Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Niagara skies affected by light pollution

From the 29 November 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

If, like me and thousands of other readers of this newspaper, you live in the rural parts of the Niagara Frontier, you’re accustomed to some spectacular nighttime views, especially this time of the year when the cold, clear nights seem to amplify that stars. It’s invigorating (some folks even say it’s akin to a religious experience) to marvel at the cosmos, something that so few Americans have the chance to do. Only 20 percent of our population lives in rural areas, meaning 8 of every 10 people rarely if ever see the stars, especially in the volume that we do.

But, alas, even the magnificence that we see is not close to perfect. It doesn’t matter if you live in the most remote locales of Niagara and Orleans Counties, you’re still missing out on thousands of stars for the same reason that the city folk do: light pollution.

Look off in the horizon and you may see a glow from a nearby village or city that obscures that portion of the sky. Now, imagine countless cities and towns around us, all pouring that much light and then some into the skies. This accumulated visual noise spreads into the night, creating a glow that extends far beyond its sources. The ability to see the faintest of stars, including the dense Milky Way, is affected and what we think is a true nighttime sky really isn’t close to that at all.

That’s a result of being surrounded by numerous cities small (Lockport), medium (Buffalo) and large (Toronto). We’re within 500 miles of 46 percent of the US population and 57 percent of the Canadian population. Imagine all of the lights used to illuminate their homes, the roads they drive on, and the businesses that serve them. Rarely are the lights off even in the wee hours, meaning the sky glow over populated areas is relentless. In essence, a mammoth light umbrella covers us in Western New York.

To see how we compare against the few dark parts of the US and Canada (specifically some areas of the Great Plains, the Rockies, and the Far North) refer to the awesome Dark Sky Finder that can be found online at The website has an interactive map that you can drag around the US and zoom in to specific communities. It shows in a varying range of colors how intense the light pollution is.

Looking at the map, you’d probably be surprised to find out that the Lake Ontario shoreline of Orleans County still can’t escape the lights emitted by Rochester and the Greater Toronto Area. The whole Northeast suffers from that same fate, we’re an absolute mess. The closest that we can get to perfection is in desolate areas located within the Adirondacks and Appalachia. Stargazers can find true dark skies within the NY’s Moose River Plains and PA’s Susquehannock State Forest, the latter of which is renowned for its celestial views facilitated by a quarter million acres of near-wilderness.

Even if you can’t trek into those areas, you can still revel in more accessible sites that have incredibly vivid displays. Vast areas in Northern Pennsylvania, the Adirondacks and the Catskill Mountains possess only trace amounts of manmade illumination (look for the blue and purples hues on the map) and, therefore, nighttime skies that truthfully put ours to shame. In them, the stars seem endless and tightly packed while the Milky Way is actually, well, milky. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience those sights on clear nights while camping and I compare the difference between them and rural Gasport’s skies to the difference between Gasport’s and retail Amherst’s skies; it’s really that significant.

So, if your family vacations ever take you to the aforementioned wilds, do yourself a favor and duck out to the Great Outdoors every cloudless night that you can. You’ll be amazed at the sights and you’ll get as near as possible to seeing the stars as they were when man first set foot on this continent.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Cheaper Medicaid through equality

From the 22 November 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers


By Bob Confer

In New York, more so than most states, Medicaid takes more from society than it puts back into it. It’s a drain on the economy and the overall quality of life. If you’re a homeowner you know that too well. More than half of your Niagara County property tax bill goes towards Medicaid, costing you hundreds of dollars every year. Combine that with what else you put into the Medicaid coffers (state and federal income taxes and 1 full percentage point from sales taxes) and you discover that each Medicaid recipient in New York costs taxpayers $16,000 per year while the average family of four on Medicaid places a burden of $64,000 per annum on our economy.

If you and/or your employer pay for your health care you know those numbers seem unreasonable. They are. A single-subscriber plan through an HMO is slightly more than $4,000 per year while a family plan is just under $12,000. That’s 75 percent and 81 percent less than their respective Medicaid counterparts. From the standpoint of equality, that’s a major source of frustration for any reasonable taxpayer. He or she must cut coupons, corners and family budgets in order to pay for increasingly painful health insurance and property tax bills, while others are receiving, with minimal effort, Cadillac coverage at Cadillac prices.

