Archive for the 'Binghamton' Category

Put children’s lives before profits

Early this morning two pre-school aged children died in an apartment house fire a couple blocks from here. Local officials are investigating the possibility that arson was the cause of the fire. They should also be considering that cause of the deaths was a lack of adequate fire codes and inspections. The story of this building is typical of the sort of neglect that leads to such tragedies.

The building in question, 145 Floral Avenue in Johnson City, New York, is owned by K&L Estate Corporation of Monroe, New York located in Orange County just north of New York City. That corporation is in turn owned by 33-year old Usher Kahan, the son of Yudel Kahan who is the head of Churchill Corporation Services which describes itself as the largest owner of furnished apartments in the New York City and Northern New Jersey area. The younger Mr. Kahan bought the property in 2014 for $70,000 at which time its tax classification was changed from 411-apartment to 400-commercial. (I am awaiting an answer from the County as to the impact of that change.)

Built in 1960, the building has seven apartments: some two bedroom renting for $550 a month plus utilities, some three bedroom renting for $635 a month. The total number of bedrooms is 15 suggesting that total the monthly rental income is around $3,500 a month. Although current tax information on the property is not listed on the Broome County web site (why not?) the real estate listing when the property was sold says that they are about $3,700 a year. That means that Mr. Kahan is realizing a 55% return on his investment every year—before he depreciates it for tax purposes. So why is he not required to install sprinklers in the building?

The answer, quite simply, is that local officials have not seen fit to require them. The answer to why they have not is harder to understand. Rents in the Binghamton area are very high compared to the cost of apartment buildings making the sort of investment returns enjoyed by Mr. Kahan the rule rather than the exception. It is time that some of those profits go into providing safe housing for our citizens. Any time a multiple-family building is sold, it should be required to be brought up to current fire code as is the case in many communities across the country. And those fire codes should be updated to require sprinklers and to mandate annual inspections of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms—reports are that the alarms at 145 Floral Avenue did not function.

An arsonist may well have set the fire that damaged this building and left several families homeless. But it is corporate greed and governmental neglect that caused the deaths of these two innocent children. Our citizen deserve better.

Time to hang up the buggy whip

A century and a half ago Endicott was a couple hour buggy ride from Binghamton and Vestal, across the river, was even farther. Johnson City was an experiment in welfare capitalism protected from its neighbors by imposing arches. Communities like Port Dickinson were tucked away miles from the city. Today, the entire Susquehanna Valley from Conklin to the Tioga County line and hills above it are a single urban area. Yet we persist in the quaint notion of the “Triple Cities.” Not only does this cost us taxpayers millions in redundant government but it results in unfair disparities in taxation and government services. Furthermore, the proliferation of small government agencies makes it difficult to hire and maintain the sort of professional talent a city of our size needs. Fixing this will not be easy because it will threaten dozens of petty political fiefdoms and will require significant reform of local taxation. But it can be done and, if we wish the area to have any chance to recover from deindustrialization, it must be done.

As the recent attempt to merge the Chenango and Chenango Forks school districts showed, skewed tax rates present a major barrier to consolidation. In that case, the residents of one district paid significantly higher school taxes than those of the neighboring one and so refused to approve the merger. That, of course, makes no sense. Broome County has taken a small step toward solving this problem by collecting centrally the taxes levied by the various towns. The next really crucial step is to establish a single assessment system for the entire County followed by a complete reassessment by an independent firm. Initially, equalization rates would be adjusted to keep taxes unchanged but over a period of years those would be eliminated so that everyone in the county paid taxes at the same rate.

That having been done, there would no longer be any reason not to consolidate the dozen school districts in the County into a single one. The savings in administrative costs would be huge and the school system would be able to promote specialties—music, theater, science— in different schools giving students more choices of stronger programs at a lower overall cost to the community. And don’t worry, the high schools would retain their identities, their football teams, and their competitions.

The next big step would be to separate the urban and rural parts of the County under two governments: the City of Binghamton for the first and Broome County for the rest. Public safety and public works departments would be combined at those levels. Eliminating a dozen towns, two villages, and innumerable small agencies will save taxpayers additional millions. And making Binghamton a city of some 150,000 will make it eligible for additional federal programs and give us more clout in Albany. But this must be done without taking an unfair toll on those who work for us. Seniorities must be merged so that those from one town are not penalized compared to those from another.

Finally, we need to reform our governmental systems. The notion that an elected official can manage a city or a county is outdated. Most really well-run communities have adopted some form of city/county manager system where a professional administrator is hired by the elected officials to run governmental functions. This not only offers stability and continuity to government but it greatly reduces the opportunity for corruption.

