There’s Optimism, Then There is Denial.

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Rochesterians have, for too long,  received platitudes that sound sunny when it comes to the local economy. Even as Kodak downsizes… even as people leave the area for work.

That’s why Sandy Parker’s address was a needed clang of the bell.

Earlier this month she told the Rochester Rotary Club during her annual speech: "This year I’ve struggled with optimism. You ask why? It’s because we are in trouble."

On WXXI’s Need to Know program this Friday, we sat with Parker and asked her about the reasons for making such an address. Take the 10 minutes or so it requires to listen in (just click here). You’ll hear what she believes ails Rochester and Upstate… and you’ll also hear what sounds like some fairly bold proposals – like exempting Upstate New York from onerous laws.

Some will question Parker’s motives. She has an agenda called "Unshackle Upstate" – and there are those who believe she’s using this dire picture to push forward that agenda.

But does it matter? Isn’t it time that Rochesterians faced up to the facts of the region’s economic condition and began conversing about possible remedies?

Also take a listen to another Need to Know interview This one is with John Perticone, a labor leader in the Rochester area. His answers show just how complex it will be simply to reform New York State laws – and where the battle lines are drawn. You can listen to his interview by clicking right here.

State Republican, Meet Monroe County Democrat

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It’s pretty easy to criticize Steve Minarik these days as the state GOP swirls in its public chaos. One columnist from New York City
Minarik is ready to leave as the New York State Republican chairman. Days later Minarik told WXXI that the NYC column is trafficking in rumors.

Whatever the private situation – it’s clear that Minarik is dealing with a party in turmoil. The situation is similar to those experienced by Bob Cook, Ted O’Brien and Molly Clifford when they took turns heading up the Monroe County Democratic Committee.

Like those three county Democratic leaders, Minarik has no other political position beyond being a chairman. Yes, he’s head of the Monroe County Republican Committee. But he’s unlike, say, Assemblyman Joe Morelle or his state counterpart, Assemblyman Denny Ferrell, who hold party chair positions. Having an elected political post can help dilute his public role as chairman – and bring with it a certain power of its own.

So Minarik must amass a political base by helping others get elected (just as he did in Monroe County). Doing this puts elected leaders in a position of gratitude. And those politicians understand the advantage of keeping in place a system that got them the win. That includes the person who orchestrated the win.

Newcomers to a party chair post don’t enjoy that perk right away. They need time to chalk up those wins. So it was for Minarik on the state level. He  needed the backing and support of the person who brought him in. He needed the power (monetary and vocal) from that patron. Then he had to hope the rest of the elected leadership in the party would rally around him.

But these days Gov. George Pataki has been a no-show when it comes to New York State Republican politics. And others in the state (Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Congressman John Sweeney) are hardly getting behind him. Former Pataki patron, Alfonse D’Amato, comes out squarely against Minarik’s choice for governor (William Weld). So the challengers to Minarik’s
are emboldened. Then comes the real threat – the outsider with a potential to challenge the orthodoxy.

But – as has been written in this space before – a chair is only as good as the team around him or her. That was applied to Clifford when she took over for the Democrats… and then for Rick Dollinger during his
minuscule tenure as county party chair. What the count Democrats needed (and still need) are elected people at the top who can support the chair, provide help in rallying the troops around that chair. Bob Duffy stands in for Bill Johnson but the equation doesn’t change.

George Pataki needs to be involved in his state party as much as ever, although it probably will not happen while Pataki has his sights set on Iowa and New Hampshire.

So criticize Minarik all you want. But the chairman is much like the manager of a baseball club. He’s a genius when they are winning and a bum when they’re not. In reality, it’s the players on the field, not the manager that do the winning and losing.  That applies to Monroe County Democrats as much as it does to New York State Republicans.

I’m sure Minarik is  not so thrilled to learn how the other half lives.

A (Ticket) Balancing Act

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But where is the balance?

Eliot Spitzer says he’s going to run for governor with State Senate Minority Leader David Paterson as his lieutenant governor. Spitzer’s from Manhattan. Paterson is also from New York City.

So north-of-Rockland County-Democrats should be upset that upstate has been upstaged, right? Especially when we thought Leecia Eve was in line to be Spitzer’s number two. She is the daughter of a Buffalo-area institution – Arthur Eve. This would certainly tick-off the upstate contingent of Democrats, right?

Doesn’t seem like it.

