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Outside Looking In

Time to give PILOTs more thought

First published: October 02, 2015 at 1:40 pm
Last modified: October 02, 2015 at 4:39 pm

The Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency is considering changes to its rules on payment-in-lieu-of-tax agreements that would extend the maximum term of such pacts from 15 to 20 years. That has to be one of the worst proposals the IDA has floated in recent memory, and the Jefferson County Legislature should make sure that proposal gets lost as soon as possible.

The IDA’s existing Uniform Tax Exemption Policy, last updated in 2004, allows the agency to enter into PILOT agreements without municipal review for manufacturing projects. The IDA has the authority, for these agreements, to set the terms, both in length of agreement and terms of exemptions granted. On commercial developments that are not retail, the agreements require ratification by the taxing entities that are affected by the exemption including school districts, municipalities and the county.

Because of the discretion granted to the IDA, the county Legislature has a special obligation to make sure the IDA’s Uniform Tax Exemption Policy is both reasonable and offers sure levels of accountability for beneficiaries of PILOT agreements.

One legislator who is on the IDA board, Scott A. Gray, is concerned about the effects of IDA PILOTs on the taxing bodies that must live with them and about the IDA’s dedication to seeing that PILOT recipients meet their obligations under the agreements.

Mr. Gray’s point is that PILOTs can be structured to ensure that promised jobs are created and even to end agreements and claw back benefits from companies that take the cash but don’t provide the agreed upon benefits to local taxpayers.

What frequently seems to elude IDAs here and around the state is that these deals are not deals unless the local taxing units benefit. A state comptroller’s report from earlier this year criticized IDAs in general for not diligently compelling accordance with the terms of the agreements.

Orleans County, for example, was found guilty of the big three: not maintaining review of compliance, not instituting a “recapture of benefits” clause to recover exemptions and not using standard billing practices to ensure the county’s policies were uniform.

Every IDA that enters into PILOT agreements should both follow state law and develop a policy that is fair, comprehensive and studiously enforced. In developing fair policies, the agencies must take into account not just the potential benefits of the agreement for the region but also the taxing constraints of the municipalities and school districts affected by the PILOT. The IDAs cannot lose sight of the external factors that may make PILOTS far less than a good deal for the cities, towns, villages and school districts that are affected.

Both St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, for example, are among the top 12 counties in the state for tax-exempt property. This puts an inordinate, sometimes crushing, burden on the remainder of the property owners who must pay the whole tax load.

Under no circumstance should PILOTs be automatic. And while General Municipal Law allows it, the concerns of the affected municipalities should not be ignored. Finally, PILOT terms should not be so long that they could potentially outlive the commercial enterprise they benefit.

For example, should a proposed wind farm project ever come along that actually has a jobs benefit component, allowing them to run 20 years means the tax exemption matches the expected lifetime of the project. If you think that makes sense, I hope you’ll tell me why.

And given the cumulative effects of tax exemptions on those of us who are actually paying a full ride in taxes, PILOT agreements should receive rigorous, transparent annual review of the benefits received and should be terminated with penalty the minute it is determined the beneficiary of the public largess of a tax exemption isn’t living up to the contract.

Jefferson County’s IDA has long seemed far too eager to rubber-stamp applications than to scrutinize their benefits early and monitor them continually for compliance. The new Uniform Tax Exemption Policy the agency is working on should foreclose on any shortcomings and provide lots of protections for the taxpayers always left holding the bag.

It’s more work, of course, to do it that way. But the IDA owes its taxpayers no less than that level of commitment.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at


Boehner’s demise poses sharp challenges for Stefanik

First published: September 25, 2015 at 3:14 pm
Last modified: September 26, 2015 at 4:16 pm

Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner dropped a bombshell Friday morning, resigning both his leadership position and his House seat and walking away from the turmoil that is the U.S. Congress.

It could be seen as the ultimate act of selflessness. He forced a quid pro quo out of the Republican Caucus, telling members he would step down as long as they support an unencumbered continuing resolution to keep the government operating until such time as a final federal budget agreement is reached.

His quid was a pretty dramatic one, with resignation from that post being nearly the ultimate act of falling on one’s own sword. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, however, as a fractious extreme right wing of the House has put more and more pressure on the speaker to stand down. He faced a rebellion when he was re-elected speaker at the beginning of the year and members of the tea party faction who have been his loudest critics, which did not eased back in any manner.

Nevertheless, it took a supreme act of sacrifice on Boehner’s part, and considerable personal courage, to broker his exit deal as he did. He almost single-handedly avoided a government shutdown and may have set the stage for a real budget agreement that can be enacted.

