Friday, February 23, 2018

Cuomo’s state forest tax plan will harm landowners

Under state law, New York State pays property taxes on its state forest lands to school districts and local governments. To many, that may seem to be a rather peculiar practice – it’s a shift of funds, government paying government.

Even so, it’s an absolute necessity.

It would be unfair to put the entire tax load on the few private landowners and residents of communities where New York is the primary landowner. Consider the Adirondack Park, for example, where 2.6 million of the Park’s 6 million acres are state land. That’s 43% of the total land mass there.
That’s not a situation unique to the Empire State’s most revered bastion of wild lands: Even here in Western New York, public lands are plentiful.

In Allegany County there are 57,417 acres of state forest, which makes up 9% of the county. That belies the vastness of some state preserves because towns like Bolivar and Wellsville are devoid of state forests; but head to the northeast to Almond or Birdsall and you’ll see that Department of Environmental Conservation signs dominate the roadsides.

In total, Allegany County towns collect $463,426 in property taxes from state government while the school districts bring in $1,034,425. If the state didn’t dole out that nearly $1.5 million, it would all be put on the residents of the county and the out-of-towners who own weekend retreats. Doing so would really hurt taxpayers in the Alfred-Almond school district where the state pays $148,112 to Alfred, Almond, and West Almond and $407,768 to the school itself.

That would be an incredible burden to put an already-burdened tax base -- WNY does have, after all, some of the highest property taxes in the nation thanks to a bevy of unfunded mandates beyond the control of local policymakers and school districts.

So, as you can see, government paying government makes sense, especially when one form of government controls the lands in a given area.

It has been the practice of the state since 1886 to make these tax payments on an ad valorem basis, which is the most equitable means of doing so as it mirrors the taxation taken upon private landowners whereby the property is taxed as a percentage of the assessed value. If the assessed value of comparable properties were to rise in a given community, the state’s assessed value would grow at a like rate.

Governor Cuomo, though, is looking to throw out 132 years of this logical tradition. Within his budget proposal is a plan to drop the ad valorem standard and go to a PILOT (Payment In Lieu of Taxes) program that would see the base amount set at today’s values with an incremental growth of PILOT payment (at a maximum of 2% per year).  

While that might seem at first glance as a win for towns and schools (they are guaranteed added revenue, albeit it small, every year), it will, in the long-term, shift an unfair portion on the tax base onto private landowners. That’s because state lands would never again be assessed at fair market value or anything even close to it.

A PILOT would be especially dangerous in Allegany County and other Southern Tier counties. Despite housing values within the villages and hamlets not rising as an outcome of a depressed Southern Tier economy, undeveloped forest lands, hunting camps, and rural homesteads have seen dramatic increases in price for variety of reasons including but not limited to, one, speculation that maybe one day, under another governor, fracking might come here and, two, a much-improved national economy is once again encouraging people to invest in camps and other vacation properties. As a perfect example, the assessed value of my woodlands in Bolivar which are on a seasonal road and have no structures or utilities doubled last year.

Not all towns have been reassessed. And the growth in forest land values don’t show any chance of letting up anytime soon.

So, if the state approves this in the next few weeks, they would secure today’s pre-reassessment market values as the floor of the PILOTs and they would never again see an increase (other than the maximum of 2% annually) which would spare Albany substantial adjustments in taxable value like the one which hit me in 2017.

Currently, state lands in Allegany County are assessed at around $53 million. After 10 years of the PILOT program growing at say a 1.5% clip (since the full 2 is not guaranteed), they would have a perceived value of $61.5 million.

That 16% growth doesn’t reflect the assessed value increases local taxpayers have been faced with and will be faced with. An unequal and much larger portion of local budgets would be put upon them.

There is still a chance to fight this.
To our advantage, there were 1983 court proceedings that verified that this long-held taxing and assessment power held by local governments was just. And, property owners, newspapers, and environmental groups in the Adirondacks and Catskills have come out against the PILOTS in great numbers.