But above and beyond the concept of fairness, there’s the issue of fiscal responsibility. How can that same penny-wise New Yorker and the elected officials he or she puts into office take seriously the extravagance – if not waste – of our Medicaid program? Should it really be 4 or 5 times more expensive than private insurance? The answer is “no”.

Albany politicians have been talking about Medicaid reform for years, all of them to a man knowing that the system is broken. Yet, the talk has been nothing more than that. If anything, reform has been in the wrong direction, actually lessening strict eligibility requirements and adding even more pricy gimmicks. Not surprisingly, the cowardice to initiate appropriate change wasn’t eliminated by the Great Recession and our dire fiscal situation.

So, just how do we change Medicaid and New York State for the better? There is a very simple means to do so, one that would be a win-win for both sides of the aisle (those who demand cost cutting and those fearful of “hurting” Medicaid recipients): Dissolve New York’s corrupt Medicaid system and redirect Medicaid funding to the purchase of private, not public, medical insurance.

The savings would be astronomical. The state’s Medicaid budget for 2010-2011 is approximately $52 billion. If HMO coverage were purchased, the state would save $39 billion per year and it would totally eliminate the burden that is placed on the counties; gone would be the sales and property taxes specifically set aside for Medicaid.

Residents and businesses would have $39 billion of their own money made available to them every year, allowing them to spend and save and do as they wish with it, pumping it into more-productive sectors of the economy which in turn would increase personal wealth and employ more people (taking them off the Medicaid rolls in the process), making New York a place that’s attractive to live and work. Economic development and good government can really be that simple and moral: You actually can dramatically cut costs in entitlement programs without adversely affecting those deemed to be in need.

To make such an idea come to fruition you’d need a buy-in from Albany. They would have to be willing to totally remodel state government and eliminate layers of bureaucracy. If Andrew Cuomo is any bit the reformer he claims to be, it would be the perfect task for him. If the voters are as angry as they say they are, he’s got the backing.

One obstacle might be the federal government. Medicaid clearly defines minimum expectations and requirements, all of which are met by HMO. The feds might not see it that way, but any attorney-general worth his salt can make a very compelling claim to Washington. Look at how many attorneys-general have raised a stink against Obamacare, something that has far less of an impact on the health care landscape than Medicaid. If only one of them - ours, I hope - could take the risk and take on Lyndon Johnson’s ever-lasting Medicaid nightmare, our state – no, our country - would be a much better place.

Friday, November 12, 2010

High school sports need a boost

From the 15 November 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Rick DeWaters and his friends in the Royalton-Hartland Sports Boosters Club did something this year that could be considered miraculous. They saved the school district’s athletics program by securing the funding necessary to keep alive football and fall and winter modified sports, programs that had been victims of budget cuts last spring.

That’s an accomplishment once thought impossible. Roy-Hart is the third smallest school district in Niagara County with an enrollment of around 1,530 students. It’s also one of the poorest: the town of Royalton has a median household income that’s $230 lower than the county median while Hartland’s is $5,270 lower. With those factors in play - as well as the community having already been so maxed out in its investment in the district that it was forced to cut those sports - it was unknown if district residents could dig deep enough to give the school what it needed to keep the kids engaged in competitive endeavors. One sport (football) was certain to be saved, but modified sports, too?

In the end, the community pulled together. They participated in Booster-led fundraisers and fund drives, they donated goods and services to raffles, and they donated their time to Booster activities. They’ve kept Roy-Hart sports alive. With the leadership and experience the Boosters have in place, they’ll be able to save the day again next year when called upon to do so. Goodness knows they’ll have to; Roy-Hart’s financial straits aren’t unique to this school year.

Nor are they unique to Roy-Hart. We live in some tenuous economic times and taxpayers who have seen their incomes cut or their jobs lost by the recession are unable to support ever-growing school expenses, especially with the loss of state and federal funding that was once taken for granted. School districts everywhere will be forced to follow Roy-Hart’s lead and cut sports (among other things).

