Friday, September 21, 2018

It’s easy to be a good citizen

Holding a public office isn’t for everyone. It shouldn’t be. But, that doesn’t mean that government isn’t for everyone. As a matter of fact, we live in a nation in which the government is for everyone, one in which you are the government.

The United States of America is, in this regard, unique amongst all societies past and present. No nation before us had ever been run under the principles of self-rule. Even in the most democratic of societies there was always a ruling class that earned its ranks not from the interests of the people but rather from lineage, ownership, or spilled blood. Our nation is quite unlike that, founded on the basis that our government is of, by, and for the people.

Because of this charge to take responsibility for our collective actions and well-being, our nation is only as good as what we put into it. Each of us, whether in office or not, has a series of duties to assume.

Upfront that may sound like an enormous task. That is expected when one realizes that we control our own destiny.

But, meaningful self-governance is not really that difficult. As a matter of fact, it’s easily accomplished through something I call the “four “E”s of good civics”.

The first “E” is: Educate yourself.

The old maxim is true. Knowledge is power. To be the most powerful citizen you can, it is imperative that you learn about the world around you. Exercising your right to vote and paying your taxes requires more than just going to the polls and writing checks, respectively. You should know exactly why you are voting for an individual and exactly where your hard-earned dollars are going. This requires an understanding of government itself, as well as an awareness of social and economic issues. They’re all related and they all affect one another. Open your mind to that domino effect of public policy -- what you can and will learn by reading the newspaper, listening to news radio, browsing the blogs, or taking college courses might shock you. Freely range in your pursuit of knowledge, too. None of us are expected to be experts; it’s best to possess a little bit of knowledge in a little bit of everything.

The second “E” is: Educate others.

Take what you learn, and the conclusions you draw, and share them everyone you know. Never assume that your family and friends know what you do about certain issues. Not everyone makes a concerted effort to educate themselves on the issues. If you do it for them you might be that much-needed spark that gets their fire started. Give them the facts. Warm them up to your opinion. You can even agree to disagree. There is no more powerful a tool in getting the voting population out than educating them on the issues and framing that education in a way they understand, highlighting that what their government does affects them. And, please, do not fall into the trap of using memes and spreading and/or joining in conflict and divisiveness on social media – that’s not how you win friends and influence people. There’s a reason “civics” and “civil” are spelled so closely.

The third “E” is: Engage your elected officials.

Just as you educate other voters on the issues, do the same to your representatives. They are your voice in your town, county, state, or country. As one of their constituents, your best interests are supposed to be their best interests. Let them know how proposed legislation will hurt or help you. Let them know how specific laws stifle your freedoms or what bills could better society or the economy. Be yourself, pick up that phone or write a real letter. You’ll be surprised at how often you’ll be responded to. It’s rare a politician who won’t engage us in conversation, whether by phone or print.

The fourth “E” is: Elect the very best.
If you find that your elected official isn’t game to the third “E” and, therefore, doesn’t meet your needs or those of the community around you, let him go. We have a very powerful term limit in our possession -- it’s called an election. If you’re dissatisfied, focus on the first two “E”s and get others to vote lock-step with you. If the incumbent is facing someone who’s a great candidate in terms of what she can bring to the table, elect her. Ignore party lines or the false power of seniority. Similarly, if you think your elected official is the best there is, keep her in office. This is an extremely important “E”, for that person could be your voice for years at a time.

Once you’ve completed the four “E”s, repeat them. It’s a never-ending cycle, one that when it’s made a habit is one you will cherish. When executed properly, good citizenship is rewarding and impactful – you can change what happens in our communities and in our country.

From the 24 September 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers  

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Butter and eggs – an attractive late-season “weed”

Late-season flowers are derisively considered “weeds” by many people, which downplays their beauty. One such plant that shouldn’t be overlooked is butter and eggs.

This invasive species also goes by the name yellow toadflax and wild snapdragon and makes itself known in late- August and will be in bloom till the end of September.

The plant has a unique, tell-tale flower structure. It’s not a typical, circular ray as you would see on many fall wildflowers like asters, evening primrose, or hawkweeds. Instead, it possesses the unique look that gardened snapdragons have. There are 4 yellow petals (butter) that surround an orange center petal (eggs).

That orange center acts as a beacon to pollinators, the most common user of the plant being bumble bees and any species of moth that has a huskier body. You won’t see butterflies actively feasting on the flowers because the insects that do so have to be strong enough to lift open that heavy central petal.

You will find the plant in pastures, but more commonly along dry disturbed sites, like roadsides, ditches, bike trails, and hedgerows. It’s a hardy plant and a colonizer, spreading not only with rhizomes but also seeds that can last for years.

Butter and eggs make a nice addition to your kitchen table. But, unlike their namesake, not as foodstuff. The attractive flowers make wonderful centerpieces and lasting ones…they will stay healthy for days in a vase, rather than quickly wilting away as so many flowers do.

