Elizabeth Lyons is city editor of the Advance-News and The Journal in Ogdensburg. She was the St. Lawrence County government reporter for Johnson Newspapers Corp. from 2001 until 2011.
Elizabeth is an Ogdensburg native and Ogdensburg Free Academy graduate who studied Romance linguistics at the University of Rochester. She lives in Morristown with her husband and two daughters. She is a Buffalo Bills fan, although she sometimes wonders why. In her free time, she is a St. Lawrence River rat, cooks as many types of cuisine from around the world as she can find ingredients for, and enjoys reading.
After roughly 10 meetings over the last three months, the New York Power Authority has walked away from talks with the St. Lawrence Local Government Task Force over a 10-year review of the 2003 relicensing settlement to operate the St. Lawrence-FDR power dam in Massena.
Not that anyone is all that surprised.
NYPA has maintained for the last 10 years that the settlement it reached with communities — which by our math amounts to about $401 million all told including $115 million in cash payments over 50 years, recreational improvements, funding for an eel impact study and a defunct aquarium project — is equitable to the $973 million settlement it reached in 2005 with the city of Buffalo and Erie and Niagara counties to operate the Niagara power project in Lewiston.
Our math comes out to $401 million, and here’s how: $26 million for the defunct St. Lawrence Aquarium and Ecological Center, $115 million in cash payments over 50 years to St. Lawrence County, the towns of Massena, Louisville and Waddington, the villages of Massena and Waddington and the Massena and Madrid-Waddington school districts, $66 million for environmental projects (which includes a $24 million study of the dam’s impact on eels), $23 million for habitat improvement projects, $9.6 million for improvements at the Wilson Hill Wildlife Management Area, $4.5 million for an eel passage through the dam (the eels made out very well in this deal), $3.9 million for future habitat improvement projects, $1 million for research and environmental education in the vicinity of the project, $116 million for recreational improvements and a $36 million community enhancement fund.
NYPA’s math places the value of the St. Lawrence deal at $473.7 million. I had never seen that figure before NYPA spokeswoman Connie M. Cullen tried to set us straight on how much the deal was worth Friday. I scoured our archives for mention of that number. It never appeared. I’m at a loss for how NYPA derived it, so we are requesting a breakdown justifying that number. Stay tuned.
Then again, going into this process we knew the Power Authority was using some creative math to demonstrate how our deal and the nearly $1 billion deal Western New York communities got were somehow comparing apples to apples.
It’s not, unless one of those apples is solid gold and studded with diamonds. Does the Power Authority really think we’re that stupid?
They argue that the two settlements are equitable based on power production at each plant and population density. Well, this deal has nothing to do with population density. It’s a question of impact.
The Power Authority still controls an obscene amount of our waterfront, on which it pays no taxes. NYPA flooded huge swaths of land in the 1950s when the project was built, forcing people and businesses to move and confiscating even more of our land. The dam forever changed the St. Lawrence River, altering its natural flows, controlling its water levels, and having an adverse impact on wildlife. Let’s not forget that recreational use of the river is also affected by the dam’s impact on water levels.
State and federal lawmakers in 2005 made that same argument about impact when demanding that NYPA give some rationale for the disparity between the two settlements.
Back then, former U.S. Rep. John M. McHugh demanded that NYPA return to the bargaining table with St. Lawrence communities to make the situation right. He called the Niagara settlement a betrayal.
“Simply put, this development is a total abandonment of the promise NYPA made that the applications for license renewal between Niagara and St. Lawrence would have a sense of balance and maintain a semblance of equity,” Mr. McHugh said in a news release. “That promise has been broken, and I think it’s an unbelievable situation.”
“Unbelievable” was perhaps the best word to describe the situation then, and it’s the best word to describe the current situation. NYPA can try to say our communities are not entitled to any more money. I beg to differ.
Their take-it-or-leave-it proposal to the task force included the Northern New York Power Proceeds Act — which was intended to follow through on something NYPA had already promised the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency but wrests control of proceeds from the sale of 20 megawatts of low-cost power away from the River Agency and bestows it on some outside board to be appointed by Albany — and the St. Regis Mohawk land claim deal recently reached by the state and the county that really has nothing to do with NYPA. The absurdity is stunning.
NYPA needs to right this wholly inequitable situation immediately and recognize that no, we really aren’t that stupid.
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY
Dads, today is a special day set aside for you.
If you are fortunate enough to still have your dad, let him know how loved he is today. Let him lounge in front of the ball game. Mow the lawn for him. Get him a beer. Feed him well. Do something nice for him.
I miss my own father today, but I am lucky to have a father-in-law, Patrick Lyons, who treats me like the daughter he never had.
Don’t take your dad for granted. Someday he will be gone, and you will long for every opportunity you ever missed to let him know how much he meant to you. Make sure you do something special for your dad today.
TULMAR MANUFACTURING WILL STAY
We got terrific news last week that Tulmar Manufacturing, which makes components for the transportation and defense industries, will not only remain in Ogdensburg but will expand to more than double its current workforce of four.
