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A Tuesday For the Books

Filed under: Local Politics
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Eligible WNY Voter

Antoine Loses: Faith in Humanity Restored

Crystal Peoples-Stokes easily halted Antoine Thompson’s effort to go back to Albany, this time as an Assemblyman. That’s enough, Antoine. You had your chance and the power and prestige went to your head. There’s plenty of other ways to help the community – including, but not limited to, just getting a job and paying your taxes.

Tim Kennedy Wins Handily

Tim Kennedy also defeated Betty Jean Grant. This is, to me, a shame because Tim Kennedy is a sellout. He sold out the Democrats and his constituents when he cut a deal with Steve Pigeon and Chris Collins to hand over a Democratic legislature to the Republicans. He sold out to further his own political career – to replace Bill Stachowski in the state Senate. He out-spent Betty Jean by a huge margin, and she simply couldn’t raise the money to get the word out against someone who was, this time, ready for her.  Kennedy ran on legislation to strengthen child abuse laws, and securing some back-office jobs for our Bangalore-on-the-Lake. One thing is for sure – Betty Jean can go to sleep every night secure in the knowledge that she’s no sellout. 

Tea Party Finally Gets Grisanti

Oh, you tea party. You got a huge victory last night! You finally got rid of Mark Grisanti. Your disgust for him began when he voted for same-sex marriage – you still bring it up today. The SAFE Act vote mobilized you, because guns > gays for you; guns are your common denominator. Congratulations! I saw sponsored posts in my Facebook timeline from Rus Thompson’s extremist “Tea NY” and from former GOP challenger against Brian Higgins, Mike Madigan.  The visceral hatred that the right wing has for Grisanti finally manifested itself in an electoral victory – they got Kevin Stocker.  On the other side, we have Marc Panepinto, a Democratic activist and personal injury lawyer. The district in question is predominately Democratic and people with Italian surnames tend to do well in that district.

But here’s one possibility: Grisanti and Panepinto are both lawyers. Wouldn’t it be funny if Panepinto dropped out, Grisanti switched to the Democratic Party and was appointed to replace Panepinto on the Democratic ballot in November? Panepinto would have to run for Supreme Court somewhere – anywhere in the state. This is a thing that can happen. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the tea party spent all this time and effort just to expel Grisanti from the GOP and have him win in November as a Democrat? 

Teachout’s 35%

Cuomo and Hochul easily defeated Teachout and Wu, which is no surprise. What was a surprise was the fact that Teachout earned about 35% of the statewide vote with almost no money, very little name recognition, and a pretty short race. Hopefully a message was sent to the Governor’s mansion about the importance of fighting corruption. Or maybe not. Maybe we should shut up because of the Buffalo billion and other stuff, and just be satisfied with what we have. What difference does it make if the state is still run like it’s 1953? Shut up, you. 

Tea Party Didn’t Back Gia

Robert Ortt easily defeated on-again, off-again candidate Gia Arnold. Arnold’s entire campaign centered around getting rid of George Maziarz. Once Maziarz announced he wasn’t running again, he stole a ton of her thunder and she was stuck becoming a silly kid, talking about guns, guns, and guns, going so far as to wear a clip as a prop jewelry. In the end, Ortt was the serious and credible Republican guy, and he won handily. 

Mazurek Defeats Brandon

It should come as no surprise that the guy with the Polish name came out ahead in what was once Gabryszak’s Cheektowaga/Sloan district. 

Pegulas Buy Bills

All of this political nonsense was overshadowed by the palpable civic sign of relief when it was confirmed that the Pegula family had won the bidding war to buy the Bills. Not only is the uncertainty over the Bills staying in WNY over for the foreseeable future, but the team can now begin its second chapter in earnest. What amazing news. 

Shredd & Ragan Will Not Be Intimidated

I called in to Shredd & Ragan’s show on 103.3 WEDG Tuesday morning at 7am.  When they asked me something about guns and the SAFE Act, I accidentally said, “I don’t give a shit about guns”, forgetting in my uncaffeinated haze that I was on terrestrial radio and not a podcast. A thousand apologies for that. 

But what would you say if you knew that someone attempted to intimidate WEDG into not having me on the air? 

