Archive | July, 2009

Moving Back to Buffalo: Two Years Past

31 Jul

Its been just over two years since I moved back to Buffalo. The moving truck pulled up to my new house on July 4th, 2007 – a rainy day I won’t forget as all of my boxes became soaked, and the moving men, already disgruntled for having to work the holiday, became more and more irritable the wetter and wetter they got.

Coincidently, I moved back during the second iteration of Buffalo Homecoming. I did not plan or intend that, but the timing embarrassingly led me to become the “living example” that people really do return. I remember thinking that if this much of a fuss was created about one person moving back, the city must have more problems than I know.

Unpacking took most of our time, and so we could not do many Buffalo Homecoming activities. But we did manage to squeeze in a cocktail party at the Larkin Building, still smelling of a fresh coat of paint, where we heard about all sorts of wonderful plans for Buffalo. It was at that party I first met Marti Gorman, organizer of Buffalo Homecoming and all-around Buffalo-booster, whom I would later work with on future Buffalo Homecoming celebrations, the Buffalo Freelance Writers Collaborative, and other events. I also met Chris Smith and Ethan Cox, future colleagues of mine with WNYMedia. In retrospect, Buffalo turned out, once again, to be a city of two degrees of separation.

I had been away from Buffalo for 12 years. For most of those 12 years, I did not contemplate moving back. What changed my mind? As I think back on it now, one odd item tipped the balance. As my family planned all the things we were looking for, and started to settle on Buffalo, we were doing lots of research. In January 2007, I happened upon this article from The Economist. I included it in full; its an interesting trip down memory lane.

Steeled for recovery

Dec 19th 2006 | BUFFALO
From The Economist print edition

It’s not only small towns that are re-thinking themselves

“WHEN the wind blows right, everybody in downtown smells the Cheerios,” says Charles Rosenow, an economic-development official in Buffalo. Indeed, the scent is unmistakable even half a mile from the General Mills factory along the Buffalo river.

Few other relics from the industrial glory days of Buffalo are still working. The city’s population has plunged by more than half since 1950, from 580,000 then to 280,000 today. Though Buffalo remains the largest city in upstate New York, sections of its waterfront are a picture of industrial ruin. All but two of the city’s 17 concrete grain elevators lie empty, flanked by overgrown railway tracks. Bethlehem Steel closed its plant in 1983, laying off thousands. The remnant of the car industry is trying to buy out its Buffalo workers.

What went wrong? The city was riding high in the 19th and early 20th centuries as the Erie Canal, which has a terminus at Buffalo, opened up commerce between the Great Lakes and Albany (and, further down the Hudson, New York City and the Atlantic). The slump began in earnest after the opening in 1959 of the St Lawrence Seaway, which bypassed the Erie Canal. Free trade and outsourcing helped kill off the manufacturing plants.

But better times may lie ahead. Buffalo officials brim with ideas, and some are being implemented. A 110m-gallon (416m-litre) ethanol plant scheduled to open next year will put four of the gigantic grain elevators back into use for corn storage. The original terminus of the Erie Canal is being rebuilt to attract tourists and shops; and private developers, tempted by cheap property prices, are pouring money into old buildings. There is talk of making Buffalo a biomedical technology hub, complementing the city’s enormous cancer-research centre, and of building a casino near the centre of town. One looming worry is commerce with Canada, which will be complicated by stricter passport rules next year as well as by delays in widening a bridge across the border.

The best news may be the election of Eliot Spitzer, who takes over as governor in January. Buffalo’s relations with Albany, the state capital, have often been strained. Upstate New Yorkers fret that Manhattan gets too much money and attention, and that state regulations and taxes hurt Buffalo’s ability to compete. But “I think the upstate cities are going to have a champion in Eliot Spitzer,” says Sam Hoyt, a state assemblyman from the region. Mr Spitzer made redevelopment of upstate New York one of his campaign priorities. He had the bad luck to be in Buffalo during the freak October snowstorm that dumped two feet (60cm) of snow on the city. Despite having to spend the night in the airport, he remains keen on Buffalo, even daring to visit again shortly after the election. That must be a good sign.

The Buffalo described in that article was not the one I had left 12 years earlier. Bio Tech hub? Ethanol plant? Erie Canal terminus and shops? That sounded like a growing, happening, leading edge sort of place. Described like I hear Boston, or Philadelphia, or Boulder described. Cool places have biomedical hubs. I was coming from Vegas – casinos make everyone richer. And if The Economist said it, it must be true.

