Friday, January 20, 2017

NY already behind on paid family leave



In the early months of 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo consistently touted the progressive leadership of the Empire State in championing the strongest paid family leave policy in the nation.

The new rules go into effect next January.  Employees will be eligible for 12 weeks of paid family leave when caring for an infant, a family member with a serious health condition or to relieve family pressures when someone is called to active military service.

Benefits will be phased-in, beginning at 50 percent of an employee’s average weekly wage, capped to 50 percent of the statewide average weekly wage. Once fully implemented in 2021, payments will hit 67 percent of their average weekly wage, capped to 67 percent of the statewide average weekly wage.

This program will be funded entirely through a payroll deduction on employees who will be eligible to participate after having worked for their employer for six months.

That’s all we know about the program.

Despite being a leader in this endeavor, the state is already behind: With less than a year to go to implementation, policymakers, state agencies, employers and employees have been left in the dark about how the program will be launched, administered, and funded.

It’s eerily similar to the cloak of darkness that had county clerks across the state scrambling to figure out how to address the SAFE Act’s handgun recertification issue after 3 years of zero guidance from the Governors’ office. That was rectified by a surprise bombshell dropped at the very last minute in which administration of the policy was granted to the State Police.

This won’t be that easy.

While we know that the Workers Compensation Board (WCB) will manage the paid leave program, every single employer in the state has much to do in the next 11 months to get prepared and hold up their end of the bargain. They have to learn state policies, make their own internal policies, update employee handbooks, educate employees on the leave act and how to apply for it, tell workers how much they are contributing to the state fund, and work with payroll companies to appropriately earmark and disburse the insurance fees.

That’s a lot for businesses to learn and prepare (after all, it is a stark culture change for most) amidst all the other things they do on a day to day basis -- like running their companies and keeping people employed.

When will they find out what’s expected? It certainly won’t be anytime soon and it probably won’t be until after summer. By then, it might be so late that you could easily imagine the state delaying the launch of the program and/or being saddled with a lawsuit delaying it.

I lean towards a late-summer, early-fall info campaign not out of pessimism but because the state truly appears to be making little headway.

I attempted to navigate Cuomo’s 2017-2018 budget to see if I could ascertain how much was projected to be collected and disbursed over the first few months of the leave program. I found nothing. I also found nothing on the WCB’s breakdown. What I did find in a budget narrative was an “out” of sorts for the Governor – under “legislation required for the budget” there was a line that requested the development of a Risk Adjustment Paid Family leave Fund. So, while the previous budget (2016-2017) saw the announcement of the birth of the paid leave program from a grandstanding standpoint, the necessary legislation never accompanied it. Here we are a year later and the plan is still lacking teeth and legality.

Somehow, in the next few months, the Legislature has to work together (if that’s even possible) to allow the fund to even exist at all. Then, the WCB, number crunchers, and others have to develop a sustainable budget and determine what the insurance fee (tax) will be. Once that is settled upon, only then can the policies be ironed out and delivered.

It’s a disappointing lack of true leadership by the state. Having a vision is fine, but if there’s no strategy, no meat, to back up the vision, it’s totally meaningless.

8 million private sectors workers will be eligible for the program. They and their bosses need to know soon how it will all work – something that state officials still don’t know, a full year into the discussions.      



From the 23 January 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 
       

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Buffalo Billion’s missing ingredient



At his recent regional State of the State address held at the University of Buffalo, Governor Andrew Cuomo touted the Buffalo Billion Part 2, a collection of 25 publically-aided projects that will allegedly grow and inspire the local economy.

As with the first installment of the Billion, the focus was on manufacturing, healthcare and life sciences, tourism, and infrastructure. While most of the lager sectors of the economy had a gift thrown their way, one of WNY’s most significant remained conspicuously absent from these economic development plans – agriculture.

At first glance, that makes sense, because the announced goal of the Buffalo Billion was to excite some of the destitute urban areas in Buffalo and Niagara Falls in an effort to help those city centers rise from the ranks of rust belt ghost towns. Rural WNY got the short shrift under such a concept. Plus, with hundreds of individual farms in the area, how do you invest in something that wouldn’t benefit a few but could benefit all? 

