Friday, May 24, 2019

Memorial Day and the magnitude of sacrifice

This column runs in newspapers that predominantly serve readers in Niagara, Orleans, Genesee, Livingston, and Erie counties. The total population of those counties approaches 1.4 million people.

Suppose you went on vacation and came back only to find all of those counties as ghost towns. Every home, every apartment, vacant…no one anywhere in places like Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Lockport, Batavia, Geneseo, and Medina. Communities large and small, empty, silent, forlorn.   

That apocalyptic vision should give you a feel for the scale of sacrifice that has led to the observation of Memorial Day.

Since the start of the Revolutionary War, Americans whose numbers are identical to the population of this region paid the ultimate price for our nation’s goals, the American Way and the pursuit and retention of freedom.

Think of what those warriors accomplished for the benefit of their countrymen and generations of Americans whom they would never meet:

America, the greatest and freest nation ever conceived, would never have existed had men not fought to the death against British tyranny.

She would never have remained intact, nor would 3.5 million blacks have been freed from slavery, had the North not found it morally necessary to preserve our nation and better the human existence.

The whole modern world would have been torn asunder and many millions more innocent lives taken by evil had we not entered the two World Wars which cost over a half-million American lives.

Communism would have gained immeasurable might and influence had we not waged a proxy war against its principle powers – China and Russia – in the Koreas.

58,000 perished while having the honor, patriotism and allegiance to stick with America -- regardless of our nation’s nasty sociopolitical divide -- during the Vietnam War, the most contentious conflict in our history.

The War on Terror was waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, with our men and women volunteering to fight for our security, wanting not to see a recurrence of 9/11 on our soil and ensuring those who initiated the attacks experienced what their victims had. Nearly 7,000 lost their lives in those theatres.

Those high profile wars mentioned above are but a few of the dozens that have occurred in and out of our borders. America’s history has long been saddled with military conflicts and occupations, warranted and unwarranted. No matter those circumstances, in all of them, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, perished.

Those soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen gave their lives so that we might chase the American Dream, strive to achieve the impossible, and live our lives to their fullest potential and enjoyment. They understood that even with her blemishes America has been, is, and will be a nation of power, honor and integrity, just as those individuals were in the moments leading up to their ultimate sacrifice.

Without them, we wouldn’t have everything we savor in this great nation of ours: free markets, a free press, and a free people. None of those “free” things are truly “free”. There was a cost. Blood was spilled and lives were lost to achieve and keep them.

So, it’s vitally important that each and every one of us take some time today to honor those who fell in battle. You need not partake in a parade or attend a solemn service but you should, in your own way, quietly and genuinely reflect upon and appreciate the accomplishments and lives of our fine armed forces of wars past and present.

From the 27 May 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, May 17, 2019

Let ex-felons serve on juries

Last week, the New York Senate approved a bill that would allow convicted felons to serve on juries. A similar bill has worked its way through committee in the Assembly and might, or might not, come to a vote before this legislative session ends in five weeks.

The proposed law marks a significant change to existing standards which impose a lifetime ban on anyone convicted of a felony. Under the guidelines passed by the Senate ex-felons would be eligible to help pass judgment on criminal and civil cases after having completed any sentencing related to their conviction, be it prison, probation or community supervision.

The bill was passed along party lines and the Republican members of the Senate took to the press to voice their displeasure over what the Democrats had done. Of course, their like-partied constituents complained on social media outlets, considering it a disgusting move by Albany as it puts who they consider to be lowlifes in power to decide the fate of parties who are accused of a crime or battling it out in the courts.

I, on the other hand, would have no problem with a once-convicted juror.

I’ve been under the gun in civil trials. I likely will be again; it comes with the territory of running a business of decent size that serves a variety of clients and makes water-based leisure products. So, I know the value of good jurors.

Just last year, I was party in a trial that lasted two weeks. At the end of it, the jurors made their decision and ruled that my company was not at fault. Had they gone the other way it’s likely the company would have folded.

It took the jury nearly two full days to deliberate because there were a few other defendants – individuals and corporations -- involved in the trial as well, and they had to take their time meting out responsibility if there was any at all. I appreciated the time and effort they put into it.

Their thoughtfulness was an outcome of the make-up of the jury as they were a diverse bunch – from lower-income workers to white collar types to retirees to housewives.

When people are deciding your fate, that’s what you want. You are best served by people from all walks of life, jurors with their own experiences, worldviews, and observation and interpretation skills.

By “all walks of life” that means everyone, warts and all.

In the future I would gladly accept a former felon on the jury because he has seen and been through things that the others might otherwise be unable to relate to and, more so than most on the jury, he understands the legal procedures and what the jury is actually supposed to do.  

I know that he wouldn’t be any less of a person, in God’s eyes, than those sitting beside him. Yes, he committed a heinous crime, or what society believes to be a heinous crime, but he faced his punishment, served his time, and suffered the woes of incarceration and the joys of reformation. If we did our job as a just people and a just penal system, he came out a better man and stronger man.