Yes…Spitzer’s choice has rankled some power-brokers in the party – but they are largely old-guard downstaters like Rep. Charlie Rangel.

Up in our neck of the woods the official Democratic reaction sounds more like Joe Morelle’s: “I’m very okay with David Paterson… my concern was only that he pick someone who is skilled enough to step in and serve as governor.”

Morelle, the state assemblyman from Irondequoit and the Monroe County Democratic chairman has nothing bad to say about Leecia Eve. But he did add that she actually needs to “work on her upstate credentials.” While she is a product of a powerful Buffalo lineage, her experience has largely been as an aide to people like Sen. Hillary Clinton in Washington. Her lieutenant governor campaign headquarters is in Brooklyn.

But what about the balance, Joe?

“Ask 10 people on State Street if you can tell me who the lieutenant governor is and where she came from,” he said. “Few could name her and I’ll bet no one would know where she came from.”

To Morelle, there is too much emphasis on geographic balance. Downstate Hugh Carey ran and won with downstate Mario Cuomo as the lieutenant governor candidate in 1978. Four years later Cuomo ran with downstate Al DelBello and won.

“People are obsessed with it,” Morelle said. “Because it’s conventional wisdom.”

Could be. But it’ll mean that Spitzer and Paterson will have to give more face time and more lip service to the plight of upstate New York…. just to make sure.

Puff the Magic Money Source

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Smokers are addicts who won’t quit even though they know that – in the long run – the activity will be bad for them.

Governments that use smoking money won’t quit even though… deep down… they know that using the cash isn’t good for them. This comes to mind as Monroe County, once again, made use of the tobacco settlement money as a revenue source for its budget.

Can you compare a smoking addiction to the continual use of tobacco cash to balance budgets? On some levels – that’s probably unfair. After all, county government budget planners in this state have to deal with a serious and difficult financial squeeze being put on them by state mandates. Who would blame them for trying to alleviate those pressures.

But there are other levels where the comparison may make some sense.

Here’s what I mean.

While society has demonized cigarette use, smoking still isn’t illegal (although you better find a cave these days to do it in or maybe move to Greece).You probably know a smoker in your life. That person probably tells you how they ought to quit puffing away… but the person keeps lighting up anyway. Surely you’ve heard some, or all, or the reasons why.

The interesting reason for me is to alleviate stress… to deal with pain.

That brings us to the smoking money – more specifically the proceeds gained by governments of all sorts through the lawsuit against tobacco companies charged with covering up the ill-effects of smoking. Back in the late 1990’s, tobacco companies settled their legal action with some 40 state attorneys general (including one in the Empire State who wants to be our next governor.

In New York, counties were going to get a piece of that tobacco money action. Monroe County’s would be gaining something like $760 million in annual payments over decades. But rather than taking that money over the long haul, the county entered into an arrangement that would give it cash up front, although far less than what they might have gotten over time.

That added up to about $142 million. Monroe County officials at the time had some very high-minded ideas for its use. Pay off old debts. Pay off building a new county jail expansion. Put aside some for a planned juvenile justice center.

But then came 2003, when the county’s budget began tightening up. So then-County Executive Jack Doyle turned to that settlement money. He used some of those proceeds to… well… to fill a hole in the budget (a City Newspaper article from that time laid it out nicely).

Consider this the first big drag off that tobacco fund money. Soon the term "securitization" found its way into county budget conversations. A county created board – the Monroe Tobacco Asset Securitization Corp. – was empowered to make decisions on selling bonds on the open market based on what the county would get down the line from the tobacco settlement fund. And boy, have there been buyers.

Last year, County Executive Maggie Brooks grabbed $51 million from the "securitization" of tobacco settlement money. That was used to help fill a budget gap. Then this month we see once again how the county wants millions from the tobacco settlement. Once again to help cover projected budget shortfalls.

So what’s the problem? Using tobacco settlement money for a government budget isn’t illegal. Neither is repeated use of the funds. And sucking down the money now for the budget isn’t the same as sucking down cigarette smoke. No, not in the sense that it is eroding health.

But this "securitization" is doing something to deal with anxiety… to deal with pain. Basically it’s putting off the anxiety by putting off that pain.

The tobacco settlement cash fills in budget divots while never addressing the systemic problems that are causing this county government to continually find itself with shortfalls. The tobacco cash seemingly helps put off nasty decisions. Use it now and you don’t have to pull from some place else (like the wallets of taxpayers or the budget of county services).