But, if you look at the human aspect of the Buffalo Billion – that is, by investing in the region you can help improve the socioeconomic status people living in the urban areas – there’s a way that local ag can be tied into it for the betterment of many.

Currently, various hardscrabble neighborhoods in the Queen City and the Falls are bereft of access to produce. Called “food deserts” by urban planners, those communities-within-a-community don’t have farmers markets -- let alone grocery stores in most cases -- and residents have to rely on whatever is in walking distance or near a public transit stop (and carrying groceries on a bus is no easy task). Because of the reliance on small marts and convenience stores, those families are left to diets of processed foods and canned goods, with fresh fruit and vegetables being a rarely enjoyed nicety. It’s no wonder that poor neighborhoods have unconscionably high rates of diabetes and heart disease.

Food deserts have not only created a public health crisis but they also drain the economy because those who live in food deserts are likely to be Medicaid recipients, and the outlays of public funds to address their illnesses are incredible.

Administrators of the Buffalo Billion could address the health of those residents and the economy by tackling the root cause of this situation – lack of access to healthy foods and the inability of local farms to get good foods to those who need it most.

An appropriate use of state economic funds would be the development of sustainable, year-long cooperatives and/or farmers markets with SNAP (food stamp) compliance strategically staged in the various food deserts. Those oases would provide the neighboring populations with healthy foodstuff and ingredients within reach of their homes.

There are many successful examples of such public-private initiatives that can be found across the country.

The East End Food Co-op in Pittsburgh was created by a Steel City ministry to address their food deserts –  it serves 11,000 households and has 90 employees. The Hendersonville, North Carolina co-op saw a 2016 expansion that allows the health food store to serve 2,800 member homes. The New Orleans Food Co-Op opened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and makes produce available to its 3,700 limited-income members.

There are dozens more examples of programs successfully combatting food deserts in cities similar in economic make-up to ours. Local city and state officials wouldn’t necessarily have to re-invent the wheel, they could learn from and feed off the successes of those markets.

But, it takes a considerable initial investment to make such programs work. Building and marketing a dozen stores selling locally-grown produce in poverty-stricken areas of WNY? That’s chump change to something that touts itself as a billion dollar initiative.

Are you listening, Albany? There are a lot of Western New Yorkers hungry for change…but there are many more who are just plain hungry.       



From the 16 January 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The Kanyoo Nature Trail



Swallow Hollow, which we profiled in this column in 2016, is far and away the most popular hiking trail in the Iroquois Wildlife Refuge, sometimes affectionately known as the “Alabama Swamps.”

Second on that list, and a distant second at that, is the Kanyoo nature trail.

That’s odd, given the accessibility of the Kanyoo trail. It’s not off the beaten path like Swallow Hollow. It’s on Route 77, just down the street from the extremely popular waterfowl and bald eagle overlooks.

Maybe it’s the fact that the entrance to the trail doesn’t look very inviting. Most folks might not even think there’s a trail there at all. You can chalk that up to the presence of a barn in the parking lot, which might lead people to believe that it’s a worksite for the refuge’s employees.

Don’t let that fa├žade fool you. The Kanyoo trail offers an excellent jaunt.

The stone parking lot next to that barn has parking for approximately 25 cars and in the winter months it is plowed, making this a trail for all seasons.

Next to some interpretive signage along the lot, you will see a stone path head into the woods.

From there, you are granted various types of nature watching – from forest to wetland.

Especially in the spring and early summer, you will be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of birds present in those habitats along the trail – you could conceivably see 50 species of birds on one short trip. It’s no wonder the trail has the name of Kanyoo – it’s an Iroquois word that means “wildlife”.

The forest is impressive, it has a great canopy created by some large maples and tulip trees. I am especially impressed with the size of many of the cherry trees along the trail. The photo accompanying this column shows a particularly large specimen.

Thanks to the abundance of large trees, there is limited thick underbrush which allows excellent growth of wildflowers in the spring. Bring a camera, because the forest floor is graced by trilliums, partridge berries, Canada mayflowers, and may apples. At the same time you see those flowers, keep your eyes to the sky, as the forest is home to thrushes, tanagers and vireos, and popular migratory stopover for countless warblers.





