes! Tourism! Babies! Puppies! Balloons! Sweet Cuddly Animals! But in the end the real discussion is about fiscal and governmental accountability and a verifiable business plan that works. We should accept nothing less. And if Mr. Whipple cannot provide that under a contract that puts the taxpayers first, we should suck it up, deal with it, and find someone who can.

And, that's the News That Matters.

Photos borrowed from the Friends of Tilly Foster website

And now, the News:

  1. NYC: Gas Drilling Will Raise the Cost of Water by 30 Percent
  2. Is GOP Risking the Economy to Win the PR War Against Unions?
  3. Circuit strikes down and modifies Patriot Act provision on National Security Letters
  4. How the American Health Care System Got That Way
  5. Green Party Calls for Carbon Tax, Higher Taxes for the Rich and Wall Street, to Resolve State Budget Crisis
  6. Celebrate a Happy Green Hanukkah
  7. Canadian Builds Energy Efficient Home Without Furnace
  8. Algae and Bacteria Oil
  9. Pet Food Facts (you don't want to know)

NYC: Gas Drilling Will Raise the Cost of Water by 30 Percent

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica - December 16, 2008 12:21 pm EST

Using some of the strongest language yet regarding the impacts that natural gas drilling in New York state could have on New York City's drinking water supply, the city's chief accountant warned state officials that drilling could have "crippling implications" for the city's water system.

City Comptroller William Thompson wrote State Department of Environmental Conservation officials Monday following a city council hearing about the threats upstate drilling might pose for the city. Thompson warned that drilling near the Catskill reservoirs that provide some nine million people with drinking water could degrade the water quality enough to force the city to build a new $10 billion water treatment plant. New York City is currently one of just four cities in the U.S. that the EPA allows to provide residents water without any filtration. If that permit is revoked, New York would have to borrow the money for the plant and, Thompson warned, city residents would pay a 30 percent water increase just to cover the interest payments.

Read More

Is GOP Risking the Economy to Win the PR War Against Unions?

by: Art Levine, The Huffington Post

Even as the auto industry teeters on collapse, union-bashing continues as the mainstay of a GOP propaganda war against organized labor. With three million jobs at stake, potentially costing taxpayers $150 billion in unemployment insurance, Medicaid, other aid and lost tax revenues, unions remain the primary targets of the GOP blame game for the troubled auto industry and the failed bailout deal. The Bush Administration, while dithering over the scope of any bailout with federal funds, has faced mounting pressure from Republicans to impose the same sort of union-wrecking conditions that scuttled a deal in the Senate last week.

The hostile response to a bailout, even though some form of rescue package is still likely this week, is doubtless fueled by recent polls confirming that a majority of the public is opposed to an auto industry bailout and doesn't believe that its collapse would significantly hurt the economy.

So far, it's right-wing demagoguery 1, progressives zero in the battle over the bailout. Public support was further harmed, of course, by the plutocratic PR blunders of the auto industry executives' initial jet-setting appeal to Congress. In fact, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll reveals, the conservative propaganda campaign against an auto bailout has even hoodwinked some union members: "Union households are no more apt than those without a union member to favor the plan, 44 percent compared with 42 percent. However, the union householders who support the plan are more likely to be strongly behind the bailout, " the Washington Post reports.

Read More

Circuit strikes down and modifies Patriot Act provision on National Security Letters

The USA Patriot Act allows the FBI to demand from telephone and Internet service providers certain information from their customers about their communications activity. Through "national security letters" (or NSL's), the FBI could find out if someone was engaged in terrorist activities. But the recipients of these NSL's could not communicate to anyone that they received them. Nor could they tell anyone they had to comply with them. This created significant First Amendment problems, which the Second Circuit resolved on December 15.

The case is Doe v. Mukasey. The district court struck down much of this statute on a preliminary injunction. The Court of Appeals gives this case extended treatment, striking down and otherwise narrowly interpreting parts of the law.

Plaintiffs argued that the nondisclosure requirement is a content-based prior restraint which the First Amendment forbids. They also argued that this licensing scheme must include a mechanism for the government to seek judicial review on the restraint. This objection is rooted in case law requiring the government to initiate legal proceedings when it wants to restrict certain speech. We call it the Freedman requirement, based on a Supreme Court ruling from the 1970s. But the government responds that this not quite like prior restraints governing public assemblies and entertainment like movies and books but, instead, simply a restriction on speech comparable to grand jury secrecy and judicial misconduct proceedings. Also, under the statute, to trigger the nondisclosure requirement, the FBI must first certify to a court that the national security letters are intended to deal with international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.

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How the American Health Care System Got That Way

Monday 15 December 2008

by: Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello and Brendan Smith, t r u t h o u t | Perspective

As Americans respond to President-elect Obama's call for town hall meetings on reform of the American health care system, an understanding of how that system came to be the way it is can be crucial for figuring out how to fix it. The American health care system is unique because, for most of us, it is tied to our jobs rather than to our government. For many Americans, the system seems natural, but few know that it originated not as a well-thought-out plan to provide for Americans' health, but as a way to circumvent a quirk in wartime wage regulations that had nothing to do with health.