It’s a very unpopular decision to make, but it’s truly a wise and necessary one. What’s the alternative, cut teaching positions and academic programs? You can’t, for schools are, first and foremost, learning institutions. As harsh as it sounds, athletic pursuits rank lowly among a school district’s best interests because there is minimal bang for the buck when looking at the student body as a whole. In a small district like Roy-Hart far less than half of a given class might participate in school sports. In a larger district, like the Lockports of the world, much less than a fifth of a class is active in sports. When faced with an economic crisis, you certainly cannot sacrifice the enrichment of many pupils’ minds for the advancement of the athletic affairs of a select few. Even in good times it’s a questionable investment: Why should townsfolk direct their taxes towards one boy’s football adventures while not doing so for another lad’s participation in the Boy Scout program? Both activities are hobbies and are as equally important to the development of those boys.

But, that does not discount its value. Just as necessary as a book-driven education is to the students, so is the experience-driven education that comes with sports. A sport may be “just a game”, but there is so much more that comes from it if properly channeled. High school athletes can learn any number of life skills ranging from personal fitness and work ethic to teamwork and sacrifice to preparedness and adaptability, things you just can’t get in a classroom. The fields and gymnasiums give the perfect outlet for achieving all of those, while at the same time, developing a powerful sense of community pride, not just for the players but also for the district residents at large.

School sports serve a great purpose, one which cannot be ignored. But, athletes and their parents can no longer consider them to be freely supported by the taxpayers. We live in a new day, one where parents must take an active role in ensuring that the sports are there for their kids. They need to put in some extra hours outside of practice and games, working with donors throughout the area to put money in the athletic department coffers. It’s a difficult task, but not an insurmountable one, and the Roy-Hart Boosters have shown – far better than most – that working together we can all guarantee that today’s children have the same chance to compete that previous generations had.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Fighting poverty creates poverty

From the 08 November 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

The federal government considers one to be living in poverty if income is $10,830 or less, or $22,050 for a family of four. The number of Americans within those categories grew last year by nearly a full percentage point to 14.2 percent, or 43.6 million people — a 3.8 million increase. The poverty rate is at its highest since 1994, while the actual number of those living in poverty is the greatest in 51 years.

To put that in perspective, the poverty crisis 51 years ago is what inspired Lyndon B. Johnson to initiate his War on Poverty. To combat our socio-economic problems he ushered in the Social Security Act of 1965, which introduced Medicare and Medicaid. They have become an indelible part of American life, used by the poor and - especially in the case of Medicare - the not-so-poor. But despite their abundant patronage, these massive, unconstitutional programs have neither eliminated poverty nor become even remotely efficient or affordable.

Medicare, which provides health “insurance” to 45 million Americans 65 and over, is funded through a payroll tax of 2.9 percent split between the employee and the employer. Despite stripping the economy of more than 3 percent of its value annually, the program is still unable to adequately fund itself: Since 2008 the Medicare trust fund has been paying out more than it brings in.

Like any Ponzi scheme, this unsustainable economic model is destined to come crashing down. Medicare has unfunded obligations of $37.8 trillion (2.5 times the size of the U.S. economy) a great deal of which is coming due soon. As the Baby Boomers age, they will put incredible pressure upon the system, ultimately bankrupting Medicare. Economists, as well as Medicare trustees, believe the fund will be in the red by 2017. Upon its collapse, what will the federal government do? It has done nothing yet to prepare for Doomsday, although it’s only 7 years away. So, a financial crisis and tax tsunami are looming for American taxpayers and Medicare beneficiaries, as well as those who must be paid to provide for their care.

The crisis continues with Medicaid which provides medical and health-related services and funding to the poor. Even though it’s a federal edict, it uses a combination of federal/state/local taxes and state management of Medicaid recipients. In 2007, there were an average 49.1 million Americans receiving Medicaid. The federal outlay that year was $190.6 billion, while the states pumped in another $142.6 billion for a total of $333.2 billion. That number is expected to reach $673.7 billion by 2017, the very same year Medicare comes to its crossroads. It should be noted that the program is notoriously abused, with some states - like New York - providing recipients with products and services that those on private health insurance would never receive without considerable out-of-pocket expense. In the Empire State the accumulated cost to taxpayers is a whopping $16,000 per Medicaid recipient.

