Economic Choices

In case you missed it, Democrat and Chronicle reporter, Brian Sharp wrote an article about research I did about all of the properties in the City worth over $1 million.  Read it here.  Like a good reporter, Brian asked the Mayor for his response to my assertion that we're allowing rich property owners to get away with not paying - or not paying enough - taxes, and that is the reason we have a budget deficit every year.  Not because of City Worker pensions.  

The Mayor's response was pretty typical, that I "missed the point".  Actually, Mr. Mayor, I haven't.  

Sometimes it seems that I spend all of my time on the economics of government and this seems wrong.  It appears to me that economics is really a study of choices.  In your life, every time you spend money on something, there is a myriad of things that you choose not to spend money on. 

In politics the same is true.  Every time our government spends money on something needed, there are numerous other things which will have to wait for funding.  So when I see our government give away a building worth $6.7 million, like theMidtown Tower Mayor and City Council did with Midtown Tower,

I wonder if this is really the best use of this money.  After all, for that kind of money we could keep the mounted patrol, rebuild 100 vacant houses in blighted sections of the city with local labor, provide summer jobs for 500 teenagers, add another recruitment class for the fire department, open a library, open a recreation center, run a late night weekend recreation basketball league, and after all these improvements, have enough left to return fine arts education to all schools. 

Instead, our "representatives" chose to rehab a building to be owned by millionaires and lavished with $30 million of tax breaks over the next 20 years. I know that would not have been MY choice.

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Midtown Tower of Lies

I have been active in the community for many years now and have been a candidate for office for the last four. Over this time I have caused many actions and reactions from politicians but there is still one which gets me mad.  It is not when they attack me, I knew this was part of the game when I threw my name into the ring.  What still gets me angry is when politicians personally lie to people.Midtown Tower from

Tonight, the Rochester City Council was being asked to approve the sale of Midtown Tower to Buckingham Properties and Morgan Property Management for $2.  Now this may not sound so bad, but the property is presently assessed for $435,100.  The sale also comes with $11.9 million of public money, and very generous tax breaks for the next 20 years.  And the kicker is, the "buyer" donated $5,000 to the Election campaign of Tom Richards. This is not good. 

So we got a group together to come to the City Council meeting to protest this, not on the basis of the political corruption, but because it did not follow City Code.  This code is the laws by which the city operates.  I read the relevant sections of the code which states that in order to sell property the city either has to have an auction or independently assess the property and sell it for that, and it had done neither of these.  So when it was time for citizens to comment on the legislation that would give Midtown Tower away, I read the code, explained how the deal was in violation, then spoke for the group and offered $100,000 for this property.

I was followed by Democratic primary candidate for City Council, Lisa Jacques who explained that we intend to run the property as a community entity.  As is customary at an auction, we had 10% of the $100,000 on hand and could have paid that on the spot.

Now I expected the Council to ignore us like usual, but when they went to vote on this the Mayor spoke up and mentioned that our political theater was off the mark as this was an Urban Renewal Property and therefore was not covered by the laws I read.

When I spoke, I did not read out loud the section on Urban Renewal. It looks like I should have.  This section is 21-13 of city code and is only 3 sentences long.  The last sentence of which reads, "The procedures for submission and selection of development proposals shall be the same as those established for the disposition of City-owned real estate".  Which means that the City must follow the same procedures for the sale of Urban Renewal property as for city property.

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Why We Must Ban Hydrofracking in Rochester

Hydrolic fracturing (fracking) is a technique used to extract natural gas in which water is mixed with sand and chemicals. This mixture is forced into the ground to create fractures in the rock structure through which fluids such as natural gas, oil, and groundwater may migrate to the well. Then the desired fluids, and lots of excess water, can be pumped back to the surface.  While this process can yield a lot of natural gas or crude oil, there are also many side effects.  Hydrofracking uses a lot of water; it may take several million gallons of water to properly frack a single well. Besides water a great deal of other chemicals are added to make the whole process work better.  What chemicals are used is a closely guarded, company secret, and thanks to industry lobbying efforts, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled in 2005 that companies do not have to disclose their frack mixtures. Much of the water used in hydrofracking eventually comes back to the surface contaminated with hydrocarbons, sand, radon, other radiated elements, and these secret chemicals. Despite the best efforts of the fracking industry there have been too many incidences of ground, water and air pollution to ignore.