This plant has proven medicinal purposes as a diuretic and a fever reducer. Historically, it was even used to treat rashes and other skin ailments. It’s not so kind to cattle as they can get intoxicated from feasting on the leaves.

Small children get a kick of out of the flowers, because if they squeeze the base, the orange center will open like a mouth, making the flower “talk.”

Appreciate these flowers while you can. They will be done blooming in a few weeks, the brown of fall will come as will the snow and you’ll be wishing that there will still “weeds” around to brighten the landscape.

From the 20 September 2018 All WNY News

Friday, September 14, 2018

The sharpest candidate for governor

We are 13 years into this column which often touches on what’s wrong in New York and how we can at least try to make things better in regard to economic and personal freedoms in hopes of keeping our family and friends here.

On this page I’ve never endorsed a candidate. I’m about policy, not politics. But, I am making a temporary suspension of that and endorsing the sharpest person vying for state office in recent memory – the Libertarian Party’s gubernatorial candidate Larry Sharpe.

Sharpe’s vision, background, and personality represent the the cure for what ails our failing state. Throw in the fact that he’s coming from a third party, he’s a dose of something different, something vibrant. As we know too well, the same old same old hasn’t been working. 

Eight years into Governor Cuomo’s reign we’ve found ourselves saddled with policies that have driven a stake through the heart of a dying upstate economy. A cornucopia of failed, or soon-to-fail, experiments from massive minimum wage hikes to the possible end of the tipped wage to 12 weeks of universal bereavement leave to call-in pay standards, to name a few, have done nothing but stifle opportunity.

His long-standing foes in the Republican Party are no better. Remember, the Senate was alleged to be in its glory years when Joe Bruno was in charge of it from 1994 to 2008. If it was, how did an alleged fiscally-conservative GOP double state spending under his watch with a Republican in the Governor’s office for most of those years?

Sharpe’s proposed policies and way of thinking can help overcome those failings of both parties.

I’m big on local control. The towns and counties should be your most powerful form of government because they are an extension of you – they are closer to you, they know your needs, you can become a part of the solution. I’d much prefer that my town supervisor is the most impactful governmental executive in my life or that my county sheriff the most powerful lawman. But, that isn’t the case.  

Sharpe is the lone candidate who wants to return control of the state to the counties, because each county, each region is different. The needs and wants of Niagara County don’t match those of Nassau County.

All of us in upstate complain of how New York City officials define our laws and foist unfunded mandates upon us. Sharpe would let the counties -- which means, us -- decide what laws, social policies, and tax policies work for them. Lifting burdens would encourage insurance and health care reform (a must-have with two-thirds of the state’s population on taxpayer-funded healthcare and the other third paying 14% above the national average for insurance), property tax reform (more than half of our property and school taxes go to unfunded mandates directly or indirectly), and policing reform (using it for public safety rather than helping pay for unfunded mandates with speeding and parking tickets). 

If you’ve been reading this column long enough you know that I value local control when it comes to education as well. I’ve praised teachers and schools boards while damning the Board of Regents, Common Core, the state forcing teaching to a test rather than actual mastery of a subject, and the devaluation of the trades. Our education system is broken; we aren’t fully preparing kids for the Real World.

Sharpe would fix that by empowering schools, giving them the freedom to set their educational curriculum and expectations to meet the needs of the people most directly affected by the institution. He also believes in letting teachers teach with styles, methods, and outcomes befitting their students, not the state. Sharpe has also proposed a K-10 program that allows 2 years of variability to explore further education in that system, trade schools, college, and the workplace.

An important part of a libertarian mindset is the advancement of personal freedoms, something Sharpe proposes in spades. He would repeal the SAFE Act and pardon those affected by it. He wants to allow means of and protections for use of self-defense. He would reduce funding for law enforcement programs and initiatives focused on continuation of arrest or prosecution of non-violent drug related crimes. He would legalize marijuana. He wants to change the way family courts are run to actually strengthen families.

That’s just a sampling of Sharpe’s platform. I encourage you to Google him and watch or listen to any of his countless television and radio appearances. I want to scream “preach on!” every time I do. He’s engaging, intelligent, and creative, someone you want leading New York especially since he genuinely cares about all New Yorkers from the Bronx to Buffalo.

Vote for Larry Sharpe in November. I will be because he offers the best hope for New York’s future….a future that should feature my kids and yours. As Governor, Sharpe will find ways to keep them here.

From the 17 September 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News 

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Look for Comet 21P this week

Comets have fascinated Man ever since he walked upright.

Ancient civilizations viewed them as messages from the Gods, especially angry ones if the comet had a long tail and, in turn, looked like a sword, ready to strike the Earth.

Even people of higher intelligence saw mysticism in them. Take Mark Twain, for example, who was born in 1835, the same year Halley’s Comet made an appearance. The comet was set to return in 1910, and in 1909 Twain said the following:

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.”

Twain did die in 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet was its brightest on that return visit.

In recent history, we’ve been periodically graced with exceptional comets, including the beautiful Hale-Bopp, which was discovered in 1995. In 1997 the comet became naked-eye visible and remained so for 18 months, the most for any comet in recorded history.

Even so, comets that are accessible to the Average Joe -- outfitted only with his eyes or a pair of binoculars -- still remain rare and fleeting.

We are lucky enough to have such a comet in our midst this week. Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner (let’s call it “21P”) is making its closest approach to Earth in 72 years. But fear not, it’s not in a collision course with us: It’s still 58 million kilometers away.

21P was first discovered by Michel Giacobini, a French astronomer in 1900. 21P was the target of the International Cometary Explorer spacecraft, which passed through its plasma tail 33 years ago this week.

21P isn’t visible to the naked eye, so, like Giacobini did, you’ll need some help. Don’t fret. With even a simple pair of binoculars you will be able to see the comet in Western New York’s skies. The best time to look is between midnight and 4:00 AM. Look towards the east and you’ll find the comet near the constellation Auriga, “the charioteer”. The comet will appear as a bright green fuzz ball and as of yesterday was at a magnitude of 6.5, just below naked eye visibility.

Be sure to catch a glimpse of the comet no later than the end of this weekend, before it quickly disappears from the view of field glasses.

Take advantage of this celestial visitor. We “backyard astronomers” don’t often get a chance to see comets, so savor it.

From the 13 September 2018 All WNY News

Friday, September 7, 2018

Taxing the trees on your land

"I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree."

In some strange perversion, those immortal words from Joyce Kilmer have taken on another meaning. They have become a battle cry for some assessors in New York. In their version the word "poem" is replaced with "taxable asset" as some have taken advantage of state law to tax property owners for the trees on their property.

Under this practice, tax assessors, with guidance from the state’s Office of Real Property Tax Services, analyze woodlots and forests to determine the market value of the timber were the land to be logged. This value is then applied to the assessment the same way that a capital item like a house would be. It can now be said quite literally that many municipalities are "sticking" it to landowners by considering a naturally-occurring tree a man-induced investment.

This means of taxation has been at the disposal of municipalities for decades but it was rarely if ever used for two primary hurdles that have gradually lessened over time.

First of all, assessors did not traditionally possess the skill sets necessary for valuing timber.

This is now a moot point as the Internet allows everyone to dabble in sciences that they never knew before. A little bit of research and some backing from accredited sources can make everyone – at least in their eyes - an expert on any given subject. The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance aids in the cause by providing online price charts and methods for determining stumpage values and timber merchantability.  

The second impediment -- political incorrectness of these taxes – has taken a dive over time.

Just a few decades ago the thought of taxing trees would have been met with a huge revolt. Back then, many families owned small farms that had woodlots. But agriculture has changed; many farms have gone by the wayside while others devoured smaller properties becoming larger, consolidated operations. This occurred at the same time that many people opted instead for the woodless suburban way of life or postage-stamp lots. Thus woodlots and forests have become larger in scale while owned by less people. This offers fewer voices of dissent by placing the tax burden on the few through the Tree Tax rather than the many with an across-the-board tax increase. These municipalities don’t mind taking heat from a few farmers or absentee property owners (like owners of hunting camps) if they can keep the voting masses silent.

Unfortunately, it’s the very people shouldering this increased burden (the cash-strapped farmers and the blue collar sportsmen) who can least afford it. They are paying through the nose. The current market value of timber is fairly high thanks to the huge demand for wood and pulp in the global marketplace. In some areas where it is now being used, the Tree Tax has resulted in rural property owners’ tax bills doubling.

I am a victim of this. I own a chunk of forest in Allegany County that was re-assessed last year. The assessor said the market value doubled. So, I filed a grievance and met with the assessment board of review, making, what I thought, was a compelling case: the town’s road to my property is seasonal and becomes a state-run snowmobile trail (cutting my access down by a third of the year); there are no structures on the land; and it is a mile and a half either direction from any utilities. I should have known something was amiss when each member of the board asked me, multiple times, “have you ever logged the property?” (I haven’t). Of course, I received a letter in the mail weeks later that my grievance was denied.  

This style of property valuation leaves in its wake an ethical debate. One cannot help but wonder how government can tax what Mother Nature has wrought. Most landowners do not harvest timber off their properties…their trees are there not for their bounty but for the bounty of what the Creator had intended for all living creatures. Leave it to New York State to find a way to place a value on the very existence of nature itself and reap something from the course of life.

It’s an intrinsically evil form of Big Government that sounds fictional but may one day come to a forest near you….a forest that might no longer stand if the landowner is forced to clear cut so he is not bankrupted by taxes.  

From the 10 September 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News