If this seems very distant to you, the residents of Northern New York, reconsider. Our new congresswoman, Rep. Elise Stefanik, solidly hitched her wagon to Boehner’s star. She received early assistance in her campaign to win in the 21st Congressional District and stayed close enough to him to ensure some prime committee seats, especially the Armed Services Committee, where she could have direct impact on things that are important to Fort Drum and, thus, the north country.

Ms. Stefanik has been true to her word to seek nonpartisan solutions to many — though not all — national problems, and she has not drifted radically right from the centrist image she cultivated during the campaign. This has endeared her to her constituents, who have long favored moderation over extremism and have voted to show that political bent.

On Nov. 1, however, Ms. Stefanik will find herself on a very different moonscape. There is no doubt that the far right elements of the House, led by the tea party crowd, are viewing Boehner’s move as defeat of centrist ideals and a huge win for their unrelenting and unyielding style of “take no prisoners” governance. Those who have supported Boehner’s less radical position may find themselves fighting to make sure moderate Republicanism isn’t banned from the chamber by their politically bullying extremists.

Ms. Stefanik thus far has had more base hits than swinging strikeouts. Her support of Fort Drum has been unflagging; her constituent services have been exemplary; she has many times sought and given cooperation across the aisle.

She is building the kind of record that creates a comfortable, long-term career in Congress. And the district should want her to succeed. So any situation that hardens the rifts within the Republican Party in the House is not in her best interests.

She is a consensus builder in a House where there is no premium on compromise. She is a nimble thinker in a House where a significant number of her colleagues — on both sides of the aisle — wear ideological blinders.

The wave she has been riding — important assignments, excellent postings within the chamber — was generated by Boehner’s leadership. That wave may have just collapsed, swamping her board and sending her deep underwater.

This could bring a rapid change in the atmosphere for Ms. Stefanik. And for the sake of the 21st CD, we all better be rooting for her and giving her a boost when we see the need. There’s a lot at stake for Northern New York as this House leadership struggle shakes out.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at


More than enough blame to go around

First published: September 18, 2015 at 1:46 pm
Last modified: September 18, 2015 at 6:55 pm

The justice system in St. Lawrence County has become an embarrassment.

District Attorney Mary Rain just days ago was forced to go to the Third Judicial Department Appellate Court in Albany to show why she should not be cited for contempt for failing to answer three appeals of cases filed from St. Lawrence County. And justices all over the county are delaying action on or dismissing outright charges in court appearances that the DA’s office has failed to attend.

Comments on our pages and other media outlets make it clear that more county residents are becoming outraged over the situation. Most of them, at least those who have commented on our website, seem to be directing their anger at Ms. Rain. And some of that is certainly deserved.

She has managed throughout the turmoil to absolve herself of every ill of her office; she seems to think that she is the victim of those she supervises and not responsible for the things that others do at her direction. That is a petty standard and beneath the office of district attorney.

That being said, the St. Lawrence County Legislature has been complicit in the difficulties of the district attorney. While the justices and judges in the county are frustrated with the reduction in services the DA is providing to local and county courts, the Legislature has done all it can to thwart her office.

Ms. Rain, for example, sought three positions for people who had not yet passed the bar to work as assistants in the office, preparing briefs, doing legal research and completing paperwork to free the prosecuting attorneys to focus on trial work. After a good deal of back and forth, the parties agreed on filling two of those positions.

But shortly after they were hired, one of them left to accept a job with the federal government. When Ms. Rain sought to replace her, the Legislature said no.

Virtually no time had passed between the time when legislators said the office needed two and when it said the office couldn’t have two. Nothing had changed in the DA’s office to indicate to the legislators the situation had changed, so one can only conclude this was an arbitrary and capricious decision based on political factors outside the DA’s control.

There are now seven assistant district attorneys in the office, and Ms. Rain, to prosecute all the criminal cases in the county. There were as many as nine plus the DA. Seven seems ludicrously low.

This paper reports weekly, it seems, on drug busts across St. Lawrence County, ranging from meth labs to heroin dealers to pot mules trying to transport marijuana south from the Canadian border. There is what appears to be an inordinate number of violent domestic abuses and far too many sexual assaults. St. Lawrence County crime may be down, but it’s relative; the DA must still have the resources at her command to prosecute the people who are arrested on these and other offenses.

The legislators are probably looking at the swinging door to the DA’s office — one ADA has been fired and three have quit, one under pressure, in Ms. Rain’s time in office — and wondering why this is happening. That is a good question, one Ms. Rain should be compelled to answer using introspection and honesty, not finger-pointing.