The company had been considering moving to Jefferson County. Rather than sit idle while yet another company left St. Lawrence County, the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority and county Industrial Development Agency were able to work with Tulmar to renegotiate its lease rates for space in OBPA’s Commerce Park. All agreed on a lower rate, and the deal was good enough to keep the company here.
We need more success stories like this. Economic development agencies too often are in a reactive position where they deal with the fallout from a company closing or leaving the area rather than being able to work with a company to keep it operating in the county.
Even for a small manufacturer like Tulmar, the IDA and OBPA recognized that every job counts. I applaud all parties for their successful negotiations and offer best wishes to Tulmar for a bright and long future in Ogdensburg.
BICYCLISTS ABOUND; BE SAFE
Warmer weather is here, so the perennial appearance of children on bicycles has also arrived.
I, like most other motorists, don’t want to run any of them over. Yet some of them make it difficult to adhere to that seemingly simple-sounding wish. The other day I saw a group of three or four kids weaving in and out of traffic, none of them wearing helmets or caring about proper traffic rules. If any of them thought they might be in danger of getting hit by a car, it wasn’t obvious. It’s by far not the first time I’ve seen a similar situation.
I see adults doing the same thing. It’s a miracle that there are not more car-bicyclist accidents than there are.
Bicyclists, I respect your right to operate your mode of transportation. But respect mine, too, please. And respect the fact that my mode of transportation is a 3,000-pound death machine. You need to follow the same rules of the road that I do for your safety and mine. Signal your turns. Keep right. Observe traffic signals and signs. And for the love of Pete, be aware of your surroundings.
Parents, allowing your child to operate a bicycle without a helmet is just plain irresponsible. Don’t let your kid’s brain get scrambled or worse. Make them wear helmets and make sure they know the rules of the road before you let them loose on two wheels.
LEGISLATION NEEDS BIGGER TEETH
Legislation that passed the state Senate last week has the potential to save counties a good chunk of change by forcing the state to send parole violators to prison after 10 business days rather than keeping them in county jails until they can be processed by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. The cost of keeping so-called “state-ready” inmates in county jails has been a problem for some time, with some of them held for months before they can be transferred to a state prison.
The state reimburses counties for a portion of the cost, but we are told the reimbursement falls far short of what it actually costs to house an inmate. It’s yet another state-imposed financial burden for counties.
Unfortunately, the state already is required to transfer state-ready inmates to prison within 10 days of county notification, but state officials seldom adhere to that rule. And what’s the incentive to? The state ends up saving money by leaving state-readies in county jails.
If it is to have the desired effect, the final legislation — which awaits passage in the Assembly — should include a provision forcing the state to make counties whole for the cost of housing any state-ready inmate for more than 10 days. That might encourage DOCCS to adhere to its rules.
Summer is almost here, thankfully, after a long, harsh north country winter.
Whenever I hear people grumble about how theres nothing to do around here, I try to remind them that we are in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
Those of us who grew up here take the natural beauty of our area for granted. When I graduated high school, I couldnt wait to leave Ogdensburg. I told myself I that once was out and was never coming back. The bright lights of the big city beckoned, where there was plenty to do 24 hours a day.
Ogdensburg was boring by the standards of an 18-year-old who was 10 feet tall, bullet-proof, and knew everything. I was somehow better than this place. I belonged where the action was.
I lived in a city for seven years and came back temporarily in 2000. Fourteen years later, here I am. And I dont regret coming back for an instant. It took leaving this place behind to figure out this is where I belong.
No matter how much I tried to look down on the place of my birth from my new and improved big-city digs, the St. Lawrence River was always on my mind. I missed the smell of the woods and the sound of the birds. I missed the quiet at night. I missed friendly people and the kindness of strangers.
Most of all, I missed all the time I spent outdoors in summer, fishing, hiking, camping or just hanging out in the back yard. I missed the Seaway Festival, the concerts in the park, the parades all around the north country just about every weekend in the summer, the heavenly smell of a community chicken barbecue and watching the ships as they make their way up and down the St. Lawrence Seaway. The sound of a passing ship at night always helps me sleep.
When you are tempted to groan about how we are in the middle of nowhere and theres nothing to do, I want you to stop and take a look around you.
Where we live is beautiful. Take in the scenery. Go for a walk and take a look at all the beauty around you. Take the kids for a bike ride or just go sit by the water and enjoy the breeze.
And regardless of what your brain has tried to convince you is true, there is plenty to do. When was the last time you checked out one of our local museums? The Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg, the Gateway Museum in Morristown, the Depot Museum in Lisbon and any of the town museums in St. Lawrence County surely have something that will pique your interest. They are jam-packed with local history and artifacts. You might learn something about your home town you didnt know before.
Museums arent your thing? No problem. There are music festivals and concerts galore. The Madrid Bluegrass River Festival is three days of great music June 27-29 in a beautiful setting near the Grasse River. The Gateway Museum in Morristown will offer a concert series starting later this month. The Norwood Village Green Concert Series offers plenty of entertainment all summer long. Seaway Festival concerts in the park are not to be missed.