On Monday around lunchtime, I posted my standard September primary endorsement post, and noted at its conclusion that I’d be appearing on Shredd & Ragan’s show at 7am Tuesday morning. 

After my appearance on WEDG, I spoke with a few people who work behind the scenes for Shredd & Ragan’s show. It turns out that one particularly noxious politically connected individual had contacted the station about my upcoming appearance. This poor creature started out almost eerily polite, explaining that he or she was a friend of the show,  calling as a courtesy to advise them that – now, they’re not threatening anyone – but that I was “under investigation” by a “team of lawyers” and that WEDG – and anyone who gives me a “platform” might be held responsible if I said something slanderous. To say this is completely bizarre, outrageous,  and uncalled-for is an understatement. 

To their credit, the people at WEDG would not be intimidated into keeping me off the air, and directed this complainant to contact the station’s legal department if there were any further issues. 

I’m not altogether sure that the public figure who called the station wants to litigate his or her reputation, but empty threats and petty bullying will not intimidate me into shutting up. 


Election Day 2013

This is it. Some of the races being decided today began way back in February. Sergio Rodriguez, the 33 year-old Marine running for Mayor of Buffalo on the Republican and Progressive Party lines announced on February 6th. He’s worked hard, and his candidacy has transcended partisanship and honed in on issues that affect every resident of the city of Buffalo. 

I don’t expect too many surprises today. There are a handful of close races, from what I hear, but it’s up to you now to go out and cast a vote for the candidates whom you support. 

Yesterday, Chris Smith, Brad Riter, and I had great fun recording an hourlong podcast discussing this year’s election cycle and WNY politics in general. As you might expect, it’s as profane as it is funny, so all you delicate flowers who were shocked by this post will want to stay away. The rest of you will likely enjoy it. 

http://www.trendingbuffalo.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/TB11-04-13electionday1.mp3

My recommendations (not Artvoice’s – just mine) for today’s election are: 

BUFFALO MAYOR:  SERGIO RODRIGUEZ (R)

COUNTY COMPTROLLER:  KEVIN GAUGHAN (D)

COUNTY SHERIFF:  DICK DOBSON (D)

ERIE COUNTY LEGISLATURE:  

DISTRICT 1: TIM HOGUES (WFP)

DISTRICT 2: BETTY JEAN GRANT (D)

DISTRICT 3: LYNN MARINELLI  (D)

DISTRICT 4: BILL CONRAD (D)

DISTRICT 5: TOM LOUGHRAN (D)

DISTRICT 6: ALAN GETTER (D)

DISTRICT 7: PAT BURKE (D)

DISTRICT 8: WYNNIE FISHER (D)

DISTRICT 9: MIKE SCHRAFT (D)

DISTRICT 10 & 11: NO ENDORSEMENT

AMHERST SUPERVISOR: MARK MANNA (D)

CLARENCE TOWN BOARD: PAT CASILIO (R), TRACY FRANCISCO (D)

NORTH TONAWANDA TOWN ATTORNEY: JOSH DUBS (D)

ALL PROPOSITIONS: VOTE YES

Whichever way you vote, please make sure you do. Polls are open 6am – 9pm in Erie County.

I’ll post reactions tonight on Twitter, and follow the #WNYVotes hashtag. 






Vote “YES” For the Clarence School Budget on May 21st

Filed under: Activism
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Of all places, Clarence has become the tea party battleground over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s property tax cap. An outside, ultraconservative, anti-government lobbying group is using Clarence as a test case to try and defeat school districts’ efforts to pass budgets that will maintain school services. Its propaganda is downright Orwellian in style and content.

On Tuesday May 21st, Clarence voters will go to the polls to vote on the 2013-14 school budget. Turnout is especially important, because it needs a 60% margin to pass. Luckily, most Clarence residents know the importance that the school system has to the town’s identity and growth. Under the proposed budget, a home with $100,000 assessed value will pay about an additional $11 per month. Note that seniors qualify for the enhanced STAR exemption, which exempts the first $63,300 of property valuation from property taxation, easing their overall property tax burden.

Last week, I uncovered the fact that a local leader of the Koch brothers’ astroturf group, “Americans for Prosperity” claimed responsibility for the slick ads urging every Clarence household to vote “no” on the school budget.

