Friday, April 20, 2018

Parolees deserve the right to vote

Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that would give paroled felons the right to vote through conditional pardons emphasizing that civic duty. This would impact more than 35,000 parolees in the Empire State.

Of course, Republicans across New York hurled vitriol at the Governor, saying it’s wrong to allow rapists, murderers and drug dealers to vote; Cuomo was only trying to secure votes by adding a new bloc to his base; and it was his latest attempt to “out-left” gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon.

While that wasn’t unexpected I still find it to run counter to the alleged principles of the Grand Old Party.

They claim to be the party of law and order and, at the same time, are more likely to count Christianity as offering the formative principles to this country and Republican policies. In either case, by casting aside parolees they are casting aside what the GOP counts as its foundation.

The party of law and order should have faith in the legal and penal systems. Judges, prosecutors, defenders, sheriffs, wardens, and correctional officers have an incredible task before them in helping to change those who committed crimes against society, whether it was something as minor as having drugs on their person or as significant as being engaged in gang violence. We empower and entrust them to educate convicts, teach them trades, introduce them to self-discipline, reform their behaviors, and make new men and women out of them. It’s a mammoth undertaking of resources – the US prison system costs taxpayers $228 billion per year.

If one of the returns on investment for all of that hard work, tough love and big money is parole – early release based upon good behavior and promise – we should trust those who helped get the parolees to that point and believe that those souls are ready for society.

If they are good enough to be released to the world outside of the prison walls, we would hope that they are good enough to secure and keep jobs (that is, if employers ban the box and overlook criminal records), pay taxes, and contribute to the economy and our communities. Once released, they are active members of our citizenry, with just a few conditions.

One of those conditions shouldn’t be denial of the right to choose their elected officials, vote on propositions, or have a say on their school budgets. For starters, it’s taxation without representation – something in total defiance of our republican form of government. Secondly, it’s illegal; the Fifteenth Amendment clearly states the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged. That amendment, by the way, was in response to failures of the Founding Fathers to recognize the full value of humanity, something similar to what Cuomo’s signing is attempting to overcome in our state law.

Cuomo’s detractors aren’t buying that. It seems as though the general consensus is “once a criminal always a criminal” and that they are a lesser people always and forever.

This is where the Republican Party’s co-opting of Christianity should come into play. Is turning one’s nose down on the past sins of another really the way a just people should think? The religion is based on redemption and the salvation of sinners so why shouldn’t those principles be practiced at large, especially towards those who paid their dues to society and were reformed by it? People shouldn’t claim to live up to the standards of their religion yet absolve themselves of its founding tenets.

Likewise, as another teaching of Christianity goes -- let he who is without sin cast the first stone. A lot of convicts and folks in the parole ranks were unlucky enough to get caught doing what so many other people do. New Yorker’s arcane Rockefeller Laws imprisoned folks for years for having possessed drugs -- how many people under the age of 70 can claim that they don’t know anyone who has used/uses marijuana or smokes it themselves? Similarly, how many thousands of customers leave bars and restaurants every day with a little too much alcohol in their systems and never get caught?

You’ve been reading my columns long enough to know that I’m a regular, vocal critic of many of Governor Cuomo’s policies. This time, I can’t be. I applaud him for giving back to parolees their right to participate in the inner workings of this great nation of ours. All of us want felons to ultimately become good citizens. Good citizens vote….so, let’s not deny them that right. It’s the just, legal, and American thing to do.    

From the 23 April 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, April 13, 2018

Narcan: A necessary part of your first aid kit

Last month, I organized a Narcan training exercise in Gasport at which 20 people were in attendance. It wasn’t my first foray into such an endeavor, as I booked a class 2 years ago at my company.

I have deemed such seminars to be necessary because the opioid epidemic has become a regular part of Western New York life. It has permeated every demographic – young and old; rich and poor; black and white; urban and rural.

Even my beloved hometown -- which some call God’s Country -- hasn’t been spared horrors. I used what happened there over just 3 weeks of last November to set the table and garner interest in last month’s class: There was one household that saw 3 different people overdose, a worker at a local business OD’ed during that place’s busiest day of the week, and a young lady died from heroin. 

The statistics show that every one of us knows someone who is addicted to some sort of opioid whether it’s heroin or prescription pain pills like morphine, codeine, oxycodone, methadone and Vicodin. The numbers for overdoses alone are staggering – Niagara County is on pace for 400 overdoses this year while Monroe County saw 262 overdoses in the first 90 days of this year.

That’s why Narcan should become a regular part of your first aid kit. US Surgeon General Jerome Adams said as much last week. We should heed his advice.

Narcan is the name brand of naloxone, an opiate antidote. The active ingredient competes with opioids to bind with the same receptors in the brain that feast on the drugs. Usually, it reverses the effects of an opioid overdose in 2 to 3 minutes, buying the poisoned person time for emergency medical help to arrive.

Without it, someone overdosing can have his or her breathing slow down or stop completely, causing brain damage or death. With heroin and the like, overdosing’s effects aren’t immediate – they typically develop over a 1 to 3 hour period; meaning that someone can come to work or shop at a store in a relatively normal-appearing state then suddenly devolve into total misery.   

Narcan is easy and risk-free to administer. The layman lacking even the most basic knowledge of first aid skills can use it. It is done with a misting agent that is sprayed into the affected party’s nose. No needles. No mess. And, if you were wrong about the diagnosis, there are no ill effects. You can’t get any easier or safer than that.

