Friday, April 30, 2010

The story behind the column

From the 03 May 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

This week’s column is a milestone. Not only is it the 250th column that I’ve written for the Greater Niagara Newspapers, it also represents one more week that the GNN hasn’t been sickened enough by my bombastic rants to cut me.

Even though we’re nearly 5 years into this column, there are still a few readers who are new to – or still trying to figure out – this whole Bob Confer thing. They wonder what drives me to write every week.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy writing op-eds, something which almost never came about despite a longtime desire to do so. In my days at Royalton-Hartland during the 1980s and early 1990s many teachers admired my writing skills and the zeal that I put into turning out documents. They pushed me to develop it into an art and gave me the encouragement and intellectual nourishment to do so. In my senior year I wrote a few opinion pieces for the school newspaper, the Echo, which I found to be pretty invigorating. It was something that I knew I wanted to pursue later.

Should things have gone as planned, I would have written columns for the school newspaper as a student at SUNY Brockport. But, I found myself in a program for nerds that allowed me to graduate in only 3 years. Looking to save money and rarin’ to get into the Real World, I did just that. It came at a price: Taking the largest course load possible every semester, I found myself without the time to write for the Stylus.

Missing out on that was something that left me feeling unfulfilled. Then came 2002. Wanting to improve my knowledge of accounting I started taking night classes at Brockport. While doing so, I thought that I should make up for what I missed and write a weekly column for the Stylus (ironically, I was busier than I was during my first stint as a college student). That brought me lots of fame – or rather “infamy” - on campus as my tirades did not gel with the stereotypical-but-true liberal ways of the college environment. I aggravated a lot of students and professors.

Looking to take those pleasures - the joys of writing and upsetting the apple cart – to the masses, I used the Stylus as a sort of resume to share with Lockport’s editor, Tim Marren. I thought the newspaper needed a regular columnist as, at the time, the only columnists were the newspaper’s reporters and editors. Many months earlier the newspaper lost its only “outsider” columnist (and the community lost a great man) when Clip Smith passed away. In my column proposal to Tim I noted the huge void that needed filling and that I would do as the Clipper did: Write for free. Tim either liked my work or the concept of no-cost filler and he welcomed me to the paper in 2005.

Since then, I’ve tried to stir the pot and educate the readers from my point of view. As much as I enjoy writing it pales in comparison to the joy of enlightening others. Government analysis dominates my topics and some folks consider me a conservative. More accurately, I approach the issues with a Libertarian mindset, demanding less government intrusion into our lives and pocketbooks. I strongly believe that if you take away the barriers to liberty you will allow our society and economy to flourish. I can’t help but attack our state and federal governments with vigor because they are holding us back. We face unsustainable growth in government spending, deficits and control. I worry about what my America will be as I age. I worry about what my kids’ America will be.

Some readers may find my approach to be a little hard-nosed. One fellow from Niagara Falls often tells me he thinks I hate our country. On the contrary; I love it. I understand what made it great, what could make it greater, and what is preventing it from becoming great. It’s that greatness, dear readers, that motivates me to motivate you.

Friday, April 23, 2010

New York's electrical bills: a taxing issue

From the 26 April 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

by Bob Confer

It has been well documented in this column that New York’s high electrical costs are a bane to our state’s health. They strip our already-beaten economy of crucial dollars that could be used to advance our businesses or improve our quality of life. Many companies that compete across state borders (such as mine) find themselves paying twice what their competitors from neighboring states are. Homeowners face similar problems with their power bills, forking-over $708 more per year than the average American.

It’s frustrating, and it always comes back to one simple question: “Why”?

The answer is just as simple. There are countless reasons for the higher costs in our utilities and the biggest, by far, is the usual one: Taxes.

This issue was expertly analyzed by the Public Policy Institute of New York State (PPI) in a white paper issued last month. The report, entitled “Short-Circuiting New York’s Recovery”, noted that energy companies and their customers in New York pay a staggering $6.367 billion for state and local taxes and assessments.