For the uninitiated, “astroturfing” is a propaganda effort that is designed to obscure or mask who’s behind it, in order to give off the appearance that it comes from a disinterested, grassroots participant. Through astroturfing, the false sheen of grassroots independence lends credibility to statements made.

In other words, astroturfing is legalized deception used to alter or bring about a specific political outcome. The current edition of the Clarence Bee has a story about it, quoting AFP’s local contact thusly,

…the reason she and others associated with the flier chose to remain anonymous is because many of them have children enrolled in Clarence schools and are concerned about backlash. The reason she agreed to be interviewed was because her name was already out in the open.

Unable to provide details on the funding for the mailers, she said that Citizens for Sustainable Schools is not affiliated with Americans for Prosperity and hopes that the fliers will focus attention on the district’s finances.

Anonymity is the right to be free from accountability. If you won’t publicly stand by your position, what good is it?

While the AFP and its local member deny that AFP funded and produced the mailers, the facts don’t bear that out. The AFP’s Long Island HQ had immediate access to information concerning the local activist claiming responsibility for the mailers. It’s all a construct aimed to keep people in the dark about the outside influence.

At least when the state teachers’ union NYSUT speaks up, NYSUT has the courage to identify itself.

From a perspective of fiscal conservatism, it makes absolutely no sense for the AFP – or a resident – to propagandize for the rejection of a school budget hike of about $11/month for every $100k of assessed value in a very school-oriented town, while likely spending tens of thousands of dollars on slick mailers to every town household, and a shiny full-color, 4-page insert in this week’s Bee.

Those mailers and the accompanying website are professionally done, not the sort of haphazard stuff our local, genuinely grassroots tea party groups come up with. The language they use is as slick as the paper they’re printed on. This entire effort – the language, the quality of the mailers, the timing of the issuance of these materials – underscores that a larger, wealthier organization is attempting to use Clarence as a test case to combat any effort to raise school taxes above the Cuomo cap.

So, I think you’re being lied to.

The reason why AFP’s “local grassroots activist” is “unable to provide details on the funding for the mailers,” has to do with the fact that the funding comes from outside the area and is inconvenient for her. “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” isn’t “affiliated with Americans for Prosperity” because “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” doesn’t exist and tried to keep its AFP association a secret.

Turning now to the merits of the debate – outside influence and money notwithstanding, local people who are upset over the increase have presented valid concerns.

Here are the facts:

1. Even with the proposed increase, school taxes are down overallIf the proposed school budget is passed with a 9.8% increase, the Clarence school tax rate will rise to $15.52/$1000. That is lower than 2007 ($15.86/$1000), and over a dollar per $1000 lower than they were in 2003 ($16.85/$1000). In the last 4 years Clarence School District has lost over $13 million in state and federal aid.

2. Clarence Schools are noted for their efficiency and excellence

Business First ranks the Clarence Central School District as the second best in WNY. It is 93rd out of 98 in per pupil spending, and 92nd out of 98 in cost effectiveness. 92% of Clarence HS graduates attend college.

3. Clarence Central School District has cut jobs

The 2011-13 budgets reduced 60 full time employees. The 2013 – 14 budget reduces another 24. It is a lean and efficient organization.

4. What your YES vote means

– Keeping our music teachers, choruses, orchestras, and bands.
– Keeping music instruction in the high school.
– We won’t just offer kids the bare minimum music curriculum mandated by the state.
– Keeping AP classes and electives.
– Keeping athletic programs at their current levels. Keeping nurses in the schools. Maintaining property values.

Rebutting the opponents’ points and questions:

1. Why don’t the teachers contribute more towards their health care? That would eliminate the gap!

Clarence teachers contribute 8% towards their health care now, and that will increase to 10% in 2014-15. That contribution rate is on par with the average for school districts in WNY. In the contract negotiated in 2012, the teachers agreed to contribute more toward health care over the length of the contract. Some argue that even this is not enough, but under the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, existing contract terms and conditions remain in place after the expiration of the contract, unless a successor agreement changes those terms. The Taylor Law makes it very difficult to get large concessions in a single contract bargaining cycle. The district has the objective of continuing to press for more contribution to health care, but it has to happen incrementally over multiple contracts. A contract cannot be reopened without the agreement of both sides and even if it could be reopened, the Taylor Law keeps all terms in place until both sides agree on changes. The administrators have agreed to two salary freezes in the last three years. They also agreed to contribute to their health care in the contract settled this year.