Scores of adverse affects have been documented.  Duke University has found 85% of the wells within areas fracked in Pennsylvania contain elevated levels methane in the well water. Some as high as 17 times the normal level. Further in North Dakota, a federal study found high levels of fracking chemicals in the groundwater.  Many other environmental problems have been noted.  Even the best efforts of the industry have been unable to develop adequate methods to mitigate these problems.

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Benny Warr and Police Trust

In case you are not aware of the Benny Warr incident, this is the case of a black man in a wheelchair who was waiting for a bus when the police decided to clear a corner.  I am not sure why, but the police tipped the wheelchair over and quite aggressively arrested him for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.  Benny claims he got hurt in this incident.  Now, if you have not watched the video please do before we continue.

There are only two possibilities here and the first is that Benny was being disorderly.  In this case the police were presented with an angry disabled man in a wheel chair.  The danger he posed to the public could not have been great, yet the police acted with extreme force.  The problem with this is that even if he was in the wrong, this action will scare the public and create fear of interacting with the police.  Such a violent attack on their part was far in excess of the threat and will only alienate the public, which only makes their job harder.

Of course the other possibility is that Benny was really doing nothing disorderly, which means the actions taken by the police are criminal.  In this case, the department needs to publicly and openly investigate and punish the misbehaving police officers.  After all, such unwarranted attacks unravel years of trust building exercises.  Further, other officers need to understand that this is not proper procedure and it will not be tolerated.

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Blue Light Cameras

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The tragedy at the Boston Marathon has given a boost to camera companies across America.  With the help of a street camera the FBI were able to apprehend the criminal.  While they may work well in stopping terrorists, they work poorly in stopping street crime.  Yet this is what they are being sold for.  

In Rochester we have a long tradition of street camera.  These cameras are often called the blue light cameras.  They have been installed at troubled street corners to combat street drug sales and they have reduced sales on the corners they are placed but the dealers have only moved a block away.  

It is interesting that our last two police chiefs have argued that these cameras do not stop crime.  Chief Sheppard has publicly said many times that the criminals know where the cameras are and just move out of the eye of the camera. At most times as many as a quarter of all the cameras are in need of repair.  Further there are only two people who watch all the cameras in the city.

Let us also consider the cost of this program.  There are two officers, hundreds of cameras, and an expensive maintenance program which we have to pay for.  All to inconvenience a few criminals.  This is not improving our city and has not decreased crime.  It is time we concentrate the money on programs that really reduce crime.

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College Town Should Not Be Taxpayer Funded

Recently the city broke ground on a project in Rochester called College Town.This is a half-million square foot development on 16 acres of land at the corner of Mt. Hope and Elmwood Avenue in Rochester. This area plans to have a bookstore, grocery store, child care, YMCA, hotel and conference center, restaurants, offices, apartments, and a parking garage. Like many of these projects, the ground breaking brought out a who’s who of city officials- despite the fact it is bad for Rochester.

The project started out as a vision statement from the neighborhood about what they wanted in this area. This process identified a few things the neighbors found important; a grocery store, a locally-owned bookstore, more public spaces, a public transit station, and sufficient parking.

With this in mind the City went out and found a developer and unfortunately this is when the problems began. A proposal was made which offered a great deal of office space, a Barnes and Noble bookstore, 150 apartments, room for some retail, a hotel, and perhaps a small grocery store. They also put in a parking garage but then rented part of it to the University of Rochester. Gone were the public spaces, green space, bus terminal, and sufficient parking.  And, of course, the bookstore was no longer local.

So with the project now something much different than what the neighbors requested, the financing turned this into a nightmare. The total project is going to cost around $100 million to build. Of this, $5.4 million is a federal New Market Tax Credit. There is also a $20 million Section 108 loan (HUD) from the federal government. There is $2.8 million in Brownfield clean up money, $2.7 million in sales tax credits, a $4 million grant from the State of NY, $3.3 million from the City, and almost $7 million in other subsidies. In the end it looks like $45.2 million in public money going to the project.

Of this money, two of the largest pieces seem misused. The New Market Tax Credit is a program which is supposed to spur revitalization efforts of low-income and impoverished communities across the United States. Now Rochester has many low-income areas but the area near Highland Park and adjacent to Strong Hospital is not one of them.

The HUD loan is also suspicious. This program was made for projects which meet one of the three following criteria: benefit low and moderate income persons, prevention or elimination of slums or blight, or address community development needs with particular urgency because existing conditions pose a serious and immediate threat to the health or welfare of the community for which other funding is not available. This once more does not seem to fit as the blight was not terrible, slums were non-existent, and there was no health or welfare threat.

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