That assortment of fees is led by property taxes which collected $3.1 billion from energy producers and providers. It’s a burden rather unique to the Empire State as made evident by the collections of our West Coast doppelganger. When people think “bad government” California is right there at the top of the list with us. You would think that their property tax receipts would be eerily similar to ours. Not so. Theirs totaled only $786 million, a quarter of ours. Of course, the second and third largest individual taxpayers in New York State are power transmission and delivery firms.

The PPI found that other local taxes were as unusually painful. The state does not collect sales and use taxes on electricity, but that doesn’t prevent local municipalities and other government entities from imposing them on consumers. These fees amounted to $822 million last year. School districts are guilty of indulging in this practice and the report identified the Lackawanna district as one of the abusers, imposing a 7.75 percent sales tax on energy.

Another gigantic sponge is the gross receipts tax that attacks revenues and is collected by the State (2 percent on residential distribution only) and local governments (ranging from 1 percent in towns and villages up to 3 percent in the city of Buffalo). The various GRTs rake-in $654 million per year.

Last but not least, there were the numerous alternative energy charges which are collected from four different line items. Among them is the systems benefit charge that was exposed by this column in February. These various fees supposedly support the development of alternative energy (solar, wind, etc.) and subsidize private and public investments in energy-efficient lighting, motors and more. According to the study, that vast transfer of wealth amounted to $569 million.

There were many more relatively-smaller taxes noted by the PPI. But, as you can see, it’s pretty obvious the government will purloin money from anyplace it can and with some rather clandestine practices. It’s a sneaky – and dirty- way to run a government. Unfortunately, for as long as there have been corporate taxes and fees in the United States, people have been duped into going along with them. Elected officials always say that these fees and taxes are collected from “the evil corporations”. They fail to take it one step further and tell you that in order to pay their property taxes, green energy charges and the like, the power companies will maintain their profit through the only means possible: By passing the taxes onto us. We’re paying them one way or another.

So, what does this mean to New Yorkers? According to the PPI, 28.6 percent of our electrical bills are comprised of taxes. That equates to $614 per household, something quite close to the $708 over-payment mentioned earlier, the balance of which is comprised of other state-induced market factors.

Can it get any worse? Yes, it can…and it is. Due to new and bigger taxes, total tax receipts on electricity in New York grew by 15% in 2009 alone. And, that explosion occurred during the Great Recession when electrical consumption dropped significantly in both homes and businesses.

What can be done? I don’t know. Politicians aren’t stupid. They know what makes our electricity so expensive. Yet, they continue to choose that path of higher taxes. If you or I were as smart as they, we might just choose the path of lower taxes and set-up shop or buy a house in the Ohios and Tennessees of the world. God knows millions did before us.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The new class warfare

From the 19 April 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

As we’ve seen throughout the long history of our great nation we can be a people divided. From the British sympathizers and revolutionaries of early America to the secessionists and nationalists of the Civil War to the hawks and doves of the Vietnam War, Americans have shown they can be split over significant socio-political issues.

Such public disagreements aren’t necessarily limited to matters of defense and war. Other divisions – internal and bloodless wars, if you will – have always occurred in communities across the United States. Class warfare – both the real and the assumed – has pitted the poor against the rich, the “haves” against the “have nots” and the middle class against the lower class.

After tens of decades of sameness, the face of class warfare is changing. The Great Recession has made it apparent that a new chasm exists amongst our populace. But, it’s not where you think.

Rather temporarily (and expectedly), the hatred for the ultra-rich reached its peak when the recession gained steam and bailouts were poured upon gigantic corporations and their executives who precipitated the collapse of the economy yet found themselves rewarded with extravagant bonuses. But, as the recession lingered and the bitter taste of those events subsided and became old news, the unemployed and the underemployed found a new target: Those who work in the public sector…not just the politicians but every one who punches a clock or earns a salary from a municipality, school district, or federal office.

It’s common knowledge that those individuals have been spared the struggles that befell private sector breadwinners. Since the recession began in December of 2007 nearly 8 million jobs have been lost in the manufacturing and service industries. Thanks to stimulus packages that have served only to prop up governments, government employment gained a net of 110,000 jobs.

That disparaging gap in job security has fed the envy monster that exists in all human beings. Many people who work in or became unemployed by the private sector now look at their public sector friends and family with disdain, seeing them as leading a life that goes on unaffected by unemployment woes. Other factors beyond job security alone contribute to that jealousy, including the public sector’s benefits which include many things that have been cast aside by businesses during the recession like raises, health care and pensions.