These incredible burdens placed on productive sectors of the economy make it painfully obvious to the reasonable mind that Medicare and Medicaid have created poverty rather than alleviated it. In its effort to combat the very poverty it had previously created through taxation and regulation of a productive private sector, the federal government managed to create even more poverty by adding to the cost of doing business (which inhibits job growth, stunts wages, and sends jobs overseas) and living (which prevents people from spending as much as they could in the free market, which would then encourage economic development and squash poverty).

Whenever money — hundreds of billions annually for the War on Poverty — is forcibly removed from the private sector, the private sector is unable to do what it should. Thus, the average worker, because of diminished employment opportunities, becomes impoverished by the invisible hand of the government. That individual then relies on government subsidies, further stressing the system of dependence unleashed by our government, which will then, again, take away more jobs and opportunity further down the road. It’s truly a vicious cycle.

The taxman in the sky

From the 01 November 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Many look at websites that share aerial imaging technology as a fun way to see what their home and community look like from the air. Little do they know that various governments around the world are using it for less amusing purposes. Sites like Google Earth and Bing Maps are being used as tools to find so-called "tax cheats" and individuals that willingly or unwillingly sneaked past the building permit process.

The nation of Greece has used the technology to enforce its wealth tax by scanning suburbs in an effort to find pools, villas, and vehicles that, according to Greek officials, certainly couldn’t be afforded or maintained by recorded income levels. In its initial round of searches for swimming pools, Greece found 17,000 pools when only 324 had been claimed by taxpayers. Enforcing the tax code through such investigative measures netted the country 1.8 billion Euros in back taxes and fines during the first 6 months of 2010.

Here in the States, many municipalities are following Greece’s lead. In Riverhead on Long Island, Google Earth is also being used to find swimming pools, specifically those that were erected without town notice or do not meet the town’s building code. In that town of 27,000 people, about 250 unregistered pools were discovered. The homeowners were forced to make their pools compliant and, of course, pay Riverhead mightily for their permits.

With nations like Greece (whose financial descent is being mirrored by the United States of America) and communities like Riverhead (the size of which is similar to many communities across the country) seeing great success with aerial surveillance, many more government entities are following suit, playing around on the computer and subsequently playing financial hardball with property owners as a way to increase revenues.

To see how pompous they are in this matter, refer to Pennsylvania’s springtime television ad campaign (it can be found on YouTube) which played the Big Brother card. In that commercial, satellite imagery zoomed-in on a typical Pennsylvania home and a robotic narrative voice cited the homeowner for tax evasion, noting they know where he lives and that he has a “nice car” and a “nice house." The ad ended with a threat to Pennsylvania taxpayers that read “find us before we find you.” It was meant to scare commonwealth residents; no doubt it did.

With these developments in technology and the abuse thereof, even the most law-abiding and straight-laced Americans must worry that the government could be watching our every move or analyzing the details of our last bastion of personal liberty, our homes and lands, places once rightly thought to be private and free of government intrusion. Under normal circumstances the government needs just cause to enter a domain, some sort of belief that a crime has been or may be committed. With Google Earth, that has been thrown aside: Tax collectors and building inspectors don’t have any inkling whether a supposed crime is being committed or not, yet they are allowed to search a property unabated in hopes of finding a broken law. Basically, everyone is now guilty until proven innocent.

It’s obvious that by using aerial imagery our government is exceeding the limits imposed upon it. Unlike socialist Greece - which is a poor example for America to be following in the first place - our natural rights are recognized and protected by a Constitution that should be preventing such an invasion of our privacy because aerial intrusion is, without a doubt, an unreasonable search. So, until someone takes a government entity to the courts contesting it, we will continue to be spied on from above. Nowhere is safe from prying eyes anymore.