I encourage landowners from all corners of the state to do the same. Reach out to your state legislators and encourage them to maintain fairness and equity when it comes to the taxation of state lands.  

From the 26 February 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thoughts and prayers won’t end the violence

Another school shooting. Another round of "thoughts and prayers".

That doesn't cut it. Never has. Never will.

Even Jesus Christ knew that prayers weren't enough. So, he went out and boldly changed people and took on the norms.

That's what we have to do. We have to fix broken people and broken systems.

Yet, why haven’t we? Standing idly by while kids continue to get butchered is a sign of a dysfunctional society….one as broken as the minds and souls of the perpetrators of these crimes.  

The 1999 Columbine massacre and its 13 dead should have been a wake-up call. It wasn’t.

Neither was the Sandy Hook incident in 2012, even though 20 of the 26 killed were children aged 6 or 7.  Innocent, cheery children were gunned down in a place that is supposed to be safe, in a country that is supposed to be safe.

It happened again in Parkland, Florida, last week. All those prayers that were tossed around after Sandy Hook did absolutely nothing to save those students and their teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

It’s time for action. It’s been time for action.

It starts with an improved semblance of gun control.    

This is coming from someone for whom guns are a part of his everyday life. As I write this column, I have a pistol next to me that is used for defense of myself and others. In a few hours I will be eating a lunch the meat of which was provided through the use of a gun.

But guns shouldn't be part of everyday life for all Americans. There are an incredible number of mentally unstable people out there, many more on the fringes of instability, and others who have committed heinous acts of domestic violence or are battling life-changing addictions.

They shouldn’t have guns. They shouldn’t be granted pistol permits. And, they shouldn’t be allowed to purchase any long guns. Period.

Yet they are getting them. In almost all cases with school shootings the weapons were acquired legally. The universal background check obviously isn’t working.

We’re getting to the point now that every gun owner should be certified with a more detailed background checks – including mental health evaluations -- and the related installation of red flags that prevent that person from purchasing and owning weapons if something is wrong.

As I look at the plight of America, I don't mind being "inconvenienced" by a background check or evaluation if, one, it allows me and the vast majority of sane gun owners to keep our firearms rather than losing all of our rights wholesale because of the murderers and, two, it keeps crazy people away from guns and from massacring innocent children and adults.

But, this is about more than guns.

It’s about people, too.

Why do people do these evil things? How are their hearts and minds so devoid of light and love that this is the escape? How many people harbor those feelings and desires and have never acted upon those thoughts? How did they get to that point?

The answers, quite simply, are that they aren’t getting the help they need nor are we offering it to them.

Our modern medical system treats mental illness, especially the hardest cases, like the so-called redheaded stepchild. New hospitals and health campuses are being erected across the country at spectacular rates (look at the acres of splendor assembled at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus) and they are being handsomely funded by taxpayer dollars, but the focus is always on physical health. No one is interested in making multi-bed facilities for the most mentally ill.

It doesn’t help that in the 1970s it became the in-thing to close institutions once known as “insane asylums” due to a rash of such organizations mistreating their patients and the continued development of psychiatric drugs (never mind that those drugs create their own problems).

Sure, there were plenty of real world examples of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” but many hospitals did wonders in helping get people cured or giving them a consistent, comfortable environment in which they could manage their illnesses and their lives.

Mental health experts say there is a 95 percent decline in mental hospital beds since 1960, even though there are many more people who deserve that level of help.

So, where are all these people who need such help now?

They’re out there. Walking the streets.

It shouldn’t be that way. Public health policy should be about curing and helping the whole person. But it’s not. We need to help the sick – all of the sick -- which, in turn, helps society. Ignore them, and you hurt them….and potentially every one of us.

A little gun control and a lot of psychology and psychiatry can go a long ways in fixing what ails America. It’s worth it if parents like me know we can send our kids to school with some understanding that they’ll be safe…and that we will be able to see them again after the final bell rings.

