Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Emperor Andrew and his new clothes

North Country Public Radio's In Box blog did a piece entitled 'Voters slap down four school budgets that bust prop[erty] tax cap.' That title is misleading because in at least one of them, the budget was approved by a majority of voters, but not the arbitrary 60% required under the new law for any proposed increase above the artificial tax cap (generally seen as 2% but other factors can make it vary).

This has been a pet peeve of mine. School budgets are the only taxes people get to vote on, at least in New York. As the only tax approved by direct democracy, imposing an arbitrary supermajority requirement seems particularly unfair.

But the real problem is how Governor Andrew Cuomo has shamefully broken his promise twin the tax cap with much needed mandate relief for schools, counties and municipalities.So basically he's told these entities: we're going to micromanage everything you have to do but we're going to make it as difficult as possible to raise enough revenue to do all those things we impose on you without your consent.

I suggest a different kind of cap. If the state mandated part of a school district's budget rises by more than 2% - the part that Albany has total control of and the districts zero - then the state should pay the difference. This might make Albany think a little more carefully before imposing every mandate under the sun. A little accountability would be nice.

But this is Albany. If there were any accountability in the place, Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver would be out on his can for *repeatedly* aiding and abetting sexual predators, using our tax money to do so. So localities shouldn't expect a fair shake anytime soon.

Cuomo is big on lecturing lower levels of government. He wags his finger at others on how all they have to do is make 'tough decisions' and things will be hunky dory... even though a huge number of the decisions are imposed on them by Cuomo himself and his minions. A typical county budget in New York has 80-90% of its expenses mandated by the state; its actual flexibility is minimal.

But Emperor Andrew's real sham is the elaborate shell games he likes to play precisely so he himself can avoid making tough decisions. The vaunted tax cap is a great example. He didn't do a darn thing. This doesn't require him to make a single tough decision. The law just tells other people what to do, people who had nothing to do with passing the law, and makes them pick up the pieces.

The law ties the hands of lower levels of government so Cuomo can puff his chest and say "I kept taxes in check"... while avoiding having the make the tough decisions involved with paring down mandates. The mandate part, he passed of to some commission years ago and we've heard virtually nothing since.

This way, the counties, municipalities and school districts who will take the heat for laying off staff and cutting programs while Emperor Andrew keeps himself above the fray and pontificates on tough decisions... the kind he's too gutless to make himself.

Cuomo is a master at doing nothing, passing the buck and portraying it as progress. His latest shell game has to do with tax-free zones, similar to the discredited Empire Zone scam. The idea is that if new businesses set up in towns with a state university campus, they can get tax-free status for up to a decade.

Emperor Andrew is a very smart politician. He proposes things like this and the tax cap which sound great, so long as you don't look to carefully at some... something which he's counting on most people not done.

But for the tax-free zone plan, more than likely, taxes will actually INCREASE for most people in those places.

These new businesses will be apparently exempt from property taxes. Yet they will still be using the same public services like roads, snow removal and fire and police protection. The total cost of public services will remain the same, but with fewer property taxpayers (because of all the exemptions) to share that burden, those who actually are paying taxes will pay more.

The only way this could be avoided is for Albany to reimburse localities for the revenue lost from these tax-exempt businesses.

And that's about as likely to happen as a wave of honesty and good governance to break out in the Capitol.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Run North Country schools like a business... and police and prisons too!

"When I give food to the poor, I'm called a saint. When I ask why they are poor, I'm called a communist." -Archbishop Dom Helder Camara.

At North Country Public Radio's In Box blog, reporter Brian Mann wonders if we are 'cutting our North Country schools to death?'

Predictably, it provoked comments of relief that schools are finally being run like businesses. A bit of a dubious claim, since schools are being suffocated by unfunded mandates from Albany and Washington far greater than businesses... to say nothing of the fact that the right to a public education is enumerated in the state constitution.

But while the idea that public services should be run identically to businesses strikes some as absurd, but I say let’s expand it beyond schools!

 If a sheriff’s department is short of cash, let them give out more tickets; I’m sure there’s some rarely enforced statute about covering your mouth when you sneeze that could bring in more revenue.