Two and half years after that article, how foolish do we look? I was recently at lunch with Chris Smith, and he asked if I was still happy that I moved back. I answered him the way I usually answer that question: moving back to Buffalo feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Like I’m finally where I “should” be. But the optimism I felt then, reading the article, and the optimism I felt when looking for houses in March 2007, and the enthusiasm I felt going to Buffalo Homecoming in July 2007 . . .  has waned a bit. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

Its been a disappointing 2 years, hasn’t it, Buffalo? Ignoring the national economic meltdown, Buffalo has not lived up to our self-provided hype from earlier in the decade. In the last two years, here is the building we’ve built:

Avant

Its a very nice building. But can you think of others? Oh, we knocked this one down:

Aud Demo

And we started on this one (which doesn’t look much like the artist’s renderings, unfortunately):

Fed Court

But its more than buildings. Byron Brown has gone from fresh hopeful face to kick-back hack. Casino plans were fought and stalled. That Ethanol plant never did get built, did it. The Sabres have tanked. The Bills still suck. The Peace Bridge is no further along. Bashar Issa is a boob, at best, and a scam artist, at worst. Lots of plans have been put on the shelf.

So when do I “pass judgment,” on whether this rehabitation plan was a good idea? Despite the litany on failed projects, slowed projects, and lack of progress (small “P”) that I’ve barely touched on, I have hope.

Here is my prediction: the next two years will be much better than the last two.

What’s my proof? There are a list of projects with far surer money, with far sounder plans, that are set to be completed or implemented by July 2011. And even though its Buffalo, I think they may happen. By July 2011, UB and Kaleida will have built a Global Vascular Institute and a variety of Downtown Campus buildings down in the medical corridor. The size and scope of that campus, related to UB 2020, will be amazing. The Richardson Complex, which I believe is a transformative project for that part of the city, will be done with significant pieces of restoration and a new visitor hub will be open. Canalside and Bass Pro should be open by 2011, and construction is really starting to happen. Bass Pro isn’t even the most important part of that project, but being able to test a new kayak on the water directly will be nice. 2010 will be a great sports year, with the NCAA Basketball first round coming back, the Empire State Games coming through, and the World Junior Hockey Tournament at the end of the year. And if the economy improves, a host of stalled projects, like the Gates Circle condos, will finally get off the ground.

In Buffalo, to paraphrase my grandfather, anticipation is greater than realization. But I have hope. The day I moved back, that July 4th, the diocese of Buffalo announced the East Side round of church closings. My family’s home church, of which I am the fifth generation, was on the list. That church is still open today – its closing date has come and gone. That’s hope.

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A Stimulus That Worked

31 Jul

The Cash-For-Clunkers program is broke. After one week.

Clunker

All $1 Billion for the program, which was supposed to last til November, spent in one week, and the feds are having trouble keeping up with processing the forms.

All this while the Federal Stimulus Bill is roundly criticized for spending too little money too slowly.

Which begs the question: is there any better proof that private citizens spend money more effectively or efficiently than the government? Want to stimulate the economy? Incentives, rebates, and tax breaks.

Irrelevance

31 Jul

The county legislature set up a commission to study ways in which that body could become leaner and more efficient going forward.  The commission recommended, among other things, that the legislature shrink from 15 members to 11, and that their terms of office be expanded from 2 to 4 years. 2 year terms were thought to be so short that legislators were running for re-election pretty much perpetually.

I would agree with a diminution to 11 with a maximum of two four-year terms.

The legislature, however, decided 13 was just as good as 11, and proposed that a ballot question be put to the voters this fall whether the legislature should shrink from 15 to 13 members/districts, and terms should go from 2 years to 4 years.  Chris Collins put up his dukes and decided to veto this.  He is outraged – OUTRAGED – that the leg combined the questions of term limits and district reduction into one question.

I think that if this is the kind of dumb shit that outrages people, that the legislature should shrink to 0 districts and 0 members, and that Mr. Collins can go back to work at Volland.