But even with that, the Legislature should be asked if it has any rationale other than dislike for the DA in deciding what a reasonable staffing level should be in that office. If the county’s prosecutorial staff falls below the level needed to prosecute people charged with crimes, the blame is on the Legislature, not the DA.

It’s not that there is no way to measure a reasonable staffing level. There are certainly enough counties similar to the makeup of St. Lawrence County that could be used as benchmarks.

If the Legislature, in conjunction with Ms. Rain, actually studied the issue, it would be informed enough to know what realistic staffing requirements are. Legislators seem to resist this, however, using only crime statistics within the county to justify reduced staffing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t provide sufficient perspective; what if, for example, previous DAs were also understaffed, based on comparison with like counties?

There’s blame enough to go around, as my father used to tell me. Ms. Rain has made her own life difficult by being inordinately confrontational with other county officials (threatening, you will recall, to try to indict the county manager), and that posture was just wrong.

On the other hand, the Legislature should not stoop to pettiness. It should make decisions based on need, not on grudges or dislikes or lingering animosity.

Give Ms. Rain the tools to do her job. And if she then fails, the voters will take care of the problem.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at


Change, change and maybe more change

First published: September 11, 2015 at 3:33 pm
Last modified: September 12, 2015 at 7:06 pm

Wow. Primary Day sure was a doozy across the north country.

For instance, it appears that Pamelia Supervisor Lawrence C. Longway will be heading out of office the same way he got in when, in 1991, he ousted incumbent Donald E. Jewett in the Republican primary, 347-110.

In a typical exchange with a reporter seeking comments from him on Thursday night, Mr. Longway first asked the reporter how the election came out. When told he lost, his reply was something like: “Huh. Well, thanks. I’m in bed now, and I need to go back to sleep.”

Mr. Longway has long been a lightning rod for the press; he started in 1991 by strongly opposing the Development Authority of the North Country and in subsequent years was accused of throwing roadblocks in the way of outside residential developers to protect his own development. He also was the subject of controversy a couple of years ago when it was discovered he was taking residential tax breaks in Florida offered only to residents and accepting STAR benefits in New York offered only on a primary residence.

He has weathered every storm, up until now, a true Teflon Man of the north country. Now, it appears, he can rightfully claim Florida as his home state.

* * *

In Clayton, it appears that Justin Taylor may have taken the wrong side on one too many issues over the past year.

Clayton residents joined the growing furor over the proposal to create a Scenic Area of State Significance, a teapot that grew into a tempest if ever there was one. Mr. Taylor was on board with what seemed to be a designation that would give the Thousand Islands region a little more protection against inappropriate development.

The opposition started small but turned into a tornado a lot faster than many thought possible. The supervisor got badly battered in the winds.

Then, Mr. Taylor was in favor of changing the zoning on the proposed distillery property at the old nunnery on Route 12E. That, too, swiftly turned into a battle as riverfront neighbors of the property wanted no part of a busy party venue next door to them. The property owners won that fight, but it left some scars on the supervisor.

You can’t, of course, delve into the minds of voters. But Mr. Taylor’s opponent, David M. Storandt Jr., was able to tap into enough Republican voters to overwhelm the incumbent.

Whether it was Mr. Storandt’s platform or a growing dissatisfaction with Mr. Taylor that swung those votes, we may never know.

* * *

Saving the best for last, Watertown Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham did a Houdini, of sorts, spinning some old positions around 180 degrees to jump out of a locked box to make him their new champion.

For example, two days before the primary, Hizzoner saw the light and declared the city must press forward with an eminent domain proceeding at Stateway Plaza to make Western Boulevard a reality. Before that, the mayor had never been a vocal champion of moving ahead on this process and had been among his colleagues eager to keep Western Boulevard on the top shelf, far from view.

In his meeting with the Watertown Daily Times editorial board, he said there was little will to take on such an expensive project. Other candidates, however, said it was important and needed to get done. And, lo and behold, between the last week in August and the primary, the mayor was right back on the Western Boulevard bandwagon.

While the mayor has spent a lot of time promoting his experience as an asset, he obviously knows that it is the wind of change, not the prevailing west wind, driving city voters this year. While he was a single vote behind Joe Butler, he is too astute a politician not to see that there were 1,462 votes for a new boss and only 902 for the same old, same old.

And he has to understand that perhaps experience does not carry the value it once did. Jeff Graham is a shrewd politician, and I would be very surprised if revisionist history is not going to quickly become a campaign strategy for the mayor. The problem with revising the past is that many people have memories good enough to make that risky.