Some argue that the union has made no concessions, but that is not true. The union agreed to a lower salary increase this year than would have been in place under the Taylor Law – the first time that has occurred in Clarence. Three years ago, teachers, administrators, and service employees agreed to enter into a self-funded health care system, which is the most cost effective way for the school district to provide health care benefits, saving the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It is not accurate to claim that if teachers and administrators contributed 25% to health care that the deficit would be closed. We began this year with a $6.5 million deficit. Even if teachers and administrators paid 50% toward health care it would not close that gap.

2. Why not just cut more from the administrative side?

It bears repeating that Clarence has been ranked as the 6th most efficient school district in terms of administrative functioning. A central office administrative position was cut last year, which should further enhance the Business First efficiency ranking. The central office has fewer administrative personnel than any other comparable district in the area, and is not overstaffed.

3. The District should offer an incentive for higher-paid, older teachers to retire!

The District attempted to negotiate a retirement incentive with the Clarence Teachers Association, but an agreement that would have reduced the deficit could not be reached.

4. The District is spendthrift, with a 50% increase per pupil over the last 10 years!

New York State does not calculate per pupil spending by simply dividing the budget by the number of students.

– General Education Spending: Clarence: $8,493 per pupil, Similar Schools Group: $12,377 per pupil
– Special Education Spending: Clarence: $15,192 per pupil, Similar Schools Group: $35,924 per pupil
– Total Expenditures: Clarence: $14,551, Similar Schools Group: $22,962
– Budget expenditures have increased over the last 10 years, especially with respect to benefit costs. Clarence is tightly budgeted and when compared to similar schools and based on the NYS average, Clarence is more efficient.
 
UPDATE: 5. Median School Tax Bill in Clarence is much higher than Williamsville!

The AFP flyer in the Bee used this argument. There are many more million dollar homes in Clarence than in Williamsville, so by using the median they basically compared taxes on a $400,000+ home in Clarence to a $200,000 home in Williamsville.  For the real tax information look at the facts from Erie County: Click here to view Erie County’s Real Property Tax Rates

6. Enrollment has dropped and the District hasn’t adjusted for this.

Enrollment has dropped 9% since 2007. Almost all of that drop (288 kids) has happened at the elementary level, and the district has reduced 15 elementary teachers over the past three years, accounting for that decline.  In fact, at an average class size of 23 students, the 15 teachers would account for a decline of 354 kids – so it is not accurate to state that the District has not made adjustments to declining enrollment.  It is not possible to close an elementary school at this time, and elementary enrollment would have to drop to approximately 1800 before closing a school could be considered – this year’s figure was 2,051. The elementary enrollment drop is projected to stabilize in 2016-17 at around 1,900 kids.  The middle school will start to decline in 2015-16 and the high school will remain relatively steady for the next 5 years.  It is not accurate to say the district has not adjusted for enrollment decline.  

7. Wages and Benefits are growing at Unsustainable Rates.  

Pension and health care costs have gone up exponentially over the past 10 years.  Pension costs are established by the State Comptroller and TRS Board – they are based on a state constitutional funding level and are highly influenced by stock market investment.  The school district and state municipal governments have no control over them.  There is a 5-year average of investment income for pension costs and the stock market crash of 2008 is still being factored into the total.  It will be that way for one more year and then the pension costs will begin to come down. Last year, there was a new tier added to the pension system that contained costs for all new members.  10 years ago pensions were 0.36 of payroll, next year it is 16.25% of payroll.  That is a 451% increase in 10 years.  It accounts for a big portion of the budget costs.  This is an issue to take up with the State Comptroller and TRS board.  Anyone promising to fix it at a school board/school budget level doesn’t understand their limitations.        

School Board Election: DePasquale and Andrews

As the signs on lawns indicate, there’s a school board election on Tuesday, as well. A large slate of candidates are competing to fill two empty slots. The well-funded forces opposed to school excellence have identified two candidates, whose absurdly large lawn signs litter the town. I asked Brendan Biddlecom of Keep Clarence Schools Great about the school board candidates, and he noted that the large number of candidates threatens to split the pro-school vote. (Note: this is what a real grassroots website looks like – a Google site and online petitions).