As far back as the 1920's, a few big employers had offered health insurance plans to some of their workers. But only a few: By 1935, only about two million people were covered by private health insurance, and on the eve of World War II, there were only 48 job-based health plans in the entire country

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Green Party Calls for Carbon Tax, Higher Taxes for the Rich and Wall Street, to Resolve State Budget Crisis

This entry was posted on Monday, December 15th, 2008 .

The Green Party of NYS today offered a number of alternatives to resolve the state’s fiscal crisis, calling for a state budget that improves the future of all New Yorkers, rather than reacting out of fear of a budget shortfall.

The centerpiece of the Party’s proposal is a carbon tax, which is needed to both reduce greenhouse emissions contributing to climate change while raising funds to support the quick transition to a economy that will end reliance upon fossil fuels.

The Green Party also called for increasing taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to reverse the regressive nature of NY’s tax system; re-instituting the stock transfer tax which would serve to minimize or contain Wall Street speculation; collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed deposits from the bottle bill; reducing health care costs by eliminating the huge payments to for profit insurance companies (e.g., adopting a single payer universal health care system); and elimination of wasteful corporate welfare programs such as the Empire State Program. The Greens called for raising various fees of corporate polluters to pay for the entire cost of the state’s Superfund program to clean up abandoned toxic waste sites; right now taxpayers are required to foot 50% of the cleanup bill.

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Celebrate a Happy Green Hanukkah

Let the lights of sustainability shine in your home this holiday

This year an unprecedented number of people are incorporating green into Hanukkah celebrations, point out Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Jeff Sultar of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center. The center is helping lead the way with its Green Menorah campaign.

'Each year that we go deeper into what I call global scorching, [environmental sustainability] is even more important than the year before,' says Rabbi Waskow. 'The American Jewish public is readier to move than in the past, from a combination of Al Gore, Katrina, threats to polar bears, the diminishing Great Lakes, and so on.'

Waskow says three levels of wisdom running through Hanukkah's rich and living traditions invite thought and action on planetary problems:

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Canadian Builds Energy Efficient Home Without Furnace

Written by Amiel Blajchman

Former Canadian municipal councilor David Braden, has built himself a completely energy efficient, off the grid, and furnace-free (!) home using current building techniques.

I don’t want to be conveyed as a hippie. I want to get the message to the mainstream. People need to know that in fact there is a great solution sitting right in front of us.

At the heart of the house’s ability to be energy efficient and furnace free, is its design: using a combination of south-facing windows and extensive insulation, heat loss is near-negligible due to the design being almost airtight.

The key to ensuring that the house is airtight is the placement of the vapour barrier. Rather than installing it by the drywall, and thus ensuring that multiple screws and fuseboxes perforate it, he placed it on the inside of the inner walls. In order to avoid sick-home syndrome, Braden has installed an air exchanger, which he has justified thanks to saving the costs on buying a furnace!

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Algae and Bacteria Oil

Trevor Williams  
E-Coli Bacteria. Image courtesy National Institutes of Health

The world of synthetic oil has moved a long way forward in a short space of time. Maybe due to concerns over climate change but just as likely driven by the price of oil, at least until recently, and by the prospect of making a lot of money as well as a lot of oil.

Synthetic oil is not new, originally produced from animal fats, including (unbelievably today) from whale blubber on a massive industrial scale. During World War II, Germany used a coal distillation and hydrogenation process that successfully produced high-octane fuel. South Africa survived the apartheid worldwide embargo by using their enormous coal reserves and produced their own oil this way. Today, India, the US and China are actively looking at doing the same thing. The process is unlikely to be carbon-friendly at all, maybe better than Alberta Tar Sands oil, but not by much.

The future probably doesn’t lie in the pursuit of coal derived oil, nor carbon-intensive dirty oil from tar sands, but it might be swimming on the top of those scummy ponds or even in your own stomach. Algae and bacteria are some of the most active and prevalent plant and animal species to live on the planet. They’ve been around for countless millennia, and will remain long after we have destroyed the planet, but in the meantime they might just offer the possibility of taking some carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere or at least slow down the amount we are putting into it.

Let’s take a look at some of the options that are already being worked on.

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Pet Food Facts

GreenMuze Staff  

Pet owners spend more than an estimated $15 billion a year on pet food in the USA alone. Yet for all that money, there is very little regulation of the industry. Ann Martin, author of the best-selling Foods Pets Die For: Shocking Facts About Pet Food, started investigating the pet food industry in 1990 after her two dogs became sick from eating commercial food.

Eighteen years later, Foods Pets Die For is in its third edition, but little headway has been made in the industry. Pet food continues to be largely unregulated and unsuspecting pet owners may be feeding their pets euthanized companion animals, diseased animals, dead zoo animals, road kill and meat that is deemed unfit for human consumption. We caught up with author Ann Martin to find out more shocking facts about the pet food industry and ask what is the one thing every pet owner needs to know about commercial pet food.

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