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Owens reflects on years serving Northern New York in Congress

First published: December 24, 2014 at 10:25 am
Last modified: December 24, 2014 at 10:25 am

U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, who is retiring at the end of the year, was first elected in a special election in 2009, and re-elected in 2010, in what was then the 23rd Congressional District.

In 2009, he switched his enrollment from independent to Democrat to run.

He was re-elected in 2012 in the new 21st Congressional District, which stretches from Lake Ontario to Vermont along a broad swath of Northern New York.

The 65-year-old lawyer spoke with The Post-Star on Monday about his five years in Congress, his outlook for government and about his plans in retirement.

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Q: What do you think is the most important piece of legislation that you got through during your tenure in Congress?

A: I would tend to focus on the Farm Bill because it contained three pieces of legislation that I was principal sponsor of. So from that perspective, I think that has the largest impact on the district.

Q: Looking back in retrospect, what are your thoughts about the shutdown and gridlock in Congress?

A: I think it was certainly a great disappointment. ... You have the Congress that I’m leaving with the fewest bills passed since right after World War II. I think the real question becomes: How are people making decisions? Are they making political decisions or are they making analytic decisions? And, unfortunately, there are very few analytic decisions being made.

Q: How do constituents, not just in the 21st District, but everywhere, get Congress to make analytic decisions?

A: I think the real crux of that issue is insuring that what we have are purple districts as opposed to red and blue districts. If we had purple districts, we would then have people having to weigh their decisions based on the interest of constituents from both sides of the aisle. And that’s how you get people to act analytically.

Q: Do you think the 21st District is a purple district or a district that elected a Democrat as an anomaly and will go back to being a red district for — well how many decades was it since the last Democrat (that represented Watertown and Plattsburgh)?

A: Fifteen (decades) — I think that the district will continue to trend toward the purple side. As I have frequently said, the district is filled with Rockefeller Republicans and Reagan Democrats. And I think that trend will continue. I certainly hope that it does because I think it is so critical to people’s livelihoods and way of life. ...

Q: Any issues that you feel are left undone in Congress that you hope others will pick up in the months and years to come?

A: Clearly I think that immigration reform, particularly as it relates to ag labor, is extremely important. And I’m hopeful people will address that in the next Congress. I also think that we need to find a way to join the interests of owners and employees so that we can develop policies that allow us to grow the incomes of the middle class. I think that is of critical importance both micro-economically and macro-economically.

Q: What’s the best item on the menu at The Dubliners, in Washington, D.C., where you and Congressman Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, frequently met to discuss legislation?

A: Fish and chips

Q: When you leave Congress, do you return to being registered as an independent, or do you stay a Democrat?

A: I stay a Democrat.

Q: You have often joked about being the only member of the House Brevity Caucus. What is the skill to keeping things succinct and brief.

A: The skill is to think about what you’re going to say before you say it, and make sure that you’re conveying the information that you want to convey in as concise a manner as possible.

Q: In Congress you’ve dealt a lot in Canadian relations and Canadian commerce. Will you be staying involved in that aspect after you leave Congress?

A: Absolutely — I think that is the most likely scenario for increasing economic activity throughout the district. ... All of those communities are all in a position to benefit from a focus on Canada.

Q: How do you stay involved? Do you go back to volunteering with the Chamber of Commerce like you did before Congress? Or do you envision having some other role now?

A: I think there are several ways that can be done. The Chamber of Commerce locally is one. I’ve been invited by some groups over in St. Lawrence County to come over and talk to them about economic activity, particularly as it relates to Canada, after I leave office. If other communities invite me to help them, I’m happy to do that as well.

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High wind warning issued for Thursday in Jefferson County

First published: December 24, 2014 at 2:05 am
Last modified: December 24, 2014 at 2:05 am

The National Weather Service has issued a high wind warning for Jefferson County from 1 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday, while less-severe wind forecasts were issued for Lewis, Oswego and St. Lawrence counties.

The Buffalo-based weather service said Tuesday that southwest winds from 25 to 35 mph are expected across Jefferson County during the period on Christmas day, with gusts up to 60 mph. The impact of winds are expected to take down some trees and power lines, resulting in scattered power outages, the service said. Winds will make it challenging to travel in high-profile vehicles, and holiday decorations will be damaged if they’re not secured.

The weather service issues high wind warnings when sustained winds of 40 mph are expected for at least an hour, or with gusts of 58 mph or greater at any time. Damage of trees, power lines and property are all possible with winds of that magnitude.

During the same period as Jefferson County, a wind advisory has been issued for Lewis and Oswego counties. Southwest winds from 20 to 30 mph are expected, with gusts of up to 50 mph.

In St. Lawrence County, a flood watch has been issued from 7 p.m. Wednesday until 7 a.m. Friday. Flooding is possible in areas along the St. Lawrence River, due to the combination of heavier rainfall and snowmelt.

In addition, a high wind watch has been issued for St. Lawrence County from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday. Southwest winds of 20 to 30 mph are expected, with gusts up to 60 mph.

The service issues a high wind watch when there is the potential for a hazardous high wind event.

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State Police Report

First published: December 24, 2014 at 2:01 am
Last modified: December 24, 2014 at 2:01 am

UNDERAGE DRINKING INITIATIVE - MORRISTOWN - Canton-based state police charged two people with selling alcohol to minors during an underage drinking initiative on the evening of Dec. 19.

• Gary B. Johnson, 55, of Ogdensburg was charged with prohibited sale of alcoholic beverages to a minor and unlawfully dealing with a child at 6:10 p.m. at 3301 County Route 6.

• Tammy J. Howie, 48, of Hammond was charged with prohibited sale of alcoholic beverages to a minor and unlawfully dealing with a child at 6:35 p.m. at 8667 state Route 58.

PROPERTY DAMAGE ACCIDENTS - CANTON - State police responded to a number of property damage accidents on Monday around the region. Among those:

• Ronald J. Patnode, 17, of Volton at 10:14 p.m. on state Route 56 at Sissonville Road in the town of Potsdam.

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St. Lawrence County employees approve new contract

First published: December 24, 2014 at 2:00 am
Last modified: December 24, 2014 at 2:00 am

CANTON — Two St. Lawrence County employee unions have ratified new five-year contract agreements that provide members with an $800 a year salary increase next year followed by annual hikes through 2019.

Members of Local 1000, Unit 8400 voted in favor of the pact by a vote of 365 to 77, according to CSEA President Amy J. Simmons.

The unit represents about 650 county employees.

“It’s an excellent contract,” Ms. Simmons said. “Both sides sat down and wanted to settle. I’m very pleased with support from the union.”

She said she was also pleased with the high voting participation among union members. The county Legislature approved the contract at its Dec. 15 board meeting.

A separate CSEA unit that represents solid waste employees also adopted a new five-year contract.

Both agreements provide employees with an $800 salary increase in 2015, followed by 2 percent annual raises for 2016, 2017 and 2018 and a 2.25 percent raise in 2019.

The 2015 county budget allocates roughly $2 million to cover the cost of wage increases for union and management employees.

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State provides Ogdensburg with market appraisal of 48 acres of psych center land

First published: December 24, 2014 at 2:00 am
Last modified: December 24, 2014 at 2:00 am

A monetary appraisal of approximately 48 acres of land at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center has been completed, marking a key step in the city’s efforts to acquire the riverfront property from the state for development.

The fair market appraisal, completed for the state Office of General Services by Michael L. Varley of Varley Appraisal Group Inc., Ogdensburg, was calculated at $120,000 if sold along with a number of partially dilapidated buildings on the property — but $225,000 if the land were marketed with the structures removed.

In a report issued to Robert M. VanDeloo Jr. of the state OGS Bureau of Land Management, Mr. Varley said the overall property the city hopes to acquire consists of a combined 48 acres of land comprised of four separate properties listed as parcels A through D and encompassing a land area of 25.7, 16.6, 1,2, and 4.5 acres, respectively.

The lots include a hodgepodge of structures in varying states of disrepair ranging from large brick institutional-style buildings to old wood-frame homes, barns and outbuildings.

Ogdensburg City Manager John M. Pinkerton said the next step in the city’s bid to acquire the land will be to determine if the state has already conducted a formal environmental assessment to determine whether there are any lead paint or asbestos concerns associated with structures on the property. He said if a review has not been done, he will seek permission for the city to conduct its own environmental study.

Mr. Pinkerton said determining whether hazardous materials are present could ultimately affect the cost of razing or remediating buildings and property.

“There are certain buildings we’d have to take if we do take the property,” Mr. Pinkerton said. “We’d want to have lead paint and asbestos done.”

Attaching a monetary value to the vacant property is the latest step in potential land transfer discussions between the state and city that began in June when Ogdensburg, state and county officials met to take a tour of the idle St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center land that the city hopes to eventually own and development to increase its tax base.

The property currently under discussion represents a small portion of some 160 acres being eyed by city officials as a prime development zone that includes picturesque views of the St. Lawrence River, frontage on state Route 37 and access to municipal utilities.

Mr. Pinkerton said state officials have given the city until March to forge an agreement regarding whether to continue moving forward with the initiative.

“The process has started,” Mr. Pinkerton said. “Now we try to find out what is viable, what can happen.”

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, who has previously called for the state to turn the land over to the city of Ogdensburg for $1, said in a statement Tuesday that she is pleased that dialogue over the unused St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center land is continuing. She made no mention of her previous calls for the state to turn the land over to Ogdensburg for a nominal fee.

“Negotiations on property acquisitions are never easy or simple,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “The state’s appraisal is a good first step that shows officials in Albany are interested in working with Ogdensburg to help transform a blighted neighborhood into an economic engine that will help revitalize the north country’s economy.”

Talks over acquiring the psychiatric center land have involved myriad government officials and agencies in recent months, including the state OGS, Office of Mental Health, the Empire State Development Office, city administrative and planning officials, the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency and other county officials.

The city has proposed redeveloping the land, which borders Route 37 and the St. Lawrence River, for commercial and residential use. As part of its redevelopment plan, the city has proposed selling a portion of the psychiatric center land to private developers and using that money to set up a revolving development fund that can be used to rehabilitate and tear down other vacant buildings.

All told, there are some 160 acres at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center identified by city and state officials as surplus. The sprawling psychiatric center grounds themselves encompass more than 400 acres.

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St. Lawrence County Legislature plans revote on NYPA deal

First published: December 24, 2014 at 1:59 am
Last modified: December 24, 2014 at 1:59 am

CANTON - The new Republican-controlled St. Lawrence County Legislature will start the new year off by reintroducing a resolution that was voted down at their Dec. 15 meeting regarding changes to the relicensing agreement with the New York Power Authority for the FDR-St. Lawrence Power Project.

Legislator Joseph L. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, says he has the votes locked up to capture the job of chair when the board votes at its Jan. 2 reorganizational meeting. Republicans will take control of the board by a 10 to 5 majority.

A resolution supporting changes to a 2003 NYPA relicensing agreement will be on the agenda that night, Mr. Lightfoot said Tuesday.

“We’re not going to get any better deal by holding off,” Mr. Lightfoot said. “This deal is better than no deal.”

Last week, the legislature voted 7-4 against a resolution supporting changes to the 2003 relicensing agreement with NYPa. Although seven legislators voted in favor, the measure failed because eight votes are needed to pass a resolution on the 15-member board.

Although he voted against the resolution the first time, Mr. Lightfoot said he has received information that convinced him to change his vote.

Specifically, he learned that it’s unlikely the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would put pressure on NYPA to provide a better deal for St. Lawrence County.

“We don’t have the hammer to obtain everything we’d like from the power authority,” Mr. Lightfoot said.

Also, he said NYPA has agreed to revisions that include allowing the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency to monetize 20 megawatts of power and he doesn’t want to jeopardize that offer.

Those proceeds are supposed to be earmarked for economic development and job creation.

Board Chair Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, said he will recuse himself from the Jan. 2 vote because the county ethics board said his employment as a teacher with the Massena Central School District could be considered a conflict of interest.

“Their opinion was ambiguous, but I’m abstaining,” he said.

Mr. Putney said he was unaware the resolution was going to be reintroduced. He said he’d vote for the measure if he wasn’t abstaining. The 20 megawatts of power could translate into roughly $2 million a year for economic development in St. Lawrence County, he said.

“We’re basically turning megawatts into cash,” Mr. Putney said. “Those funds could create work and opportunities and that’s exactly what we need.”

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Ogdensburg teen facing 36 charges following alleged thefts

First published: December 24, 2014 at 1:58 am
Last modified: December 24, 2014 at 1:58 am

An Ogdensburg teen is facing more than 30 charges in connection to burglaries of storage units in the town of Lisbon during the last two months and the theft of a neighbor’s ATV.

State police on Sunday charged Hunter E. Sharlow, 17, of 93 County Route 4, also known as Eel Weir Road, with two counts of felony third-degree burglary, 10 counts of fourth-degree criminal mischief, 10 counts of criminal mischief, eight counts of fifth-degree criminal possession of stolen property, four counts of misdemeanor endangering the welfare of a child and possession of burglar tools.

The charges stem from a Dec. 6 traffic stop during which state police investigators said Mr. Sharlow and two juveniles, a 15-year-old male and a 14-year-old female, both of Ogdensburg, admitted to the Oct. 20 theft of a 2003 red Bombardier four-wheeler ATV with William C. Harper, 17, also of Ogdensburg. The ATV was located in an open pole barn at 85 County Route 4 belonging to Doug Fifield and valued at $1,500.

The four teens were charged with fourth-degree grand larceny in connection to the alleged ATV theft.

New York State Police Investigator Jay W. Taylor said Mr. Sharlow and the two juveniles additionally confessed to their alleged roles in the burglaries of about 10 storage sheds located on Route 68 in Lisbon between Dec. 1 and 6. Mr. Taylor said approximately 10 locks were cut and items including a mini-fridge, movies, clothing items, sports items, electronics and construction equipment were stolen. The trio was allegedly in possession of bolt cutters which had been used to cut the locks, according to state police.

“That investigation led to the recovery of eight pieces of stolen property inside of Mr. Sharlow’s bedroom,” Investigator Taylor said. “Additionally, they confessed to their role into burglaries of storage sheds on Route 37 in Lisbon on November 29, where 10 locks were cut and they stole electronics, toys and sports equipment.”

In addition to each being charged with one count of felony fourth-degree grand larceny for their alleged participation in the ATV theft, they were each charged with two counts of third-degree burglary and one count of possession of burglar tools.

The 15-year-old male was additionally charged with 20 counts of fourth-degree criminal mischief and two counts of fifth-degree criminal possession of stolen property.

Mr. Harper was issued an appearance ticket returnable to Morristown Town Court. Both juveniles were issued tickets returnable to St. Lawrence County Family Court.

Mr. Sharlow was arraigned in Morristown Town Court and posted $2,500 bail before leaving the court.

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