The way forward for our community is to create a modern, world-class government that can attract and retain modern businesses. The canals are gone along with the horse and buggies. Why are we holding on to government suited to that time and not to our own?

Pot meet kettle, Facebook edition

8/5, 8:38pm

 Bob Kingsley

 Mr. Cotnoir:

Appreciate your comments on my article. After scanning your Facebook wall, it seems you’re no stranger to enjoying a bit of name calling, especially when it is a topic or individual of your objections. If all you could find was that single comment about calling King Andrew exactly what he pretends to be, given his want to flaunt the law, protocol and rules of the legislative process, then I guess I did a pretty good job quieting the liberal left you clearly represent. I only pray that next on Preet’s list is King Andy himself. Stay tuned and thanks again for reading.

 

8/6, 12:52pm

 Leo Cotnoir

Although I am a Democrat I am not a particular fan of Governor Cuomo. I voted for him because he was by far the better choice in the last election. Personally, I think that the DoJ should roll a few buses into Albany and haul the whole crowd to jail. But referring to the governor as "King Andy" does nothing to advance the dialog. And thanks for replying to my comment.

 

9/30, 4:57pm

 Bob Kingsley

Try putting some original thought out there instead of sniping.

 

9/30, 5:01pm

 Leo Cotnoir

If you don’t like what I write, don’t read it.

 

Today, 11:21am

 Bob Kingsley

Like I said, try original thought instead of sniping. All you do is criticize. Any A-hole can do that Leo, lets hear some ORIGINAL THOUGHT if you’re so freakin enlightened.

 

10/1, 11:23am

 Leo Cotnoir

Read my blog: moosemorsels.wordpress.com

 

10/1, 12:33pm

 Bob Kingsley

You use PressConnects to snipe, use it to express your ORIGINAL THOUGHTS. I’ll bet you can’t get it published because it lacks quality…..

 

10/1, 12:42pm

 Leo Cotnoir

I use Press Connects to correct right wing lies. That does not take an extended essay.

 

Today, 1:27pm

 Bob Kingsley

but I’m guessing your ORIGINAL WORK is unpublishable which means its only life is in your blog, right?

 

10/1, 3:16pm

 Leo Cotnoir

I’m guessing that you are an asshole sticking his nose into my business. In fact I have had letters published in the Press & Sun-Bulletin several times, in The New Yorker (twice), in The Washington Post, and in Aviation Week and Space technology (twice). I have also published in the Journal of the Optical Society of America, Laser Focus World, Applied Optics, Physics Review Letters, and several more. I anxiously await your bibliography.

 

10/1, 5:13pm

 Bob Kingsley

you lost me at asshole asshole, go fuck yourself I was civil until you brought it down so fuck off

 

 <blocks me, no loss>

The Southern Tier: Struggling but Proud

The Tuesday September 29 issue of the New York Times contains a piece by Albany Bureau chief Susanne Craig that paints an unfairly gloomy picture of the Binghamton area. Here is the email exchange I had with the author of the article:

 

Me: Instead of focusing your hatchet job on the benighted burgh of Conklin, perhaps you might have come into Binghamton and seen the revival taking place there. Just in the past few years dozens of restaurants have opened and thrived. Young people who graduate from Binghamton University are staying in the area and starting businesses. Instead you chose to highlight the gloom-and-doom in which old timers in the area wallow. In fact, the Southern Tier has hundreds of unfilled high-skill jobs because unfair negative reporting keeps people away. We in the Southern Tier deserve more than an occasional drive-by hit from the NY Times.

 

Her: Thanks for the note. I live upstate and have traveled extensively in the Southern, including Binghamton. Sadly, the numbers don’t support the rebirth. I am sure people are staying. However, the Southern Tier broadly is experiencing an exodus of people. And workers are not moving there. We write about job announcements in the area, the recent GE / Utica facility for example. I think it is also fair to look more broadly at the region, and its struggles.

 

Me: Numbers do not tell the whole story. The economy of the Binghamton area is in the midst of a transition from light manufacturing to the knowledge economy. Binghamton University is playing an ever greater role in the community both in terms of job creation and of cultural renewal. And one bright spot on the horizon for the Southern Tier is that the industry that we do have is far less dependent of Pentagon spending than that in many other areas. Furthermore, while people are moving from the Southern Tier, the population has not changed very much over the past twenty years. As someone who moved to Binghamton from the DC area in 2000, I can assure you that the area is much better today than it was then. And like most people I know who have moved here I am convinced that the biggest problem facing the area is the crushing negativity of the local natives. Albany won’t save Binghamton and neither will Washington. We need to help ourselves and that starts with a positive attitude. But we could use a bit of help from the statewide press. For example, there was a piece in yesterday’s Times about breweries in the Finger Lakes region but no mention of the four in the Binghamton area. Nor has there been any mention of the LUMA festival that brought more than 20,000 people to the streets of Binghamton earlier this month. Oh, and have you ever heard of the Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally in August? More than 100,000 other people did. The simple truth is that the NY Times has little interest in exploring what is really happening upstate beyond Duchess County. And more is the shame because we would really use an upstate edition of your paper.