Honoring the Honorable

31 Jul

At the beginning of the Clarence Town Board meeting on Wednesday, August 12, 2009, at 7:30 p.m., six months after February 12th, town Supervisor Scott Bylewski will present proclamations honoring the work of five groups who went above and beyond the call of duty in the aftermath of the crash of Colgan Air flight 3407:

1.    Clarence Center Volunteer Fire Co.
2.    New York State Police
3.    Erie County Sheriff’s Department
4.    New Buffalo Shirt Factory (L.I.F.E. Love Is For Everyone -L.I.F.E.line)
5.    Love Knows No Boundaries

The Insurance Industry And You

30 Jul

Lewin-Group-endorsed-logo

The debate surrounding “health care reform” in 2009 has been disingenuous, riddled with anecdotal bullshit, straight up lies, and is being treated as a political football more than the lynchpin to the financial health of this country.  Each day that passes, I become more cynical about our ability to do ANYTHING in this country for the right reasons.

Republican leaders like John Thune, John Boehner, Newt Gingrich, Orrin Hatch, and Eric Cantor have appeared on numerous talk shows and panel discussions citing studies from a “non-partisan” think tank which show that a public healthcare option would result in 103 Million Americans losing their insurance.  Of course, none of the dopey “liberal journalists” who host those shows did any research on the veracity of their claim or the connections of the think tank.  They just let the Republicans spout off the numbers without any critical analysis.  Welcome to TV news in 2009.

Along came The Washington Post with a story identifying a few interesting factors to frame the claims from The Lewin Group and the Republicans.

More specifically, the Lewin Group is part of Ingenix, a UnitedHealth subsidiary that was accused by the New York attorney general and the American Medical Association, a physician’s group, of helping insurers shift medical expenses to consumers by distributing skewed data. Ingenix supplied its parent company and other insurers with data that allegedly understated the “usual and customary” doctor fees that insurers use to determine how much they will reimburse consumers for out-of-networkcare.

Next up,  Rachel Maddow did some digging and had this to say about the Republican cited “non-partisan thinktank“.

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Yes, the Lewin Group is “non-partisan” if by “non-partisan” you mean wholly funded, subsidized and managed by United Healthcare, the second largest private insurance group in America.

The Lewin Group is an Ingenix company.  Ingenix, a wholly-owned subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, was founded in 1996 to develop, acquire and integrate the world’s best-in-class health care information technology capabilities

As mentioned in the WaPo story and the Maddow segment, Ingenix and United Healthcare were at the center of an investigation by NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo’s investigation concerned allegations that the Ingenix database intentionally skewed “usual and customary” rates downward through faulty data collection, poor pooling procedures, and the lack of audits.  That means many consumers were forced to pay more than they should have.  The investigation found the rate of underpayment by insurers ranged from ten to twenty-eight percent for various medical services across the state.  The Attorney General found that having a health insurer determine the “usual and customary” rate – a large portion of which the insurer then reimburses – creates an incentive for the insurer to manipulate the rate downward.

While the actions taken by Cuomo were necessary to reform a system which intentionally defrauded patients and doctors, Republicans and Libertarians will no doubt claim it was just New York and big government getting between you and your Doctor and “meddling in the free market”.

The fact that Ingenix and The Lewin Group are cited as policy experts and/or non-partisan in any debate after Cuomo’s investigation and settlement defies the bounds of logic.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have an honest discussion about the costs and benefits of public healthcare policy without disingeuous talking points and intentional fraud?

Irony & Disingenuousness from Electoral Parasites

30 Jul
Thinks good government is for pussies

Tony Orsini. Statesman. Power broker.

Any of you heard of Ford Beckwith?  I’m loath to link, but he obliged in this comment to my earlier post addressed to fellow WNYMer Rus Thompson.  Beckwith is a member of the local version of something called the “Independence Party”.  That party, whose existence can be attributed to (a) fusion voting; (b) patronage; (c) failure; and (d) shame, has been led by Tony Orsini, and now is controlled by Steve Pigeon.  Beckwith is part of a breakaway faction of local IP members who are perpetually going to court to basically fight with the Pigeon branch over who gets to run the asylum.  It is the poster child for why electoral fusion is an objectively worthless way for some little people to pretend they’re important.

The Independence Party is an electoral parasite.

So, this comment from Beckwith was especially hilarious (but I don’t know if it could be considered “harrasitory“):

Alen, your posts are so liberal that it makes me sick. The Demon-crats have destroyed our state for a few bucks in their own pockets and when Rus exposes them for who they are, you and the rest of the liberals cry over it. Your most recent post says it all. Quit crying and deal with it. I can only imagine if you had actually gotten elected that you would have gladly signed onto all the tax/fee increases your party has thrust upon us. its obvious that is who you really are!