Understand, however, that the tobacco settlement "securitization" means that Monroe County (and the many other governments that do this) is getting cents on the dollar. So it’s something like a quick fix – akin to that 10 minutes puffing away.

Meanwhile it has been more than three years since the Blue Ribbon Commission on Monroe County Finance issued its report on county fiscal troubles. More than three years since the crystal clear warnings in that report – that Monroe County has to readjust itself on a fundamental level.

Monroe County leaders have talked about the need for this fundamental change. The latest came when Brooks announced that in 90 days she would issue a plan for dealing with the budget problems down the road. Will it feature concrete proposals? It needs to. Will it mean that the county will begin hammering away not only on internal financial problems… but on a state government that is leaning too heavily on it? It should.

Why is it taking so long? Well, the quick fix still remains.

Let’s hope this is the year that county government stops talking like the smoker who says they are going to quit… really soon.

Because you know what the doctor says in reply – the clock is ticking.

No, the tobacco settlement money isn’t a direct cause of ill-health.

Just the fact that by using it, the county delays getting at the problems that are eroding fiscal stability.

Leg Leaders React to Brooks’ State of the County Speech

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In her State of the County message this week County Executive Maggie
Brooks made a deadline – she gave herself 90 days to produce a plan to
get the county out of a fiscal rut.

She made a promise – she would not sell off Monroe Community Hospital – the county’s publicly-run long term care facility.

And she made an observation — to learn from neighboring Onondaga County how to cut social service spending.

We talked with the Republican and Democratic leaders in the Monroe County Legislature about it. Click right here to take a listen.

Maggie, Can You Help Us Forget

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We needed something to wash out the taste left behind by the ferry closure.

So why not the state of the county message?

Maggie Brooks sprung the speech on us – but couldn’t we use the diversion? And there she was, in the County Legislative Chambers… smiling… calling us her "fellow taxpayers." (Just as an aside: I know that her speechwriters probably like Brooks using the phrase – "fellow taxpayers." It’s a subtle way to remind us that she keeps our tax bills top of mind. But doesn’t it make you just a bit uneasy to be labeled by the fact that you put money into government coffers. What’s next – "fellow county road users"?)

The speech seemed like a great opportunity to make us forget about the failed big boat.

And portions of the talk seemed to do the trick. When the county executive announced that she wouldn’t sell or privatize the county operated long-term care facility – Monroe Community Hospital  – it was enough to make even a liberal Democrat and former county executive candidate glow.

"I was delighted with the pledge," said Bill Benet, a 27-year legislator who was pushed out last month because of term limits. Benet ran for county executive in 1999. (Benet appeared on a post speech analysis program on WXXI-AM Wednesday night)

And yet, a bit of the ferry hangover seemed to catch me – even with this piece of news. I fixated on Brooks’ call for a financial review board of the community hospital that would scrutinize the books and come up with ways to make it more cost effective. That would help the county lower what it gives the hospital operation as a subsidy.

Subsidy. The very word conjured up visions of ferry business plans and promises that the ferry would never need a subsidy. It made me think of government bailouts.

Couldn’t a financial review board for the hospital mean the possibility that they discover the hospital is too expensive an operation? Couldn’t that lead to a shut down?

Benet helped calm me down.

"She told us that it wouldn’t be sold… end of discussion, end of debate," Benet said. "I don’t think her commitment could have been any clearer."

But then the former legislator continued: "The point where the ferry did come to mind was Renaissance Square."

Brooks took time in the speech to extol the virtues of building a new complex downtown – one that would include a performing arts center, a bus terminal and a community college campus. She called it a bold initiative… something that would have once described the ferry project.

Now the boat loomed over the discussion. Benet said that no one has described how the county and the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority might cover increased operating costs to operate the service through such a facility. And no one has explained if government would be willing to (gasp) subsidize a performing arts center if the money it makes can’t match the money it spends.

Sean Hanna, a former Republican county legislator (who appeared with Benet), tried to find some separation between the failed boat and the proposed Renaissance Square effort. He said that experts on many levels have been pouring over the complex. It’s far more planned than the ferry.

But it was too late. By this point the damn boat had become insinuated itself. And it dawned on me that it would take some time for this community to get by that gigantic vessel.

Are the Watchers Paying Attention?