Vox populi, vox demens

Letters to the editor in a local newspaper are, in a small way, the voice of the people—vox populi. And sometimes that voice is more than a bit crazy. Take, for example, a letter in today’s Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin about the forthcoming closure of the Broome Developmental Center. The author, who I shall leave unnamed, claims to be in the Human Services field but a two-minute session with a search engine reveals her to be a long-time secretary currently employed as a membership sales person at the YWCA. A worthy occupation to be sure, but hardly one that confers special insight into matter. But my real issue is not with her misrepresenting her background nor with her assertion that there is no plan in place to care for those displaced by the closure. On that she is spot on. No, my problem is with her assigning of blame for these problems. She says:

“This cut was made on the federal level to save money. Our country is already badly divided by our current presidential administration…Our country is more divided now by the President enforcing this law.”

Now, this woman claims to have a college degree. One would think that somewhere along the way, she would have learned that the president cannot spend any money not authorized and appropriated by Congress. And, since she wrote a letter to a newspaper, I assume that she has some passing familiarity with current affairs, to whit that the US Congress is controlled by the Republican Party and that the funding cuts she decries were enacted by Republican majority in the Congress. Her attempt to blame the closure of a local mental health facility on President Obama because he is “enforcing this law” is ludicrous. But she is right about one thing: the country is badly divided. That is not the fault of the current administration; it is the result of a concerted disinformation campaign by the right wing that leads people like her to write crazy letters to the editor.

The Horse is Dead Already….

When he ran for County Executive, I put up a lawn sign supporting Tarik Abdelazim. I have since come to regret doing so despite the incompetence of his opponent. His campaign against Binghamton Mayor Rich David’s attempt to convert an urban wasteland into a useful attractive, space is simply gratuitous politics. But that is of a piece with the unnecessary, divisive stunts he, I understand, talked former Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan into—the infamous war clock among them. It is not that we need not be aware of the cost of war but that it is not a city issue and certainly not worth the ill-will it generated. It is time for us Democrats to develop potential candidates who are willing to compromise and refrain from picking stupid fights. Mr. Abdelazim needs to be put on the shelf.

You can read Mr. Abdelazim’s latest temper tantrum at:

http://www.pressconnects.com/story/opinion/2015/08/27/guest-viewpoint-parking-project/71275000/

You can fool some of the people….

No one likes paying taxes but resentment fanned by misleading newspaper articles makes it even more unpleasant. A front page article in the Press & Sun-Bulletin on Sunday, November 14, trumpeting that Binghamton has the highest property tax rate in the state seriously misrepresents the facts. The author’s comparison of Binghamton with Ithaca was particularly deceptive. The truth is that the cost of providing city services like police, fire, and public works is largely independent of housing values. Thus a city has to set a tax rate that will yield a certain level of revenue; when property values are low, tax rates have to be higher. The city of Binghamton has roughly twice the area of Ithaca meaning that the cost of services here will be higher: more streets to maintain and patrol, for example. According to the Census Bureau, the median value of an owner-occupied house in Ithaca is $193,700; in Binghamton it is $85,100. Using the tax rate numbers in the article the median homeowner in Ithaca would pay $2,533 a year in property tax while a comparable person in Binghamton would pay $2,137. Yet the median household income in Binghamton is nearly 8% higher than it is in Ithaca. When Neil Borowski took over as editor of the Press & Sun-Bulletin he wrote an editorial urging people to stop being so negative about the area. So why is he not insisting that his reporters tell the whole truth?