My response:

Alen, your posts are so liberal that it makes me sick.

Who’s Alen?

The Demon-crats have destroyed our state for a few bucks in their own pockets and when Rus exposes them for who they are, you and the rest of the liberals cry over it.

Actually, all of the politicians in Albany have done this.  Democrats don’t have a monopoly on bad governance, waste, or bad Albany behavior.  But since you’re evidently a zealot, you don’t really care about your own side’s malfeasance.  Hence, the jejune use of terms like “Demon-crats”.

Your most recent post says it all. Quit crying and deal with it.

Actually, you’re evidently the one who should stop “crying and deal with it”.

I can only imagine if you had actually gotten elected that you would have gladly signed onto all the tax/fee increases your party has thrust upon us. its obvious that is who you really are!

Oh, tell us more about your imagination, silly little man.

Incidentally, Mr. Beckwith, you’re a member of the Independence Party – you know, that piece of shit that “endorses” candidates who are registered with major parties in an effort to make sure certain people get certain jobs.  I detest electoral fusion and I especially detest the despicable Independence Party and just about everyone associated with its alleged “leadership”.

Your group endorsed Byron Brown, Bob Reynolds, and Dan Kozub?  Whose jobs are being protected with those endorsements?  I guess those “demon-crats” aren’t that bad after all.

For you to get all high-and-mighty about good government while trying to wrest control of a patronage pay-for-play mill like the IP is the height of disingenuous arrogance.

You lose.

Postscript: If you don’t think the IP is a cesspool, I have two words for you:  Chuck. Swanick.

The LMSU Channel

29 Jul

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It stands for “let’s make stuff up”.

Buffalo Mayor: Gravitas Optional

29 Jul

For decades, Buffalo’s mayors have ranged from uninspired to downright incompetent.

Buffalo's Mayors

Jimmy Griffin: definitely motivated, if a poor decision maker. Anthony Masiello: melting vanilla ice cream. Byron Brown: ehhhhhhhh. Unfortunately, Mickey Kearns wouldn’t fare well on this scale either.

Reading stories this week about Brown’s play-for-pay scam, our collective resignation to it (as voiced by Donn Esmonde), and the FAILed mayoral campaign this year, I am weary that Buffalo will ever see a great mayor ever again (if we ever had one – who do you pick from this list?)

Which got me to thinking . . . if there will never be a great mayor of Buffalo in my lifetime, is that a problem? Some cities have obviously been lifted up by the bootstraps by the sheer force of will of their mayors. Giuliani and Bloomberg in New York. Oscar Goodman in Las Vegas. Waves of Daley’s in Chicago. Other cities, like Dallas, Seattle, Tampa, Portland, etc etc seem to be booming just fine with average political leadership.

In Buffalo, our political leaders argue about chicken coops on the West Side and slaughterhouses on the East Side, returning cars to one block sections of road, and the opening of Dollar General stores. Even our “scandals” never reach Kwame Kilpatrick magnitude – a couple hundred thousand bucks to a failed restaurant and a $30,000 kick-back to political supporters for a housing development are Elkhart, Indiana sized problems. The problem with Byron Brown is not that’s he’s bad . . . it’s that he’s not good. On the big stuff – historic preservation, the Seneca Casino, brownfield redevelopment – he’s in line. On the second tier stuff – smartcode upgrades, Citistat FAIL, a terrible hotel on the waterfront – he needs work. On the stuff that grabs the headlines – redlight cameras – I could care less. He even fights with unions sometimes, which is always a good thing.

But he has no plan, no vision, no ideas. Its just an even keel, and the boat doesn’t get rocked. Is that a problem? Can Buffalo prosper on mediocre leadership that first does no harm? Is there a great Buffalo mayor on the way, that I don’t see? Would Hoyt or Higgins add any more gravitas? Or do we need a Buffalo version of Chicago’s Daley to really get us moving? I hope the answer is no, because I don’t see it coming.

Having Fun Storming the Castle

29 Jul
When you try your best but you dont succeed

When you try your best but you don't succeed

If there’s one thing that most people can agree on, it’s that New York State government is an ineffective disaster of a horror show.

There may soon be something we can all do about it.  The state’s current constitution was adopted and passed by referendum in 1938.  Changing it isn’t that hard and is already built-in to the document.