The votes for Stephen Jennings are going to go somewhere in November, and smart money has most of them moving toward Mr. Butler. The mayor faces a steep uphill battle, and it will be fascinating to watch him attempt the climb.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at


Skirmishes with the NIMBY Nation

First published: September 04, 2015 at 12:10 pm
Last modified: September 04, 2015 at 5:00 pm

Cow dung smells.

You can’t get around it. Febreeze doesn’t work in the barnyard. If you’re downwind, you can always tell when a farmer has just spread manure on a big field.

Cow dung also has a lot of ingredients that are best kept out of streams and rivers, especially nitrogen and phosphorous.

These two facts of life contribute to making dairy farmers work hard to ameliorate the first and ensure the last. The challenge is greater as the number of cows increases.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is charged with overseeing the larger farms, those with more than 300 cows. They are considered, under state law, consolidated animal feeding operations, known by the inharmonious label CAFOs.

Under state and federal regulations, large farms must undertake certain actions to keep animal wastes out of the nation’s waterways and water supplies. In many cases, manure storage areas, called lagoons, are the sole best way to achieve that goal. The concept is more than 20 years old, but it has been refined over the years to make these lagoons safer and more durable.

Those refinements, however, have not improved on the aesthetics; open-air manure lagoons remain stinky, unpleasant places. Not a place you would take your picnic lunch.

The reality about lagoons, however, is this: They provide storage for manure until such time as it can be spread on fields as fertilizer. It keeps farmers from spreading on frozen fields, which guarantees that there is no control of where the manure and its noxious elements end up.

With north country winters, lagoons allow manure to build in a controlled space until spring, when it is used on fields that need fertilizer for high production. So usually, the amount of manure in the lagoons is cyclical, with the highest volume in late winter and then rapidly decreasing volume during spring, low volume in summer and fall. Then the cycle starts over as the ground begins to freeze in the winter.

And yet, these facilities are facing increasing resistance in the north country. The proposed lagoon on Ridge Road in the town of Rutland raised a furor because it was proposed just 1,500 feet above the Black River, two miles upstream from the water plant that treats water for 65 percent of the municipal water users in Jefferson County. Even the farmers involved appear to be rethinking that siting.

In Rodman, a lagoon on the Zoar Road Panorama Farm owned by Porterdale Farms has neighbors up in arms, clamoring for the town to DO something! Their complaints center on aesthetics: traffic and odor. They appear to have thrown in concern for a nearly intermittent stream more than a half mile away, even though physics would indicate that is probably a straw man in this debate.

The whole issue is clouded by not-in-my-backyard sentiments and a complete misapprehension over both the actual size and the danger any lagoon poses. While North Country Public Radio characterized the Ridge Road lagoon as “massive,” it really isn’t. It looks more like they’re digging for an Olympic pool than a huge manure pit.

While it can hold 7 million gallons, that is relatively small in the world of manure lagoons; one that failed five years ago in Snohomish, Wash., held 21 million gallons. Another that failed in the late 1990s in North Carolina held almost 20 million gallons.

In relation to those lagoons, the 7-million-gallon facility proposed on Ridge Road and the 2-million-gallon pit under construction on Zoar Road are babies.

The fear of failure also is exaggerated. The three lagoon failures most often pointed to are the two above and a 2014 failure south of Ann Arbor, Mich. There are no reports of any lagoons failing in New York.

The pit on the Marks Farm that failed and sent several million gallons into the Black River was a temporary pit that was to be replaced by a properly engineered pit the farm was already designing. (And remember, if you will, while it was no environmental triumph for agriculture, it was nevertheless self-rinsed within 20 miles downstream.)

As engineering has improved on these manure beds, safety has improved. And given the high cost of failure (Marks Farms paid a $2.2 million penalty for its transgression), farms need to build these pits to engineered specification to protect not only others but themselves.

What is most of the angst over? Many people have expressed outrage that towns and counties can’t control these lagoons.

Their claim that there is no control, however, is just wrong. The whole CAFO process is tightly described by the state DEC and, when federal grant money is sought, the federal government. The goal of the CAFO designation is not to give every application a rubber-stamp permit; it’s to push farmers to develop whole-farm plans that benefit both the farm and the environment.

And local oversight is further restricted through Department of Agriculture and Markets ag district law and the state’s right-to-farm law. Those laws were created by the Legislature to preserve agriculture in this state by preventing town councils, county legislatures and other municipal bodies from interfering in the day-to-day necessary operations of farms.

Without it, anything from farm traffic to manure disposal to hours of operation could be used by municipal boards to put farms out of business. And the state has a clear interest in protecting its agricultural base.

While the Ridge Road lagoon, looming over a massive public water supply, has legitimate problems, not every manure lagoon that has been or will be built in the north country should be considered dangerous or bad. As one farmer said, the benefits really far outweigh the risk.