To that end, candidate Matt Stock yesterday withdrew from the race, noting the, “abundance of candidates who share my concerns about the preserving the well-being of the district. In an ordinary election, this would be a great thing. Unfortunately, this year we also have two candidates who do not share my views, or the views of other pro-education candidates”. Stock added, “[t]here is also an unprecedented amount of outside money attempting to negatively influence the election. These two factors mean that there is a real risk of ‘splitting the vote’ and having candidates elected that do not have the support of the majority of voters”

Keep Clarence Schools Great has gone one step further and formally endorsed the candidacies of Tricia Andrews and Joe DePasquale for the school board. In his withdrawal letter, Stock endorsed them, as well. Noting the unique situation this year, Biddlecom wrote that, “for the last three years, the school system has been under a steady assault, and now we’ve reached the breaking point. An overly conservative financial management strategy exhausted reserves and helped create the situation we’re in now.”

By coalescing support behind two pro-school candidates; DePasquale works in IT and volunteers with the little league football league, and his wife is a teacher. Andrews is a former teacher who has been active with the Harris Hill PTO for the last seven years, and has served as its president for three. As Biddlecom once told the Bee, “I think we need to move beyond this sense of self-preservation and look at the schools as being part of the fabric of our community and understand that even if you’re going to look at it again through a completely self-interested perspective, having quality schools should be a concern of yours.”

There is no slippery slope argument at hand, or indication that this is the start of endless cap-busting tax hikes year after year. This is a one-shot deal that’s needed to get the school’s fiscal house back in order. Please vote YES on Tuesday May 21st at the High School Gymnasium. Turn-out is critical. Please make sure you go, and make sure your friends and neighbors don’t forget, either.


Election Day 2012

Please go out and vote today. While it’s true that New York’s electoral vote outcome is firmly in Obama’s corner, there are many very important downballot races that really need your vote – your support, your minimal effort as a citizen to spend a bit of your day at your polling place to help select how you will be governed over the next term of office. I have seen election days in countries where the choices were non-existent and pre-determined as part of an institutional dictatorship. I have seen election days in countries where the choices were for political parties more than they were for people. We as Americans don’t have a perfect electoral process, but it’s the only one we have right now. 

It’s a common refrain from political junkies like I to lecture you on your civic duty of voting. It’s more than that. You really don’t have very many duties as a citizen of this nation, except to pay taxes and obey the law. Voting is one of those unique and fundamental rights that you hold to help choose the direction of your town, city, state, and country. It’s a right that millions around the world do not have. It’s a right that has been kept away from American women, different races, and ethnicities throughout our history. You probably attend July 4th parades, firehall picnics, fireworks displays, and the like to join in our occasional totemic displays of patriotism. All of that is window-dressing. Going out to vote; taking that minimal time to make your most solemn voice – your political voice – to be heard is the real thing.

If you truly think the President is a disaster, you need to go vote for one of his opponents. If you think that your Assemblyperson, your State Senator, or your United States Senator is doing a good or bad job, you need to fill in an oval on a piece of paper, scan it, and tell them. 

My endorsements, again are here. They are:

Barack Obama (D-POTUS)(incumbent)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-US Senate)(incumbent)
Brian Higgins (D-NY26)(incumbent)
Kathy Hochul (D-NY27)(incumbent)
Mike Amodeo (D-SD60)
Justin Rooney (D-SD61)
Ray Walter (R-A146)(incumbent)
Christina Abt (I-A147)

Incidentally, although I made no endorsement, I voted David Shenk for County Comptroller. Given the choice between marginally qualified town finance nerd and wholly unqualified former sensational journalist, I opted for the former. 

If you have a sense of humor and you’re not offended by curse words, you can humorously find your polling place here.  If you want to find it in a way that’s more safe for work, try this. Every state is different, but polls throughout New York State are open from 6am – 9pm. If you’re in a different state, please consult this list

Tonight, I will join others to report on and live-Tweet the reactions and results of this election using the Twitter hashtag #WNYVotes. I leave you with President Obama’s closing argument, and the last political campaign speech he will ever give, delivered last night in Des Moines, Iowa, where his road to the Presidency began in earnest in 2007. 

Go vote.