That hatred only grows stronger as the recession goes on. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for many industries, confounding job seekers. For most it looks like the one (or no) income household will be the norm for quite some time. So, they see themselves as the “have nots” and the government workers as the “haves.” This unfortunate and derisive view of their neighbors is fed by the hate speech that comes from talk radio and blogs that paints them as the enemy.

It’s a dangerous way of thinking. How soon will it be before parents start outright hating their children’s teachers before they ever get a chance to know them because they are, in their eyes, “overpaid leeches”? How soon will it be before the stressed, jobless families who need social services turn on their providers, seeing them as “fat cats”?

It’s unfortunate, for a good number of public sector employees didn’t join their ranks for the pay and benefits. I’ve never known a cop to risk his life every day for the money. No, he does it because he wants to make a difference. I’ve never known a social worker to work with a broken family because she likes her pension. No, she, too, does it to make a difference. The same could be said for teachers, border agents, and others of responsibility.

How do we temper this wealth envy that pits friends against one another? Private sector workers can start by not hating the person. Instead, hate the unaffordable and unrealistic employment system that was created and run by politicians and bureaucrats. Get those in power to change it. Public sector workers can help by making accommodations and sacrifices. When their bargaining units fail to make concessions or threaten inactivity at the very mention of the suspension of a guaranteed raise they are only begging for others to despise them.

Class warfare is two-sided affair and it takes both sides to end this ugly, divisive practice before it gets out of hand and divides our communities.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Nimbies on the loose

From the 12 April 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers


By Bob Confer

Six years ago we put serious thought into expanding our North Tonawanda facility. Prior to finding a warehouse in Wheatfield we spent a considerable amount of time and money on engineering and the permitting process in regard to the expansion of our headquarters. Following one of the numerous council meetings a city resident came up to my father and said, “I wouldn’t care at all if you and your employees left town.”

That’s a pretty shocking statement, especially in North Tonawanda where there are so few large employers in what was once a manufacturing boomtown. You would think that people would love to have an employer as a part of their community. Sadly, that’s not always the case. Not in NT. Not in any city or town, regardless of size. Fortunately, in most situations, it’s only a minority of residents who decry the arrival or expansion of a corporation. You’ll typically find that a vast majority of people are tickled pink to see construction, jobs, and tax revenues coming to their neighborhood.

But, it’s always the small band of naysayers - the nimbies - who ruin it for everyone, businesses or residents alike, by delaying and even preventing development. The practitioners of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attack new projects with vigor in public and the courtrooms, even those that have been intelligently and smartly done so as to minimize the impact on the environment and the community. Despite their totally obvious reasons for protest (they don’t want to look-at/experience the business or they see it as a competitor to theirs), the nimbies really stretch the law and create legal hurdles so consuming of time, effort and money that many prospective companies just give up.

Surprisingly, the Recession (and its millions of jobs lost) has not tempered this mindset. The nimbies are working their black magic everywhere it seems.

In both North Tonawanda and Lockport groups of concerned citizens have slowed the construction of Super Wal-Marts. They seem to forget that they live in a city (where retail operations are expected to occur) or, in the case of Lockport, that the former Mall (the proposed site) actually used to be a shopping center. They tout zoning laws and request outlandish accommodations while spreading propaganda labeling Wal-Mart as “evil” because they sell nothing but Chinese goods. Do nimbies not realize that more goods could be manufactured in America if people like them didn’t make it nearly impossible to do so?

You also have the Gasport nimbies who aren’t very welcoming to Niagara Metals. They work under the guise of protecting the Red Creek watershed but it just so happens those involved with the lawsuit against the town live in view of the site which once was, by the way, a commercial establishment (the base for a working quarry) and was recently designated by the townsfolk as the corridor in which Gasport business should be done.

Then, there’s Middleport and Lockport where you have nimbies who complain about outdoor concerts to Mayors Maedl and Tucker. The killjoys are oblivious to the fact the entertaining concerts bring countless visitors who come cash in hand, keeping the locals employed.