County governments sometimes offer training and kits free of charge. In the meantime, you can do as I did and book group classes. I called on the services of the Batavia-based Lake Plains Community Care. Their emergency medical services trainer gave an excellent seminar, conducted hands-on training and outfitted each of the trainees with a Narcan kit. All of that was fully funded by a state grant that Lake Plains uses to train the community. 

Ever the proponent of Narcan, over the years I’ve had quite a few people ask me, “why would you bother saving someone who doesn’t want or deserve to be saved and will just do it again?”

Who said they don’t want to be saved – and aren’t all lives are precious?

If you had the ability to save lives with Narcan but abandoned it out of such indifference if not spite, would you want to live with the burden that a child you know is left fatherless or a dear friend no longer has a daughter of her own?

We all need to understand that no one aspires to be an addict. A lot of the young kids who are now messed up made an initial stupid mistake to mess with the drugs. Youthful mistakes can be fixed (although it’s difficult). And, in a majority of the addiction cases users are working class fathers and mothers who got hurt on the job or at home, were prescribed painkillers and got hooked. Parents who tried to manage pain so they could continue to provide for their kids sure don’t match the typical profile of a druggie.    

Being prepared for a heroin overdose that could happen at your doorstep might seem unnecessary. “It will never happen here,” you might say. But, realize that too many mothers and fathers and husbands and wives never thought that a heroin addiction would strike and tear apart their family. It can happen to anyone, anywhere. The life you save might be a coworker, friend, or member of your own family.

Be ready.

From the 16 April 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, April 6, 2018

Paid fire and EMS crews are becoming a reality

New Yorkers have a distaste for volunteerism. The Corporation for National Community Service reports that only 19 percent of all Empire State residents volunteer at least once a year. Think about that: Slightly less than 1 in 5 of us freely give of ourselves to our communities and country.

I live the outcomes of this aversion to service every day as president of the board of the local Boy Scout council. It’s like pulling teeth to get new blood to fill critical positions at the district and council level which hinders our goals for advancing our program.

But, as frustrating as that may be, I’m only into changing lives. Other volunteer organizations that actually save lives are in far direr straits.

If you’d like to get a feel for this spend a few days listening to a police scanner or one of the online services that stream the transmissions (such as Niagara County Fire Wire). You will hear countless calls to local fire and ambulance crews that take far too long to be responded to or aren’t answered at all. Sometimes, a 911 call might not have crews on site for 30 to 45 minutes – or more – and then, upon arrival, they might find they need back-up from a neighboring district. All of that lost time can equal lost lives or lost property.

You can’t blame firefighters and emergency medical technicians for that. They can only do so much. There’s too much work put on too few people.

Across the country, emergency calls have doubled in the past 20 years. But, since 1990, the ranks of volunteer firefighters have declined by 15 percent nationally. That loss is even greater here in Western New York --- volunteer departments have seen their rosters shrink by 24 percent over that same period. When you consider that nearly 80 percent of New York communities rely on fully volunteer squads, you can’t help but worry about what will become of you and your family if, God forbid, one day you need assistance.

New York fire companies have tried everything under the sun to grow their numbers if not just hold the line. They’ve had numerous open houses in recent years. They’ve opened more Explorer posts. They’ve offered tuition reimbursement for community colleges. The state grants an income tax credit to volunteers.

Despite all of that, the recruitment and retention woes continue.

So, what’s left?


Since younger generations won’t help their community for free, there’s a really good chance they will if their income can grow by doing so. Fire and EMS crews might have to become partially-paid or a volunteer/paid hybrid to make it worth someone’s while.

The full-time route is how it’s been done in cities, but they are afforded a population and tax base that can support firefighters being staged at halls. Rural communities and villages don’t have either, so full-time squads are out of the question unless you’d like to bankrupt homeowners who already pay some of the most extravagant property taxes in the nation. Firefighting and lifesaving, in most cases, would have to be considered part-time, supplemental income in rural locales.  

The model of dispatching that currently exists (the call goes out and people leave home and work to respond) would still hold true, but firefighters would be paid for showing up. You can see a call pay system in use in places like Fairfield County, South Carolina, where volunteers are paid a total of $25 for working a structure fire. Or, look north where the Central Kootenay District in British Columbia has a more lucrative plan that pays volunteers $15 an hour for every call they work or training exercise they take part in.

We’ve already seeing similar methods being adopted throughout New York.

Two years ago, Old Forge found it necessary to pay a salary to some on an otherwise volunteer squad in order to keep EMTs in the area and ensure that emergency calls could be quickly addressed in the central Adirondacks. That decision came after a $25/hour rate to all volunteers was pondered and shelved.        

Even more recently, just 5 weeks ago, the Wellsville Volunteer Ambulance Corps announced they had found it necessary to pay paramedics or critical care technicians to sit at the ambulance bay 24 hours a day on weekdays at a rate of $18/hour.

Making such systems work will require a higher tax levy or special district tax. All towns already pay fire companies; it takes a lot of money to run them, even when no one is paid a wage. My town, for example, pays a total of $461,000 to 5 volunteer fire companies. Under a pay system, could towns like Royalton see their annual investments in fire contracts double?

Taxpayers won’t want to hear that but that’s the reality of the world we’re living in. Pay might be counterintuitive to the whole concept of volunteerism, but desperate times call for desperate measures. If we don’t do something people can die, houses can burn down, wildfires can rage out of control, and understaffed fire crews will continue to be put in harm’s way.     

When we’re talking about fire and EMS not having enough people we’re talking about a real public safety crisis. That crisis is here, now…and it’s getting worse.

From the 09 April 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News