Those against affording ex-convicts rights such as jury duty or voting would say that the unconscionably-high recidivism rates show that many of them aren’t better people.

Is it that they aren’t better people or that we aren’t better people?

Do we drive some young men to recommit because we deny them rights after having paid their dues, brand them with a modern day Scarlet Letter and turn them away when they look for gainful employment that affirms a new life for them?

If we claim to be a just people – a mantle we always proclaim with our legal system, churches, schools, and families, as well as social media’s cause du jour – then why are we not just to those who have been served our justice at its fullest?

They have paid their debts to society. It’s up to us to welcome them back into it, rather than driving them away from it.

To do so, we need to offer them the same chances that we law-abiding citizens have. Not only do they deserve and want to pursue a career, but they also deserve and want to be contributing members of society to, among other things, have the power to vote and to contribute to our judicial system.

As a nation, we’ve done our darnedest – and spent our darnedest -- to institute and employ a penal system to transform them into good citizens.

So, let them be able to be just that.

If we don’t, what good was all of our talk, tax dollars, efforts, and alleged moral superiority?

From the 20 May 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Property taxes: Paying your unfair share

A debate that has appeared in the American political scene for what seems to be an eternity is the premise that everyone should “pay their fair share”. So much attention has been trained on this matter at the national level that most people have almost totally ignored the concept at the local level where it should carry even greater weight.

You see, there’s nothing fair about property taxes.  

In comparing properties of equal size, why should a childless couple pay as much as a family of four, when the family of four consumes far more in public services, especially public schooling?

How is it just that municipalities and schools in Allegany County and the Adirondacks reap revenues from what are basically absentee landowners living elsewhere (camp owners) who come to town just a few weekends and weeks a year and acquire almost no benefit from the taxes they’ve paid? Why should those non-resident property owners be excluded from having a vote in how their hard-earned dollars are being used in the places where they are paying them?

In rural locales, why should farmers carry the highest portion of the revenue burden just because they happen to own vast tracks of land? It’s not as if they are receiving a proportionate amount of services.

Why should property owners pay so much for Medicaid (in most New York counties it’s 52 to 64 percent of the county tax) when it should be the obligation of the population as a whole to fund this forced benevolence?

Why should senior citizens on fixed incomes who have been paying into the system their whole adult lives continue to pay high taxes for things they won’t use anymore, but once did and once paid for accordingly through taxation at that time?

Why should someone who loves his home and wants to make it better with a swimming pool, patio or an addition have to suffer the consequences at reassessment and end up paying more in taxes than someone who left his land idle?

Beyond those glaring displays of wrong, consider the very act of property taxation itself: Your bank account is a form of property – would you like the government collecting a tax on its value each and every year? 

You wouldn’t stand for that because it’s “yours” not “theirs”, so why do we allow it with our home and land?

That begs the question: Is it really even “yours”?

You are led to believe that you own your home – and you even possess legal documents that show as much.

You really don’t; ownership is only theoretical.

It’s more accurately stated that you are renting the property from your local governments and school districts at a premium because if you didn’t pay your taxes it wouldn’t take long for that governing body to take that home from you --- even if the mortgage was fully paid-for! How is that fair?

This travesty carries special meaning in New York State where property taxes are 70% above the national average.

Across America, people think of their property taxes in terms of hundreds of dollars. Here, we think of them in thousands of dollars.

In Niagara County a home assessed at $100,000 has a total property tax bill around $3,000, meaning that local homeowners pay over $1,200 more than their peers in other states with equally-assessed properties. Someone whose home is valued at $200,000 pays about $2,400 more than their peers elsewhere.

The extreme view would see property taxes abolished. We know that will never happen.

But, a myriad of changes could be accomplished to mitigate the unfairness of property taxes in the Empire State or, at least, decrease their size.  

Just a few of those ideas: Replace the state’s Medicaid program with an HMO-driven voucher system; add another 1 to 1.5 percent to the state sales tax to use a fairer consumption-driven tax to decrease property owners’ contributions to Medicaid; utilize clawbacks on businesses that break their promises to IDAs; end all corporate welfare that uses 100% tax-free abatements (they have to pay something); introduce assessment caps; adjust assessments to true market value (looking back, how in the world did assessments go up during the Great Recession?); and have a state commission provide oversight of proposed bills that would impose and/or increase unfunded mandates upon counties, towns, villages and schools.

Those are all common sense measures that could cut back on some of the unfairness and high costs that are inherent to our property taxes. But, instead of pursuing them, it seems like the state Legislature and Governor prefer to maintain an air of unfairness by adding more unfunded mandates and more enrollees to Medicaid without relief to residents.

It’s no wonder that so many young minds and retirees have left.

They want someplace fairer to work and live…and, despite what Governor Cuomo says, it has nothing to do with fairer weather.


From the 13 May 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News