For their part, farmers could do well to conduct a comprehensive siting study and make it available to the public early in the process.

It will ease the perception that these plans are being done behind the public’s collective back and eliminate public officials’ claims that they knew nothing about the plans.

But they must be ready to stand behind the protections the state affords against NIMBY meddling, and municipal bodies need to stand with the farmers on that. Our agriculture industry, especially in Northern New York, is far too important to not protect.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at


What are you doing on Election Day?

First published: August 21, 2015 at 2:13 pm
Last modified: August 24, 2015 at 9:10 am

This blog post has been edited to reflect facts newly received from the Jefferson County Board of Elections.

A curious thing, this Election 2015.

It is a so-called off-year election, with nothing but local races to be run and seats to be filled. And yet, because these are the most proximate levels of government to the citizenry, you would hope interest would be high.

Prepare to have those hopes crushed yet again.

Outside of the city of Watertown election, the race to fill the district attorney position in Jefferson County, the supervisor’s race in Clayton and the entire election in Cape Vincent, there are very few of what one might call high-profile contests.

And yet ...

A look through the voting list put out by the Jefferson County Board of Elections shows that a lot of the races are going to be decided in the Sept. 10 primary. The Republican Party has primaries all over, and the winners in those elections will determine the ultimate winner because there is no Democratic or independent opposition.

Only one candidate engaged in a primary that I found has attempted to lock in a ballot position by filing a minor party petition: Marty Mason in Cape Vincent. He will be on the Conservative Party line in November if no other Conservative challenges through an Opportunity to Ballot. So even if he loses in the Republican primary, he could well move on.

While the Republican candidates are flooding the zone, as it were, the Democrats are virtual no-shows in this election. In the town and village races, for all municipalities in the region, there are 22 Democrats running.

At the county level, two incumbent Democrats — Legislator Allen Drake and Treasurer Karen Christie — are running unopposed. All 14 Republican legislators are running unopposed, by contrast.

The village of West Carthage is the sole beacon of light for the Jefferson County Democratic Party, fielding four candidates.

There still is time for more Democrats to emerge, because several municipalities have Democratic caucuses to select candidates. However, if past history is any predictor, there will still be far too many unchallenged Republicans.

So one has to ask: Why is the Democratic Party leadership in Jefferson County unable to field candidates? If all the Democrats running in the county could barely fill a middle-sized living room, where are the other Democrats?

The system functions the best when there is engagement in democracy. Choices at the ballot box keep the electorate engaged. When there are no contests to determine, we should not be overly surprised when only 30 percent of those eligible to vote drag themselves out to do so.

There are any number of trends in our society that make me want to break out the blackboard and give an instant civics lesson, but none gets any deeper under my skin than the failure to exercise the obligation to vote. I know the excuses of the nonvoters: They’re all crooks; I am satisfied the way it is; there is nobody to choose from; my vote doesn’t count; blahblahblah. They’re all hooey.

This is supposed to be a participatory democracy. The only true way the will of the people has any chance of being upheld is by a vigorous electoral process that brings choices and variety.

But when you try to talk about this, you watch as eyes glaze over and people stick their heads under the couch cushions. Those who don’t vote don’t want to hear it from those who do. The results are often appalling, and frequently, the nonvoters complain the loudest.

In the city primary, there are six council candidates and three men running for mayor. In the council race, there is a nice range of the young and the mature, the politically polished and the political neophytes.

When six people are seeking one of your two votes, they work harder to persuade you to vote for them, and they can’t dodge your questions about why they should be selected over anyone else. And the mayoral race features three sitting City Council members — the mayor and two councilmen. Good stuff, politically.

But it won’t be good enough to draw voters as 15 to 20 percent of those eligible may show up to cast their ballots. And the total could be lower than that.

I have been writing opinion pieces on the value of and the obligation to vote for 37 years — my first one was in 1978. And I don’t think one of them has done a damned bit of good.

Nevertheless, I soldier on. Exercise one of the most precious rights that have been handed down to you. Go to the polls, cast your votes and walk away knowing no matter the outcome, you have fulfilled your civic duty.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at


Compromise is only solution to Fire Department issues

First published: August 14, 2015 at 8:38 am
Last modified: August 24, 2015 at 9:10 am

I support the Watertown Fire Department.

A city the size of Watertown, with its many high buildings, commercial complexes and multiple-family residences, needs a department that can consistently, professionally and rapidly respond to fires, emergencies and hazardous situations.