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This podcast of the Political Notebook discusses the idea that those designated to watch weren’t looking when the ferry deal came to light a year ago.

City Council, the Rochester Ferry Company board, the press — all paid little attention to specifics of the plan (like the deal with the Toronto Port Authority for terminal space) until Bob Duffy killed the plan.

This podcast also looks at local Democrats and the tall order they have to try and unseat sitting Republican Congressional Representatives.

Give a listen – then come on back and give me your thoughts.

Duffy Stands By Ferry Call

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Just a quick note on the Bob Duffy interview on WXXI’s Need to Know program, (which airs in Rochester on Friday night at 9 p.m. or Sunday afternoon at 12:30 p.m.). It was all about the Ferry – and Duffy made his case for why it had to end.

Duffy said his administration  negotiated an agreement with the Australian lenders, EFIC (or Export Finance and Insurance Corp.) to delay payments on the $40 million loan the city took out a year ago to purchase the vessel. That will give the city more breathing room as it works to shut down the ferry and close the books on the venture. You can read the story here.

You can listen to the full Need to Know interview with Duffy on the ferry closure here.

What Did We Know About the Toronto Deal?

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What did we know and when did we know it?

And who is "we?"

That’s the question over a now well-publicized deal that the Rochester Ferry Company made with the Toronto Port Authority — the lease deal to dock at the Canadian port and use the terminal.

It’s fast becoming part of the story that somehow no one knew about the lease deal. And yet anyone could have known – if they just looked.

It started on Tuesday when Mayor Bob Duffy made his announcement to the press about getting the city out of the ferry business. Duffy said that his staff "discovered" a contract with the Toronto Port Authority that has the Rochester Ferry Company paying Toronto $250,000 a year for the use of the Canadian terminal. Part of that "discovery" was also a per passenger fee of $1 and a per vehicle fee of $3 charged by the Toronto Authority.

From there came an editorial on the community’s lack of knowledge about the deal.

Then a radio talk show host used the word "deception".

But here’s the thing – a short stroll on the Internet produced at least two documents in late 2004 that plainly stated the intention of the city to enter into a lease agreement with Toronto’s authority for the terminal.

One was the business plan authored by the then-Environmental Services Commissioner Ed Doherty. The date of the draft report is November 18, 2004. The first page of the report talks about how the Toronto Port Authority would enter into a lease agreement to allow Rochester to use its terminal (the plan talks about Toronto doing this deal with the forerunner of the Rochester Ferry Company – The Rochester Port and Ferry Authority). The document also includes a $200,000 annual cost for leasing the Toronto terminal (that’s on page 15).

Then came a December 20, 2004 review of the business plan by TranSystems Maritime Strategy International. This was the company hired by City Council to consult the city on the ferry business plan. On page 15 of that study, it lays out the agreement in far more detail. It states that Toronto Port Authority would get $250,000 (Canadian dollars). It also lays out in detail the passenger and vehicle fees that Duffy spoke of… it’s called wharfage or passenger use fees (and, by the way, the $1 per passenger and $3 per car fees are also in Canadian dollars).

So the Toronto lease agreements were part of two documents easily obtainable through the calendar year of 2005. Admittedly, we may not have seen any coverage of this deal. And who is to blame for that? Perhaps the press shares some of the burden. We knew about these documents. We could have pressed the mayor or any member of that ferry company board about the Toronto lease deal. And, yet, for whatever reason, we passed up the opportunity. Until now. Until the Duffy administration talked about the Toronto lease deal.

Put in this context this piece of the story is quite different. In fact, it sounds like a lesson for the watchers of the project. I spoke with Johnson a number of times in 2005 and never raised the issue. And there were times when the sole reason was the ferry project. It’s even harder to imagine that people sitting on the board of the Rochester Ferry Company didn’t have these documents in hand… and didn’t press that issue.

In his column on Thursday, Mark Hare writes that the information on the Toronto lease "may have been public information, but most of the public didn’t know." That is very true. And what does that say?

Finally, let’s put the information into perspective. The real story remains the over-arching arguments made by Mayor Duffy to discontinue the service. Of course, the real and vital question to answer was whether the city wanted to borrow more money to keep the venture going after two miserable years. A business decision, in the end.

So let’s stick to business. To the dollars and cents. Whether it was worth the risk or not.

The business value of the lease deal could be part of the argument — was it wise? Should we have agreed to it?

But no one can claim – or infer – that it was kept from the public.