As you head deeper into the woods, you will encounter vernal pools in the low spots in the spring, affording vast breeding grounds for toads and frogs. If you visit on the right warm spring day, your ears will be overwhelmed by the cacophony of courting amphibians.


Make sure you have binoculars with you, because the trail will take you into a marsh. There, a well-maintained 400-foot long boardwalk takes you over the water putting you into perfect viewing of a monstrous, sprawling marsh that might be 300 to 400 acres in size as it opens to the northeast.

There, you can observe countless wetland birds from herons to egrets to coots and rails. During the migratory peak, you will see hundreds of ducks and geese in the area.

The center of the boardwalk sports a seating area if you want to take a load off your feet or have a pleasant picnic. There are numerous other benches throughout the trail system, too.

The Kanyoo nature trail is a mile and a third in total length if you take both sub-trails. The blue trail is almost one mile long and that is the trail that features the boardwalk. The less popular yellow branch should not be overlooked – it is two-thirds of a mile long and goes through old growth forests before coming close to a narrower portion of the marsh. Both parts of the Kanyoo nature trail have some interpretive signage pointing out key parts of the ecosystem.

The trail is perfectly flat and well-groomed, make it family-friendly. Young and old can hike it with ease and a stroller can easily navigate it. That flatness also makes it popular with cross-country skiers in the winter months; it gives them an excellent workout in an enjoyable environment.

The next time you visit the Iroquois Wildlife Refuge, make it a point to explore the Kanyoo trail – it gives nature lovers some easy access to interesting wildlife. 



From the 12 January 2017 All WNY News

Friday, January 6, 2017

How to recertify your pistol permit



When my fellow handgun owners and I applied for pistol permits we did so with the understanding that they were lifetime permits, revocable only by our moving out of state or committing a crime.

Then along came the NY SAFE Act in 2013 which changed the whole landscape of gun ownership in the Empire State. Among the tenets of that law was the requirement to recertify those once unlimited pistol permits every 5 years with 2018 being the initial deadline.

This made for 3 years of hand-wringing by gun owners, because the process itself remained nebulous. What would recertification entail? Would we have to take the safety course all over again? Would we have to resubmit to background and reference checks?

This came to a head with public officials last month, as county clerks across the state went to the press and sent letters to Albany voicing their displeasure over the same unknown. After all, as with the initial phase of the permitting process, the NY SAFE Act originally expressed that clerks and county sheriffs would be responsible for recertification, too.

Then, magically, on the first business day of 2017, everyone was given guidance – and from an unlikely source. Suddenly, the New York State Troopers were granted control of pistol permit renewals. This will end up saving property tax payers millions, because individual recertification databases and processes on a county-by-county basis would have been overwhelming – imagine the extra hours and duties for clerk staff trying to meet with 30,000 permit holders in Niagara County alone.

The process was made easy, too, and many of the reservations we had about it are gone. Classes, interviews, and references aren’t necessary. Instead, it’s just some basic data entry.

To recertify your pistol permit, visit the website troopers.ny.gov/Firearms. There, you can either download a paper application that you can mail to the state or you can fill out an online form.

The whole process takes no more than 10 minutes; just be sure to have your driver’s license and pistol permit handy. You will be updating your personal information and entering every single handgun that you own – manufacturer, model, serial number and co-registration with spouse if that applies. It’s that simple.

Many will find this to be an exercise in futility because we all know that the state already has the information – it was entered when you got your permit and it is updated every time you purchase a pistol.

But, that hassle is far better than the alternative. It could have been a bigger hassle to renew and one that could have further eroded our Second Amendment rights. 

You also have some time to get this done. Recertifications are currently only required for those permits originally issued before January 15, 2013. If your permit was issued before January 15, 2013, the deadline to submit your recertification is January 31, 2018.

But, the sooner you apply, the better. Don’t procrastinate and hold out till a year from now – the State Police still have to review and rubber stamp every single application, and you don’t want to get backlogged when there are nearly 2 million pistol permit holders in the state.



From the 09 January 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers