Friday, June 26, 2009

Random thoughts from Bob Confer

From the 29 June 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Here are a few things that have been on my mind….

A few weeks ago President Obama visited Nellis Air Force Base where he applauded their 140-acre solar array. He said we need more solar energy systems just like that one. Don’t the green energy and environmentalist crowds realize that every gigantic solar array, whether it’s as large as Nellis’ or one-tenth that size, will destroy and replace that many acres of the environment, be it forest, grassland, field, or desert?


How many of the hundreds of Wheatfield residents who vehemently opposed housing for low-income earners in 2006 and 2007 have now become, as a direct result of the recession, the very kind of individual they did not welcome to their neighborhood?


Am I the only one who finds humor in the hypocrisy of the two-party system when it comes to human life? The Republicans like war and the death penalty while bemoaning abortion. The Democrats hate war and the death penalty yet like abortion.


In the past 100-plus years not a single president or member of congress has followed the Constitution. Federal organizations like the Department of Education and the EPA are totally unconstitutional, as are activities like surveillance of innocent civilians, pork barrel spending and the bailing out of banks and auto companies. That said, why don’t we charge federal elected officials with treason for failure to uphold their oath of office, one which asks them to support and defend the Constitution?


Is reality TV so successful because Americans enjoy watching people fail?


If the government can force employers to collect income taxes and garnishments why can’t the employer charge a fee to the government for the services of that debt collection?


Why is Americorps considered “service” or “volunteerism” if people are getting paid to do it?


Some veterans have recently come up ill with blood-borne diseases like hepatitis and HIV because VA hospitals and clinics did not properly clean their colonoscopy equipment. That begs two questions. One, is this the best care that we can offer our vets? And, two, does government-run health care (which is what the VA’s are) still look attractive to you?


When businesses expand or come to the area, people go out of their way to thank the elected officials for all the new jobs. Last I knew, politicians don’t create jobs, the private sector does. As a matter of fact, many will argue that politicians stifle job growth. That said, has anyone ever gone out of their way to thank the entrepreneurs for the new jobs?


If my company had a known carcinogen in the workplace’s air, we’d have to outfit all of our coworkers with masks and respirators. My question is: Prior to the smoking ban, why weren’t bars required to outfit their bartenders and wait staff with masks and respirators since there were extremely high levels of a known carcinogen (cigarette smoke) in their air?


If China’s currency manipulation is so evil, why is it OK for the United States and the Federal Reserve to manipulate our money supply?

We know that people have been leaving Western New York in droves, so why does it seem that new complexes and developments are always being built?


Why don’t taxpayers get an interest payment from the government when they receive their tax refund? Shouldn’t Uncle Sam pay for borrowing your money, just like a bank or debtor would?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Your cell phone as income

From the 22 June 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Cell phones have become a ubiquitous part of the workday. Many businesses give them to their sales and service personnel so they can be in constant contact with their coworkers and customers. Cells have become as equally popular in the public sector as many municipalities use them to deploy and keep tabs on their work crews. Recent estimates show that more than 6 million Americans are provided cell phones by their employers.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, that’s 6 million people who should be paying an income tax for that work tool. A law on the books since 1989 empowers the IRS to collect income taxes on cell phones, putting them in the listed property category along with the likes of company-provided vehicles. In their eyes, a cell phone easily lends itself to personal use so a portion of its cost should be designated as a perk for that employee.

Back in the early-1990’s it was a tax that was relatively-easy to enforce because, back then, cellular phones were clunky, expensive luxury items that few small businesses or the self-employed could afford. But the times have changed. Developments in technology have made the phones truly portable and affordable so, now, a great many employers issue them to their workers. Some have even abandoned landlines entirely.

Despite that explosion in cellular usage, tax collections have been lethargic. Most employers are unaware that a portion of a work-related cell phone is taxable, so the IRS has not seen the revenues that should be expected. The agency has been making it a point to change that of late, motivated by the almighty dollar. Since the start of the recession the federal government has brought in less money due to job cuts and shortened workweeks. To make up for that loss of income, the IRS has directed its staff to focus on fraud and lesser-known taxes like this one. So, they have been looking at cell phone policies of businesses, universities, and municipalities with a fine-tooted comb since late-2007 and made examples of some well-known entities including UCLA (which they charged $240,000 for back taxes) and the city of Columbus, Ohio which settled with the IRS for $400,000.

This recent venture has proven to be problematic for both the IRS and those it hopes to collect from. Most employers and employees are ill-prepared to track cell phone use (and, quite frankly, there are more important things to do) and the modern way of billing – the all-inclusive, unlimited packages provided by Verizon, Sprint and the like – makes cost segregation near impossible.

The IRS has some ideas for addressing those problems. Two weeks ago they opened a public comment period (running until September 4) for individuals to offer their two cents about three distinct tax recording and collecting methods the IRS thinks might work. Under the first scenario, your cell phone can be fully-designated as a work phone and therefore non-taxable to you only if you can provide substantial evidence that shows you have a second phone for personal use and that you have not used the work phone to place a personal call. The second concept would assume that anyone who has a work phone must use it at home, too, so they would be charged a rate equal to 25 percent of the phone’s fees, regardless of how true the assumption may be. The third IRS plan would force the employer to use statistical sampling to calculate the billable rate for the employee.

It is suggested that you not engage the IRS in this discussion. Unless you like paying taxes you should instead train your public comments upon Congress. Last Tuesday, following the outcry over the IRS’s announcement, the Obama Administration, through IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman nonetheless (can you sense the irony and hypocrisy?), asked that the law be repealed because the way we communicate has changed significantly making the law outdated and almost unenforceable. Some in Congress agree with the President and bills have been introduced by John Kerry in the Senate (S.144) and by Sam Johnson in the House (H.R.690) asking for the removal of cell phones from the listed property category.

Take the time to write your senator or congressperson about this simple issue that could become a complex one if the IRS focuses on your and your employer’s pocketbooks. Not only will you have to pay taxes for the phone, but you and your employer will have to waste time (that probably costs more than the taxes paid) on recordkeeping for this law. It’s a headache financially, and philosophically, too: Why pay an income tax on something you need to do your job?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Monserrate and Espada: The GOP's new best friends

From the 15 June 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

I’d like you to meet Hiram Monserrate and Pedro Espada, Jr. They are the new faces of the Republican senate in New York State, Democrat turncoats who were adopted by the GOP to help flip the balance of power in the legislature.

It tells us a great deal about the current state of the Republican Party that these faces -- more fitting for mug shots or “wanted” posters – have become heroes to a party that tries to pass itself off as one possessed of character. It’s something that these men lack. You can’t help but question their character upon selling-out to a billionaire businessman who proved more important to them than their own constituents or to the Republican senate leadership who gave them financially-rewarding positions in that house. But, as offensive as that may be, it pales in comparison to what they did prior to this politics-as-usual move.

Let’s go back to the night of December 19. On that fateful evening Monserrate showed us that he is the very worst of men, a woman-beater. The hot-tempered wretch was caught on surveillance cameras abusively dragging his petite girlfriend Karla Giraldo from her apartment building as she grabbed onto a stair rail in a physical tug-of-war for her safety. The same cameras then showed her running to a neighbor’s door, pounding on it and screaming for help.

That sounds scary enough, but it’s what happened prior to that, inside the apartment, that was the most offensive. The hot-headed Monserrate slashed Giraldo’s face with a broken glass. It was such a brutal act that she’s now scarred for life, needing more than 20 stitches to close the gash over her left eye. When Giraldo arrived at the hospital she told the medical attendants that Monserrate cut her during an argument. Later, she did as many frightened and intimidated abuse victims do and changed her story to say that Monserrate tripped while bringing her a glass of water. That’s a little too unbelievable, so the first story (in conjunction with the video tapes) carries considerably more weight.

Monserrate is awaiting trial for three counts of felony assault and another three for misdemeanor assault. If found guilty he could face seven years behind bars, nowhere near enough for such a disgusting crime.

Espada is as equally repulsive an individual. He has a long track record of breaking – or being accused of breaking – all sorts of campaign laws. Back in 2005, three employees who worked at Soundview Health Center (a clinic Espada runs) pleaded guilty to forcing the clinic’s employees to run Espada’s campaign on company time, giving food donations intended for their patients to campaign workers instead, and diverting $30,000 of public funds dedicated for family and AIDS care into his campaign’s treasury. Four years earlier, Espada was fined $62,000 by New York City for separate incidents of campaign fraud. For the piece de resistance, back in 2002 he was busted for using his senate office to put $745,000 of state pork-barrel money into his business, one from which he collected a $200,000 salary. On top of all that theft, he’s under investigation for more fraud: There is considerable evidence that he lives in Mamaroneck, not the Bronx he was elected to represent.

Yes, folks, those are the guys who Republican voters, movers-and-shakers and elected officials alike are now tickled pink to call their allies. I suppose that in their minds, when it’s politically-expedient to do so, it’s okay to ignore the Republican Party’s rallying cry, that they are the party of timeless values, one devoted to Christian morals, the sanctity of the family, and conservative practices. Monserrate and Espada don’t fit that mold and they never will.

But, we’re told that giving-in like this to the criminal element is best for the State. With the Republicans back in control of the Senate we’ll see a better tomorrow in New York. Really? It never happened like that before. Let’s not forget that while Joe Bruno ran the senate for 13 years (most of them with a Republican governor at his side) the state budget grew from $61.9 billion to $121 billion.

This mess in Albany perfectly shows why the GOP is a party in struggle, a dinosaur ready for extinction. In recent years it lost control of the presidency, Congress and governorships and houses in many states because it has lost its identity. What it once stood for is long gone. The thing that it has become rings hollow for most and resonates powerfully with only a very few, those who blindly pledge allegiance to something that is Republican by name only.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Black bears are harmless

From the 08 June 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Three years ago I was turkey hunting in Allegany County when I did something no successful hunter should ever do. I fell asleep. Getting up well before sun-up, hiking the hills, and then sitting quietly under a tree with the warm May sun beating on you can have that effect.

Maybe ten minutes into my nap I was awakened by a snapping stick. I quickly woke up, thinking a turkey was coming in to me. As my sleepy eyes adjusted to the light I saw a black shape just ahead of me. I quickly realized that it wasn’t a turkey. It was a black bear less than 15 yards away, coming right at me!

I didn’t freak out. I didn’t blast him with my shotgun. Instead, I did what you are supposed to do in such close quarters. I stood up, spread my arms to make myself appear larger and yelled “get!” And, boy did he ever! The 250-pound beast grunted, spun around and hightailed it to a spot 50 yards away where he paced back and forth trying to figure out what just happened. A minute later he trotted away, obviously in fear.

My guess is that prior to me going into “attack” mode he didn’t know I was there because I was camouflaged and he was only heading to my exact spot because he had been downwind of me and caught a whiff of my deodorant. He probably figured there was something pleasant-smelling in the woods that he could eat.

The encounter with that bear is one of a dozen that I’ve had in Western New York over the years. Under all such circumstances I wasn’t the one who was afraid. The bear was. Each and every encounter resulted in the bear either walking or running in the other direction after the bruin realized there was a human present.

As an outdoorsman and naturalist – and one who has experienced it first-hand - I know that black bears are harmless creatures, more afraid of us than we are of them. But, unfortunately, most people do not know this. Hollywood has them believing that all bears are deadly man-killers while the Discovery Channel has them wrongly assuming that all bears are aggressive, 900-pound grizzlies.

I really can’t blame people for being scared either. Even without the media influence a bear sighting can be a naturally disconcerting experience. Except for deer, most animals of the woods are wee little things like chipmunks and coyotes, so when a creature the size of a bear appears out of nowhere it can frighten even the strongest of souls.

That’s what happened recently in Niagara County. We were visited by a bear no bigger than a cub. Being that he was something out of the norm, he startled the people who saw him and had them worried about the safety of their pets and children. The subsequent television news coverage caused thousands of others - city dwellers and rural folk alike - to worry if their lawn might be the next one visited by a bear.

It might just be. This bear will be the first of many to visit our area. In recent years they have become more common in southern Erie County and have been making regular appearances in populous Monroe County, in 2007 getting as close to us as Brockport and Hamlin. They are on the move because their population is growing (2008’s bear hunting take in the Allegany region exceeded the old record by 60 percent, indicative of the population explosion) and the local lands that were once small family farms have grown into brush or woodlots, becoming more attractive habitat.

Don’t be afraid of these bears. Despite their size, teeth and claws they are relatively docile. Black bear attacks are extremely rare. There are roughly 900,000 bears in North America that result in, on average, just over two human injuries per year. Since 1900 there have been 57 people in the US and Canada killed by black bears. In comparison, man’s best friend sends 1,000 people to the hospital every day for bite wounds and dogs kill about 36 people in the US every year.

Nonetheless, don’t go out of your way to be a friend to bears. Whatever you do, don’t feed them and don’t approach them. You wouldn’t do that to a fox, opossum or raccoon. Bears are wild animals and, like all those wild animals, they can turn. Just keep your distance and appreciate them for what they are, a fascinating and rarely-seen part of the natural world. You should count yourself as lucky – not unlucky - if you happen to see one. Accept their visits to your neighborhood with open arms…or with spread arms and healthy yelp if that makes you any feel safer.