 If the corrections [sic] service has trouble meeting payroll, just release some prisoners. That’ll help them live within their means. Maybe police and fire departments should close at 5:00 or 9:00 pm, just like a regular business.

If you get robbed or your house burns down overnight, oh well just call in the morning. Maybe these men and women in uniform don’t need the 'luxury' of health care. That’d slash expenses significantly.

Maybe EMTs should make you pre-pay before splinting your broken leg, just like gas stations make you pre-pay.

Public services run exactly like businesses? Great idea! I’m sure you folks can come up with some more such innovations.

Monday, May 20, 2013

County Counting: Accuracy (if not openness) Counts at PostStar.com

by contributor Mark Wilson

Part of a series on the troubles at The Post-Star and its parent company Lee Enterprises.

Glens Falls Post-Star Editor Ken Tingley is having difficulty with arithmetic again. On PostStar.com last week, his Front Page blog post titled "Showing you is different than telling you" referred to "all 58 counties in the state" (NY). The post appeared Thursday afternoon. A reader comment pointing out the error Friday morning was never posted, and yet by noontime the error disappeared without a trace, replaced by the correct number (click image to enlarge).

As has been mentioned before in this series, the Post-Star and Mr. Tingley have an on-again-off-again relationship with professional journalism standards, particularly where online content is concerned. The About Us page at PostStar.com still promotes the newspaper as a "twenty-nine-thousand circulation, daily newspaper" even though the newspaper’s daily circulation dropped well below that level in 2010 (yet the same page has updated the awards the paper and its employees have received at least through 2011).

Of course this is not the first time Mr. Tingley has made mistakes on his blogs. He most famously twice used the term "proof readers" in a post (and comments) scolding commenters and letter writers for lax grammar. This, though, is the first instance we know of where a factual mistake was corrected after the fact without acknowledgement.

The level of professional journalism to which Mr. Tingley aspires has a low tolerance for ethical corner cutting. In its section devoted to accountability, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Code states: Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.*

Treatment of online errors is not a new issue to the profession. The American Society of News Editors addressed the subject in 2001.

In 2008 the Columbia Missourian devoted an entire blog to the topic, complete with historical context and a common sense comprehensive policy statement. It also addresses how severely the credibility of news organizations is damaged by lack of candor and transparency.

Three years ago, a commentary at the Columbia Journalism Review referred to an article at MediaBugs.org that advanced another set of common sense standards for correcting factual errors in online content, many of which had already been widely adopted throughout the industry.

None of the best practices advanced by journalism’s ethical watchdogs condone the sort of surreptitious content scrubbing that happened last week at PostStar.com.

For a newspaper that sells itself as a model of professional integrity and has built a reputation for shining light on less than transparent operations in public offices, the honorable and consistent recourse would be for Mr. Tingley and the Post-Star to adopt a firm set of online correction standards and post them prominently at PostStar.com. And then, of course, adhere to them.

Failing that, here are a few handy poses Mr. Tingley might strike while defending or explaining future lapses, should the question of New York State counties arise again:
The Global/Universal Posture: Its so hard to count them when they keep moving around—the constant rotating on the earth’s axis, and revolving around the sun. . .and don’t get us started on the ever-accelerating expansion of the universe!
The Hyperlocal Posture: Our news coverage is so close-to-home that we don’t give a hoot how many counties lie outside our circulation radius!
The Nativist Posture: We refuse to acknowledge the existence of Oswego, Otsego, Otisco and Otasco Counties until they give themselves English names!
The Where’s Waldo Posture: Dude, for a moment there we thought we were living in California.
The Taught-to-the-Test Posture: 58 out of 62 is 93.5%. We still get an "A."

Of course, when all else fails, there’s always the truth: Hey, I’m human. I made a mistake. I thought I knew a fact and I didn’t and I didn’t bother to have another editor read it before I sent it out over my name and under the Post-Star brand.

(Mark Wilson is an editorial cartoonist and illustrator living in Saranac Lake, NY. Since 1999 his work has appeared in news media across upstate New York, including, from 2000-2003, the Post-Star.)

*Note to readers: Links to charts and graphs from earlier postings in this series were broken in December 2012. They have been restored.