Concerts not your thing, either? No problem. If there is one thing St. Lawrence County does right, its our community festivals. And we have plenty of them all summer. The Dairy Princess Parade and festival in Canton will kick off the festival season next weekend, along with the Massena Heritage Festival. Food, games, vendors and fun for the whole family are on tap.
Later this month is the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Exhibition at the St. Lawrence Power and Equipment Museum in Madrid, where you get to see a full history of heavy equipment, along with wagon rides, and antique tractor pull, food, music and activities for kids. The following month we have the Potsdam Summer Festival, Ogdensburgs Founders Days and Seaway Festival and firemens field days in many communities. There is usually a Civil War Re-enactment weekend that month in Massena.
August is just as jam-packed, with the Gouverneur & St. Lawrence County Fair, Waddington Homecoming, and the Ogdensburg Beer, Wine, Crafts and Food festival.
And I havent even gotten close to listing all of the community events we can expect this summer.
Lets not forget about all the fishing tournaments, chicken barbecues, poker runs, pig roasts and community sports league competitions in between. If thats too much action for you and you want things to be a little more quiet, take a short drive to the Adirondack Park, find a trail head and see where it takes you. Climb a mountain. Watch some birds. Take some outdoor photos or paint a landscape. Enjoy nature.
Instead of convincing yourself that the grass is greener and better in some other far-away community, take advantage of the myriad opportunities for fun St. Lawrence County has to offer.
Summer is coming. Get outside and enjoy the place we call home.
The state is getting its house in order to prepare for the transfer of 45 acres of surplus land at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center to the city of Ogdensburg. The state Office of General Services will be up this week to conduct a survey and document what lies on the property the state approved for transfer.
The state legislation authorizing the transfer, however, stipulated that the land would be transferred for fair market value.
Seeing as a portion of the land is St. Lawrence River waterfront and another portion is prime commercial land along Route 37, city officials and state lawmakers representing the north country are anxious to find out what value an appraiser will place on it. If its a certified appraiser independent of the state who does not take into consideration that the state twice unsuccessfully tried to sell the land, the value could be outrageously high.
If its too high, the deal and its potential to jump-start the Ogdensburg economy could go nowhere.
State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, is absolutely right to push the state to transfer the land to the city for $1. The state would be completely within its legal rights to do so. Under the state Constitution, one government can transfer land to another government for less than fair market value.
State officials have said they included the fair market value language in the legislation because they didnt want to set a precedent, but its not like this hasnt been done before. The New York Power Authority transferred surplus project lands to townships for a nominal fee following the 2003 relicensing settlement for the St. Lawrence-FDR power project in Massena.
Either the city or Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority or both have been asking the state to turn over surplus lands on the campus since, no kidding, 1991.
In 1992, a city task force formally requested three parcels, two of which were for OBPA. A fair market value of $990,000 was placed on the two OBPA parcels, which totaled 60 acres. OBPA challenged that appraisal.
Two years later, OMH set an asking price of $124,000 for one 39-acre parcel that had been requested. After some back and forth, OBPA agreed to purchase the land, with the price offset by giving the Office of Mental health free rent in one of its buildings for three years and seven months.
The sale of the land was authorized in 1994 through legislation sponsored by former Sen. James W. Wright of Watertown. It carried a sunset clause voiding the authorization if negotiations did not wrap up by 1996. At that point, it looked like the land transfer might actually happen.
The following year, in 1995, OMH formed the Interagency Council on Mental Hygiene Property Utilized, whose approval was required to officially sell the property to OBPA.
The council undertook a preliminary environmental site assessment to determine whether there was any contamination on the property. The report was received in December 1995, and three months later the council determined another environmental assessment was needed.
The state, meanwhile, hired an outside consultant to conduct a best-use analysis for the property. That consultant, Texas-based The Weitzman Group, determined that the land held absolutely no value.
At that point, OBPA again requested that the state Office of Mental Health transfer the property.
The OMH council asked if it could start occupying the building under the free lease agreement pending the transfer of the deed, which they acknowledged might never take place. The transfer of the deed, after all, was contingent upon further environmental analysis and the cleanup of any contamination on the property. I could not find any evidence that more environmental investigation ever even began.
OMH moved in and starting paying rent. At the end of 1996, the authorization to sell the land expired.
The following year, in 1997, former Governor George E. Pataki announced that surplus land at the psychiatric center would be offered for sale to private bidders, including the parcel that nearly was sold to OBPA and the other parcel it requested but never got. The Weitzman Group again that year concluded that there was no value to the property, and the city asked to take control of the waterfront portions of the campus.
In 1998, the states Empire State Development Corp. offered 263 acres up to bid. There were no bidders.
In 2000, Empire State Development put 260 acres up for bid. No takers.
It took 10 years for the state, city and OBPA to end up right back where they started.
The state has put up a lot of roadblocks over the years to maintain control of land it hasnt used in decades, that no private bidders wanted and that its consultants determined was worthless.
If officials are serious about wanting to divest the state of its idle properties so more property can get back on the tax roll, they will do everything they can to allow the city to take over the property at a reasonable, nominal fee. It would be tragic if history were allowed to repeat itself.