Those incidents are just the tip of the iceberg; nimbies are everywhere. They must be so independently wealthy or unusually secure in their careers (regardless of the economy) that they can feel comfortable attacking new jobs in their communities. Truth be told, most are selfish and don’t care about the 12,000 jobless in Niagara County.

I can discount these nimbies because it’s not like I am unaffected by development. I live next door to a dairy farm. A decade ago when I moved into my home my neighbor had very few head of cattle. Now, the number of cows is in the hundreds. With that comes manure and lots of it. Needless to say, the smell is pretty ripe. But, you know what? I like it. It smells like gold to me: It means my neighbor is doing well, he’s employing people and he’s feeding countless families with his products. It makes me feel good to see – and smell - real economic activity taking place right next to my house.

It’s ironic: I accept that manure with open arms, but the bull that the nimbies spread really turns my stomach.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Bring back the nighthawks

From the 05 April 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers


By Bob Confer

The common nighthawk is an interesting creature. At just over 9” in length, a little bit smaller than a blue jay, it is a medium-sized bird that can be seen at dawn or dusk, flying at great heights in search of the insects on which it dines. You may have seen nighthawks before and probably remember them quite well: The brown birds can be frightening at first glance as they look almost like giant bats in flight. They are quickly told apart from the flying mammals by the white stripes on their wings and the call of “peent” that escapes their beaks.

Unfortunately, the common nighthawk is quickly becoming anything but common. The NY Department of Environmental Conservation calls it “a specie of special concern,” an animal the population of which merits attention and consideration. An argument could easily be made that nighthawks deserve to be classified as “threatened” as they are in imminent danger of becoming endangered in the Empire State.

It wasn’t always like this. Historically, it was a very common bird, nesting on rocky areas so common to New York’s vast shorelines along and in our borders. But, as Man conquered the wilderness they built homes on the nighthawks’ nesting sites and, making matters worse, they brought with them domestic cats which wandered about and/or became feral, in turn feasting on the ground-nesting birds. Nighthawks soon became a rare sight. They saw a resurgence in the early 1900s and actually became quite abundant in urban areas until only recently, adjusting to the growing human population by living atop buildings – skyscrapers, apartments, schools and factories – that had flat, tar and gravel rooftops which provided fine places to nest. The gravel most commonly used was prefect for the birds’ needs and, save hawks and crows, the high rooftops were predator-free.

But, the times have changed and so have roofing technologies. More and more contractors and maintenance personnel are going with rubberized, PVC, or stone ballast roofs that - through no intentional fault of the roofers - have eliminated the gravel so key to the birds. Because of that, nighthawk populations have seen a drastic decline in recent decades. The NYS Breeding Bird Atlas that was compiled in the years 1980 to 1985 noted countless nests throughout the state, especially in urban areas. The most recent version of the Atlas (which uses data amassed from 2000-2005) shows a pitifully small number of nests. The difference between the two studies is quite disturbing.

This trend does not have to mean that they’re a lost cause destined for near-extinction in New York. Commercial property owners and government facility managers can easily help bring back the nighthawks by turning their building into a home for our avian friends. You will need a large flat rooftop, something in size of at least 6,500 square feet as that’s what nighthawks most prefer. Put down some gravel on the roof. Stone ballast won’t cut it; it’s much too large. Nighthawks need peastone, wee pebbles with a diameter of 3/8 to ½ of an inch. The stones should be laid down in a 9-foot by 9-foot patch that is about 2 stones deep. An area that size will require 6 to 8 sheetrock buckets of peastones.

You could just set that atop the roof but it is strongly suggested by some birders that you build a border around the stones to prevent the gravel from moving around (which also helps in alleviating the fears of Maintenance) and you should first lay down some landscaping fabric to protect the roof. Before commencing with your project you must also be cognizant of other factors like shade, worker traffic and drainage. Among the best resources available for such projects is the Project Nighthawk guidebook available at:

If such a deed interests you, you still have time: In Western New York the site should be in place by May 1, the approximate day the migrants return. By building a nighthawk site at your place of work, whether you’re a businesswoman looking to do something for the environment or a teacher wanting to educate his pupils about the world around us, you can easily have an impact on one of nature’s creatures that so desperately needs our help.