From the 19 February 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News   

Friday, February 9, 2018

The deadly stress of farming

It is widely-known that military veterans have among the highest suicide rates in our country. Sadly, in any given year, 38 of every 100,000 veterans take their lives.  

We know too well why they end it all – they saw things overseas that none of us could ever imagine, they battled post-traumatic stress disorder, and they could have had disabilities ranging from traumatic brain injury to dismemberment.  

Many reading this column will be surprised to learn that there is segment of our population that has a suicide rate rivaling that of our struggling veterans – farmers.

Those who put food on our tables are taking their lives in unprecedented numbers. Just a few years ago their rate of suicide was 85 per every 100,000 farmers -- 2.2 times the occurrence among veterans and 5 times that of the general population. Although last year’s numbers aren’t available, it’s well known in ag circles that that number is growing.

Even though this is a rural social crisis of epic proportions it has received little attention in the public eye and, therefore, a similar amount of concern from the masses.
That said, it’s probably mind blowing to most Americans because they have a vision of the farming life that is made of serene, pastoral landscapes, health country living, strong men and even stronger families.

They know little of the incredible stresses put upon farmers.

First, there’s the weather. They have to hope that Mother Nature accommodates their needs and business cycles and ensures a timely planting and a productive harvest. But, in many years, she’s not very helpful. Western New York farms were hit hard by drought in 2016 when unirrigated, rain-fed fields and orchards had crop losses between 30 and 90 percent. They prayed hard for rains after that, and the skies responded in 2017 with too much, which delayed plantings and harvests while damaging crops.

Then there’s animal disease. Back in 2015, deadly strains of bird flu killed off unbelievable numbers of chickens and turkeys throughout the central US. Even if it didn’t, the poultry farmers had to cull their flocks to prevent the spread of disease. Halfway through that year, 50 million birds had died and the losses to farmers and producers exceeded $3.3 billion.

Farmers are also besieged by the economy. Dairy prices have plummeted over the past few years. In 2014, dairymen were getting $24 per hundredweight for their milk. Now, that number sits around $13. Farmers are producing and shipping milk because they have to, yet are losing money every single day for doing it. In Wisconsin alone, 500 dairy farms closed their doors last year. Here in New York, last year’s net farm income was a third of what it was in 2014.

Then, there’s the opioid crisis. The stereotype is that it’s hitting the cities and suburbs the hardest, but three-quarters of farmers say it is impacting them or their workers. It’s easy to see why – farming is physically demanding work, from heaving hay bales to lifting feed bags to picking vegetables to bending down to milk cows. Back injuries and other aches are common. To work through it, they were prescribed pain killers, which in turn became an addiction.

There you have just 4 factors of many that make it seem like there’s no hope for farmers. Too often, the odds are stacked against them and there are so many things beyond their control. Seeing the very real chance of losing the farms and homes they love so much -- the places that receive their attention, blood, sweat, and tears 24/7/365 -- they see suicide as the only way out. It’s sad.  

There is help available for those living those dark days. NY FarmNet is a free and confidential consulting service available to any farm located in New York State to discuss financial and health issues. They have a 24/7 hotline at 1.800.547.FARM. Crisis Services of Erie County has a 24-hour hotline (716.834.3131) to serve anyone contemplating taking their life. The YWCA of Genesee County has one, too, at 585.344.4400 and so does Niagara County’s Department of Mental Health at 716.285.3515.

I also encourage those reading this paper who are not farmers or counselors to lend a hand. Outreach can be done in any number of ways from checking up on your neighbors to supporting local farm stands to buying only local or American-grown produce, meats and dairy products at the grocery store to writing elected officials about foreign trade and frustrating price controls on milk and foods.

As Paul Harvey once said: “And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, "I need a caretaker." So God made a farmer.”

It’s time that we, as good citizens, acted as caretakers for them. These are some dark days in agriculture. Farmers need help. They need to know that they can ask for it and we need to know we should give it to them.   

From the 12 February 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News