I also support City Manager Sharon Addison and the members of the City Council who are trying to make the department as efficient and cost-effective as possible. City government has to be run based on providing the needed services in as effective and economical a way as is practical.

These goals need not be mutually exclusive.

The firefighters, led by their union, are strongly opposing any efforts to reduce the cost of providing fire services. They have a strong ally, ironically, in past councils that have agreed to contract terms that make almost any streamlining efforts next to impossible. The councils of today and tomorrow will have to work hard and be smart to find effective ways to work within those historical constraints.

A study of the department suggested that the city has some room to reduce staffing if it can get the union to agree in the new contract talks. The union is opposing that effort, of course, and has embarked on a citywide public relations campaign, giving out lawn signs that indicate support for the department. This is all part of a “hearts and minds” campaign by the union, a move to persuade the council that there is a groundswell of citizen support for the department.

Well, there is a large measure of support for the Fire Department. Why wouldn’t there be? Firefighters save lives and property, help all citizens regardless of their economic station and teach fire safety to children and senior citizens. There is nothing adversarial or controversial about their services.

Saying that you support the Fire Department, however, is not synonymous with saying you support the Fire Department in all things or at all costs. For most people in the north country, and this includes Watertown, the pinch of property taxes has become a punch.

Taxing levels have reached the point of pain for many and worse for some. We all must call on our local governments to do everything they can to ease that burden.

Asking the Fire Department for help in the effort to cut costs is neither unfair nor unreasonable. If the union sat down with the city, listened to its position and tried to reach a reasonable, mutually acceptable solution, it would indicate to the people of the city that the Fire Department is part of the solution. An intractable position, devoid of true negotiation, tells the taxpayers that the Fire Department isn’t all that interested in the needs of the people who pay the salaries of its members.

No existing jobs — those now held by people — need to be lost here. But the city ought to be able to make reasonable decisions on the loss of jobs through attrition.

When a firefighter leaves or retires, the city manager and the fire chief ought to be able to sit down and determine the future of that job. The decisions could range from eliminating the position immediately to holding it open for a period of time to filling it as quickly as possible.

That process could give the Fire Department protection — especially if the parties agree to a base level of firefighters that couldn’t be violated without further negotiation — and it would leave flexibility for the city’s needs when a position becomes vacant.

Most public unions in the north country have more flexible contracts than the firefighters. Jefferson County, for example, has the right to reduce the work force through attrition or through elimination of positions.

It may be a function of the feel-good relationship the department has with the citizenry that compelled the historical concessions to the union. That, however, was in a different age.

With 61 percent of the department’s calls going to health emergencies, always accompanied by someone else’s ambulance because the department doesn’t have one of its own, and with many of those health calls getting multiple-vehicle response from the department, the duplication of services is blatantly visible just about every day. This is a true waste of taxpayer resources; the policy must be adjusted to have the department respond as backup only. This way, its presence would be guaranteed if needed, not called on if not.

The members of the Fire Department also beg this criticism: Few of them pay taxes in the city where they work. As a result, they are removed from the issue of city property taxes.

I don’t suggest firefighters should be compelled to live in the city. I do, however, suggest that disregard of the taxation issue in the city is a slap in the face to taxpayers.

It’s time for firefighters to realize we are no longer in the 1970s. If the city is to survive, it needs a well-trained firefighting force.

It also needs that force to realize the times are changing and its members must become full partners with the City Council — not recalcitrant adversaries. A compromise is needed, and the union needs to buy in, for its own good and the good of the city.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at


Connecting with the past and the present

First published: July 31, 2015 at 4:55 pm
Last modified: July 31, 2015 at 4:55 pm

In the past couple of months, I have found a number of old friends on Facebook and added them to my page. And because of that, a number of other old friends have found me and have asked to join my page, and I’ve accepted them.

This is probably irrelevant information for most people. But it has changed a very occasional Facebook user to a more frequent reader who even posts things on my own page from time to time.

It also has convinced me that what we call social media can in fact be a positive part of our lives.

For me, nearly all of these old friends have been frozen in time, looking and behaving in my mind as they did when I left the Catskills 23 years ago. I remember them younger, perhaps wilder, perhaps less responsible but certainly two dimensional in many ways, lacking the dimension of time.

Now, having re-entered these old friends’ lives, I have been snapped into the realities of today. New pictures and new stories of these folks’ lives have filled in the missing dimension and brought friends who were in a state of suspended animation back to life for me.

Gail Ruff Chancey, whom I haven’t seen in more than 40 years, has a farm in Missouri and spends time in Florida. She has become, for me, a wry and sophisticated woman who has crafted a wonderful life.

Kathy and John Underwood have settled into a life in Portland, Maine, with grown children who are embarking on their own adult lives. And Kathy’s sister Kelly and her husband, Dave, also “Maine-iacs,” are also approaching that point in their lives where they’re looking forward to winding down, ending work and taking life easy.

And on it goes. Some of these old friends look almost as they did more than 20 years ago; some have aged in a way that makes me look twice to see the person I recall. It doesn’t matter, though, because we have all reached a place where what is inside is all that matters.

I get a lot of posts to my Facebook page that I morally oppose. The Obama haters have found the site a fertile field to sow their foul message. The message of ultra-conservatives also seems to infiltrate pages of people who don’t hold those views. And simplistic jingoism runs rampant.

I could delete these, but they serve to remind me that the entire spectrum of political thought must be tolerated if not embraced. It also serves to reaffirm my own belief system, and remind me who I am.

Facebook has evolved from a site where younger people could connect without interference from their parents to something much broader. Now parents find it a way to connect with brothers and sisters and grandparents and friends and colleagues. (And as a result, most teenagers have moved on to new and less parent-involved media.)

I have grudgingly become a fan of the site. I find it engaging to be able to chat easily with old friends. I find that there is great value in reconnecting with people who have through time and distance faded from my consciousness.

As we age, we often feel less connected with our past and with those from whom we have grown apart. With Facebook, that feeling of isolation is greatly eased. There is an emotional and probably physical benefit in that.

So if you are feeling alone or disconnected, maybe you should consider creating a Facebook account or reviving a dormant one (as was mine, until recently). You only need to find a few old friends and connect with them, and many others will find you and ask to become your friends on the site.

I suspect that if you do this, you will be surprised at how it can change your life.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at


Inane slogans won’t solve a national crisis

First published: July 24, 2015 at 5:11 pm
Last modified: July 24, 2015 at 5:11 pm

The Washington Post reports that Thursday’s shooting at a theater in Louisiana was the 204th of 2015.

It occurred on the 204th day of the year. That’s pretty simple math.

Some mass shootings stir the nation: nine dead in a racially motivated church shooting, four Marines and one sailor killed at a Chattanooga recruiting center, two dead and nine injured in a movie theater in Louisiana.

Others, on the other hand, receive only regional attention: five dead in Baltimore; five dead in Hope Mills, N.C.; four dead in Cincinnati — the list goes on and on.

I will stipulate that no “normal” person would carry out these kinds of attacks. It takes a mental illness or extreme personality disorder to take a gun into a situation where the goal is to shoot as many people as possible.

Which has probably led to the tired old Second Amendment fanatics saying that “Guns don’t shoot people. People shoot people.” I find this an increasingly inane statement that is sophistry at its worst. The people who do this use guns, and that is where the solution to this national nightmare must end.

We need to find ways to keep guns out of the hands of the criminally inclined, the deranged and the psychopathic. In the exercise of sound regulations on the object of the Second Amendment, it’s time to start erring on the side of caution rather than nearly unfettered “freedom.”

About 30,000 people die of gunshot wounds in the United States every year. That includes about 9,000 homicides, about 17,000 suicides and the rest in accidents and “justified shootings” — essentially, police actions and self-defense.

In Great Britain in 2010, there were 58 murders by firearm; in the same year in the United States, 8,775. Based on population adjustment, that means that Great Britain had the equivalent of 290 murders by gun — meaning the United States had a little more than 30 times the number of gun murders as one of our closest allies.

In France, the background checks are intense and focus on past history and mental stability. And they must be renewed and reviewed every five years, which allows the authorities to verify that no recent behavior or illness has disqualified the licensee in the preceding five years.

Study after study relates the number of gun deaths to the number of guns present. Anyone who tells you otherwise has drunk the Kool-Aid.

The best way to reduce gun violence and gun deaths is to reduce the number of guns in society. And the United States could best achieve that by imposing common-sense regulations to keep guns out of the hands of people who could predictably use them badly and by seriously clamping down on illegal gun traders within our borders.

“If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” a favorite National Rifle Association sop goes. Every time it’s uttered, someone sagely nods their head in agreement.

And this simplistic and idiotic homily allows the gun lobby to hide behind reality: the number of people proposing that guns be outlawed is amazingly small. They are as far at the opposite fringe as are those who say that any regulation is unconstitutional.

In reality, most people concerned about the proliferation and cost of gun violence understand that in the United States, at least, guns are here to stay. So the best possible outcome is to reach an understanding that regulations are not banned by the Constitution because every freedom reaches some point of constraint and to come together on what that constraint can be.