Even the fish are embarrassed

In case anyone retained any illusions that the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin was still a legitimate newspaper, the editorial page staff put that notion to rest today. It is, of course, Labor Day, a holiday established to commemorate the accomplishments of the organized labor movement in the United States. On this day we should celebrate hard won victories like a 40-hour work week, paid vacation, safer workplaces which union members struggled and sometimes died to wrest from greedy factory owners. The Binghamton area was well-known as a place where workers were treated fairly by companies like IBM and Endicott-Johnson whose owners recognized their value. So one would expect that on this day, our local newspaper would join in celebrating the progress of the American working person. But no. Instead those publishing the paper ran a nearly full page “guest viewpoint” by Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund, an organization dedicated to destroying the organized labor movement in the US. Cities like Binghamton have suffered tremendously as corporations moved hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs, union and non-union alike to “right-to-work” states in the South where they could pay much lower wages and deny workers benefits that those in the Northeast had come to take for granted. Make no mistake: “right-to-work” means “right to exploit.” Those laws have been instrumental in the destruction of the American middle class, today the smallest and poorest in the developed world. It is shocking and revolting that the newspaper of a city decimated by right-to-work laws should chose Labor Day to run a factually dubious tirade by the president of the organization largely responsible for its decline. If you had any doubts about whether the Press & Sun-Bulletin cares about our community, you know better today.

The elephant in the room

I have corrected this post to reflect the fact that Mr. Cline is no longer with the firm to which I referred and does, in fact, practice criminal law. My apologies for that error.

 

Last March in a well-to-do neighborhood just outside of the City of Binghamton, a daughter and a son of prominent local families were found brutally murdered in her house. The prime suspect, not surprisingly, was her estranged husband who happens to be African American. At the time I questioned whether he could get a fair trial in Broome County. My concern was motivated, in part, by the seemly endless outpouring of truly vile racist comments on local media websites by people using such screen names as Bull Conner, DellaBeckwith, Emmitt Till, and Nate B Forrest, accompanied by avatars that would have been shocking in 1960s Alabama. And those comments, more often than not, garnered significant numbers of “likes.” I would not have been terribly surprised had the accused been lynched.

More than a year later by the luck of the draw I was called and selected to be an alternate juror at the trial of the estranged husband. My observation was that the Broome County Sheriff’s Department, supported by the New York State Police, did a competent job collecting and analyzing evidence at the scene but that the prosecution did a poor job of assembling the evidence into a coherent narrative. Rather, they focused on specific parts of the story, leaving huge gaps between them.

The defense attorney was a public defender who, while admitted to the bar in 1992, appears to have only recently changed the focus of his practice from medical malpractice to criminal law. To say that his defense of the accused was inept is being generous. He utterly failed to mount a credible rebuttal to the state’s case.

The irony is that the prosecution showed that the defendant’s race was completely irrelevant within his circle of friends. I certainly detected no bias among the members of the jury or from the police. The only time race seemed to come up was during jury selection when the county attorney pressed the one black potential juror about whether, being a minister, he could convict someone of murder. It sounded to me as though he was most concerned about the possibility of jury nullification. In any event, that black juror was seated as an alternate.

At the end of the trial, I came out of the experience no longer questioning whether a black man could get a fair trial in Broome County but wondering whether anyone could. And that is the real elephant in the room.

Trivia with a side of jingoism

Yesterday evening my wife had gone to Ithaca to practice with her a capella trio so I decided to stop into a local tavern, Irish Kevins, for a beer and a bite of dinner. As usual the beer was great (Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA, perfect for a hot night) and the food—I had the Reuben—was good if a bit greasy as one expects bar food to be. Three of the four large TV screens showed the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays listlessly scoreless halfway through their game (the Rays would win 2-1) while on the other the New York Mets were slowing succumbing to the Atlanta Braves. The bar was mostly full and, as 8 PM drew nigh, the high-top tables began to fill with groups of four to six. Tuesday, it turns out, is Trivia Night at Irish Kevins.

Now, I enjoy a game of trivia as much as anyone and considered joining in. But this game of trivia was unlike any I have ever seen. The host called out the first question, “What day of the week is named after the Norse goddess of love?” and immediately thereafter blasted the place with Lee Greenwood’s execrable God Bless the USA, the Reagan-era Horst-Wessel-Lied of gun-toting rednecks who would no more actually join the military than vote for Jane Fonda. As someone who wore our country’s uniform for seven years I find that song deeply troubling. I did not serve to defend the Christian religion or to promote the delusion that Americans are freer than the citizens of our peer countries. The entire notion of American exceptionalism sickens and frightens me because it is little different than the theory of Übermenschen that led to the deaths of tens of millions of “inferior” people before and during World War II. As it did in Germany, such jingoism appeals to the fears of the undereducated who are dangerously prone to march to the call of demagogues.

Still, I expect to return to Irish Kevins for the beer and food—and perhaps the baseball. I will just avoid Trivia Night. Anyway, the questions are far too easy. The second was “What does the ‘E’ in the name of the animal-rights group, PETA, stand for?” In case you are wondering, the answers (no, I did not wait for the host to confirm them) are 1) Friday and 2) Ethical. Just avoid 1) Tuesday and 2) Jingoism.