Under Article 19 of the New York State Constitution,

§2. At the general election to be held in the year nineteen hundred fifty-seven, and every twentieth year thereafter, and also at such times as the legislature may by law provide, the question “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?” shall be submitted to and decided by the electors of the state; and in case a majority of the electors voting thereon shall decide in favor of a convention for such purpose, the electors of every senate district of the state, as then organized, shall elect three delegates at the next ensuing general election, and the electors of the state voting at the same election shall elect fifteen delegates-at-large. The delegates so elected shall convene at the capitol on the first Tuesday of April next ensuing after their election, and shall continue their session until the business of such convention shall have been completed. Every delegate shall receive for his or her services the same compensation as shall then be annually payable to the members of the assembly and be reimbursed for actual traveling expenses, while the convention is in session, to the extent that a member of the assembly would then be entitled thereto in the case of a session of the legislature. A majority of the convention shall constitute a quorum for the transaction of business, and no amendment to the constitution shall be submitted for approval to the electors as hereinafter provided, unless by the assent of a majority of all the delegates elected to the convention, the ayes and noes being entered on the journal to be kept. The convention shall have the power to appoint such officers, employees and assistants as it may deem necessary, and fix their compensation and to provide for the printing of its documents, journal, proceedings and other expenses of said convention. The convention shall determine the rules of its own proceedings, choose its own officers, and be the judge of the election, returns and qualifications of its members. In case of a vacancy, by death, resignation or other cause, of any district delegate elected to the convention, such vacancy shall be filled by a vote of the remaining delegates representing the district in which such vacancy occurs. If such vacancy occurs in the office of a delegate-at-large, such vacancy shall be filled by a vote of the remaining delegates-at-large. Any proposed constitution or constitutional amendment which shall have been adopted by such convention, shall be submitted to a vote of the electors of the state at the time and in the manner provided by such convention, at an election which shall be held not less than six weeks after the adjournment of such convention. Upon the approval of such constitution or constitutional amendments, in the manner provided in the last preceding section, such constitution or constitutional amendment, shall go into effect on the first day of January next after such approval. (Formerly §2 of Art. 14. Renumbered and amended by Constitutional Convention of 1938 and approved by vote of the people November 8, 1938; further amended by vote of the people November 6, 2001.)

I guess we blew it in 1997.

But the legislature, to the extent it’s not completely tone-deaf, could propose this for vote in November of this year.

And then what?

I believe that a nonpartisan, statewide movement needs to be formed under the leadership of someone who has credibility on the issue and knows what they’re talking about.  Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi comes to mind.  We all know who’s going to oppose this.  What we need to do is come up with a list of five or ten reforms that all New Yorkers can agree on.

Nonpartisan redistricting? Unicameral, nonpartisan legislature?  Stringent rules on lobbying, and aggressive enforcement thereof?  Medicaid reform? Implementation of Brennan Center proposals for legislative procedural reform?  Some autonomy for New York City?

If a simple platform could be agreed-upon, and wasn’t infused with partisan nonsense, I think that this could have a shot.  Even against the special interests.  Like I said: well-organized, good messaging, with grassroots support.  The wild card would be funding.  Enough funding to help combat the millions of dollars that the usual suspects will spend to kill this.

But comprehensive and fundamental constitutional reform is probably the best chance this state (outside the tri-state area) has to become even remotely competitive again.

NB: Also see Harding’s post here

Frum to RepubliCons: Quit Whining!

29 Jul

Whether you agree with Frum’s underlying premise or not, this is truth:

It is also to act and look like sore losers. If America has been sliding gently but irresistibly into soft despotism, where were all the valiant defenders of liberty before November of 2008? Soft despotism begins to look less like a profound sociological trend, more like undulations of the sine curve: It’s despotism when we lose, freedom when we win. We should have more confidence in the people and the country than this. We should also have more charity to our political opponents – who after all are contending with hideous problems bequeathed to them by … by … well suddenly we Republicans cannot seem to remember who preceded Barack Obama in office. To listen to us, you’d think that the bailouts and takeovers started on January 20, 2009, not the previous March. You’d never know that TARP was supported by almost every Republican commentator, including the editors of National Review. Or that Vice President Cheney argued urgently in favor of the rescue of the Detroit automakers. Or that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac enjoyed the backing of Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers.

One bad election converts us from ardent admirers of the American people to glum declinists who can see only a miserable moldering of a once great nation. I should have thought that conservative patriotism was made of stronger stuff.