We have to stop the random gun violence in this country. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world, and it puts the level of violence on our soil equivalent to places like Iraq and Pakistan and many South American and African nations — most of them impoverished, under-educated and politically instable. We’re better than that.

It’s time for the inane slogans and the sophist arguments to be tuned out. And it’s time for the fringes of the gun debate to be tuned out, for the groups in the middle to coalesce to come up with solutions that both work and are acceptable to the largest possible majority. And it’s time to push those solutions into law.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at


A few quick hits

First published: July 17, 2015 at 5:23 pm
Last modified: July 17, 2015 at 5:23 pm

Here are a few musings that merit some consideration in the north country.

A hole too deep?

With the news last week that St. Lawrence County is 2.3 percent behind in sales tax collections from this point last year, you can’t help but wonder where this financially bereft county can turn to solve its problems.

Two years ago, when the county presented a financial plan to state Sen. Patty Ritchie that promised to keep tax levy increases within the state tax cap for a number of years, it got permission to raise its local sales tax rate to 4 percent. That move has proved insufficient to the task of hiking revenue for the county; last year the take didn’t meet projections, and it appears it may take some kind of miracle to meet it this year.

The solution doesn’t immediately reveal itself. St. Lawrence County has already steeply cut personnel and has long had a policy in place that prohibits automatic filling of vacancies without legislative review.

It has left home health care to private businesses and eliminated that expense. It has cut its highway department budget to ribbons and as a result has failing roads and bridges across the sprawling landscape. And while pension and health insurance costs are big red figures in the budget, it has no control over pension costs and little control over health insurance.

The county has plowed through its reserves like a termite in a tasty main beam and has had to resort to major borrowing in the second half of each of the last four years just to get to Dec. 31. Many of its fiscal failures have long since been resolved — the county is still trying to recover from the effects of the disastrous solid waste authority, as an example — but their legacies linger on.

Where is the county failing where others aren’t? It suffers from a diminished industrial base: Alcoa has contracted; GM is long gone; Corning remains static; Ogdensburg has lost a couple of employers recently (and was saddled with lingering debt from the kosher milk plant fiasco); and no other areas have had stable manufacturing or industrial businesses since the water wheel went out.

This has led to a diminished tax base as assessments have reverted to lower-use values. Very little new is going up outside of the colleges, whose employees continue to sustain property and sales tax revenue. Against inflation, it is unlikely the tax base can rebound without significant commercial investment, and nothing points to that as likely.

The county is looking for more cuts to ease this situation, but there aren’t many significant areas to cut — outside the road patrol and solid waste. And those are taxpayer services it is unlikely anyone is willing to sacrifice.

It is far more complex than the average taxpayer tends to consider, and I don’t envy the Legislature that has been put in this vice.

Dog days for the dog park

The city continues to bat around dog park issues, with the insertion of P.J. Simao’s renewed offer for the land, the alienation of key supporters, the adamant opposition of the person most responsible for the dog park plan getting this far and the battles among City Council members the topic has engendered.

Even if Mr. Simao diligently pursues his quest to add the rest of the old Abe Cooper dump to his existing holding, there is almost no chance he will succeed.

Why? A number of reasons, all of them political.

First, the city would see essentially no money from the transaction; it is encumbered by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to help pay for the high cost of cleaning the property in the late 1990s. So even if the city is considering the $100,000 that Mr. Simao tried to sweeten the pot with, there is no additional gain. He could offer $500,000, and the city would see none of it. There is no incentive to sell.

Then, under the law, the city would almost certainly be required to replace the site with another, similarly sized piece of parkland. That would probably mean it would have to spend money to make it work. The only gain from accepting the Simao offer is the taxes to be realized from putting the property on the tax rolls once again, and that would remain a minuscule amount until, and there’s no guarantee of this, improvements to the lot bumped up the assessment.

Finally, it’s pretty clear that the mayor has made this part of his re-election platform, even if he hasn’t said as much. Roxanne Burns’s leap at Steve Jennings’s jugular was way out of proportion to the issue and has no explanation until you throw the pending mayoral race into the equation.

And that leads to the final reason this sale isn’t going to happen: With the mayor and Ms. Burns aligned to stop it, it can never achieve the supermajority vote required to accept the offer and start reclaiming the parkland, which requires an act of the state Legislature.

Sorry, P.J., but politics has you trumped this time.

Thank you, all

When I wrote the column that appeared last Sunday about how dementia can devastate a family, I had hoped to give a voice to the silent and assure those in a like situation that they were not alone. I was unprepared, however, for the level of personal response that it would trigger.

I am humbled by that response.

And for the many, many readers who have offered consolation, support and their prayers, there is no way for me to adequately express my gratitude. My family and I all thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at

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