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

Monday, May 6, 2019

Hoping for a long life for Niagara County’s lifeline

During the first weekend of May in 1999 I had severe abdominal pain and chalked it up to food poisoning. 

I fought through it best I could – I moved into my home and played some softball that weekend, saying I wouldn’t let pain and bad food ruin my weekend.

Over the course of those two days it got worse and worse, and, without my knowing, my appendix exploded. Only after the poisons made their way through my body did I go to the ER. By then, it had caused potentially-fatal peritonitis. I needed emergency surgery and spent a week in hospital followed by weeks of recovery.

Now, every morning when I look in the mirror and see the large scar that travels vertically across my stomach I count my blessings. I was likely hours away from kicking the bucket but I was fortunate that Lockport Memorial Hospital and its people were there for me – Dr. Hodge was able to work his magic on my innards and the wonderful doctors, nurses and assistants made sure my stay was helpful and comfortable.

I’m forever indebted to those good people and the Hospital for saving my life.

Last week’s reflection on the twenty year anniversary of my second chance at life was countered by sadness for Eastern Niagara Hospital, the system that now runs that hospital and its satellite enterprises, for on that same day the news came out that ENH was on a path to further downsizing: They will be closing the Newfane dialysis center and radiology facility and shutting the doors at Newfane Express Care.

In the biggest shocker, ENH will be closing the maternity ward at Lockport – the same unit that brought me into the world, saw the birth of one of my sons, and nearly birthed our twins a few weeks ago (their premature delivery demanded a move, by ambulance, from Lockport to Oishei’s). 

It’s incredibly sad that the ward which created memories for literally tens of thousands of parents will become but a memory itself.

But, I know it’s a necessary move that reflects the reality of the world we live in – or more accurately, the state we live in.

If you’ve read this column for any length of time you know I fret quite often about the ongoing decline of Upstate New York. Decades of poor leadership from state officials have turned it into a sinking ship, with businesses, people and prosperity abandoning the woebegone region at unprecedented rates.

Not only is it something that keeps me up at night running a factory that serves clients from around the world, it also dominates my thoughts while serving as board president for two local non-profits that serve area residents.

Both of those non-profits have lost a significant number of potential clients, which reflects the shrinking and aging population of WNY. Because of that, we’ve instituted major changes, have plans in the works to transform those organizations to meet the changing demographics, and often ponder long-term nuclear options if the decline of the region happens at a rate even greater than what it has.

That is, quite likely, the same mess that ENH is in. Fewer area residents equal fewer patients which equals fewer revenues. On top of that, there’s the “use it or lose it” syndrome: 65% of area women from a population of potential child bearers that is 24% lower than it was 20 years ago choose facilities other than Lockport to have delivery.

So, changes are necessary to save the organization, changes that include downsizing or elimination of underutilized services to ensure more “popular” and universally necessary operations can continue in Lockport. Thousands of businesses and non-profits across Upstate have been making such decisions for years – and they will continue to.

I doubt any of this is comforting to those who need or have used ENH’s services or those who work hard to provide them.

I’m in that boat -- it especially pains me to think of the skilled and caring ladies in the maternity ward who will be out of a job. They’ve helped my family through some times that have been happy and scary.  

So, for their sake -- and all of ours -- let’s hope that what ENH is doing is exactly what the doctor ordered and that this critical lifeline for Eastern Niagara County lives on.

Lockport Memorial saved my life. It likely saved someone close to you.

If all goes according to plan it will save itself, too.

Let’s pray that it does.

From the 08 May 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News