Wednesday, August 28, 2013


It has been written here before that property taxes are the most unfair of all the taxes. School, county, and town levies penalize people for accumulating wealth (their house and land) and for improving upon it (home improvements) while rewarding people who do neither (by having them pay less for access to the same local services).

That inequity is especially pronounced when it comes to agriculture. Farms throughout Upstate represent, by far, the largest taxpayers in rural communities; after all, farming is the most land-intensive business there is. Farming families use no more public services – like roads, fire protection and schools – than non-farming families, yet they end up paying tax bills that are multiples of what their neighbors pay.

The burden placed upon farmers is mammoth, even with help that they get in the form of special agricultural assessments, farm building exemptions, and school tax credits. When it comes to the final tax bill, New York farmers pay an average of $38.41 per farm acre.

That inequality on the home front creates major inequality in the marketplace. Know that just like manufacturers, farmers operate in a global economy – this isn’t roadside stand versus roadside stand. They are trying to get their produce, meat and milk into canneries, processors and stores throughout the world, as are farmers everywhere from Washington to Brazil. That’s why you see such a diversity of sources when looking at labels while grocery shopping.

Farmers have to first battle what Mother Nature throws at them and, then, when they are done, they have to battle for market share. Like with any product, it’s all based on what one can sell at a price the market can bear. Every penny is critical.

That’s why New York farmers take a beating.

The national average for taxes per farm acre is only $12.34. So, growers and dairymen in the Empire State are paying more than 3 times what their competition is paying in other states for their most important asset – land.

That’s more than significant. Comparing apples to apples, suppose a grower in New York tends to 1,000 acres of orchards. His tax bill would be $38,410. His out-of-state competitors of equal size would pay just $12,340. The New Yorker has to either pass the extra $26,070 on to customers (highly unlikely) or he has to settle for a lower profit (likely). Property taxes account for 15% of net income for our farms, while in Idaho they account for just 5%. By sporting larger profits at the end of the year, farmers in states like Idaho can buy more equipment, land and buildings and hire more people than those operating here.  

So, how do we make things better? It’s tough. Major agricultural tax reform is not on any state legislator’s radar, especially since the state and most municipalities are still suffering the effects of the Great Recession and can ill-afford even lower revenues.

But, a simple yet effective bill, one that doesn’t necessarily help the present, but helps the future, offers some hope to farmers who are used to their already-high taxes rising every year. It would put a reasonable cap on the growth in agricultural land assessments. Current state law maintains a 10% cap, but that cap – or a percentage very near it - has been met with regularity. The bill would institute a 2% cap on the assessments, mirroring the 2% tax cap that the state put on residential property taxes. By having assessment growth lowered significantly, farms will bear a lower share of taxes in coming years and it will give their owners a greater ability to plan for the future and more money to invest.           

Championed by the New York Farm Bureau, S.1952/A.165 passed both the Senate and Assembly and has been sitting on Governor Cuomo’s desk awaiting his signature. He now has the power to make it law and the power to maintain the status quo. New York’s farmers don’t deserve the latter nor does our region as a whole: Agriculture accounts for a $120 million-plus portion of Niagara County’s economy and a similar amount in Orleans County.   

Gasport resident Bob Confer also writes for the
New American at Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer.

This column originally appeared in the 02 September 2013 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ObamaCare will kill your local chamber of commerce

Local chambers of commerce are some of the most important organizations within the private sector. Chambers serve a community’s enterprises with a dual-purpose role of marketing the specific region — as well as individual businesses — and serving as the voice for those entrepreneurs when it comes to matters of local, state, and national public policy.

Most small businesses, working on tight budgets and even tighter schedules, find it difficult to do those tasks solely and effectively on their own, so these business cooperatives, which can be found in most any community across the country, provide immeasurable benefit to their members.

To do those tasks and do them well it takes a considerable amount of money. Mass marketing via local newspapers, national tourism magazines, broadcast media, and the Internet is not cheap. Advertising fees, trade shows, networking, and personnel costs add up in a hurry. Even policy development and study is not inexpensive, as many chambers totally devote a staff member to government relations.

To cover those myriad costs and still keep membership affordable, most chambers of commerce pursue alternative revenue streams.

Among the most common is the offering of health insurance. Pooling together the buying power of all of their members, they can get insurance at much lower rates than their individual businesses would be able to on their own. So, the law firm or doctor’s office in town, each with just a half-dozen employees, might be able to buy insurance at a rate comparable to that of the factory down the street that employs 200 people and deals directly with an HMO. This benefit — thus membership — is typically extended to the community at large (not just businesses) as both a service to the community and a means to secure more revenue from membership fees of those folks (like families) who might not have any need for the chamber’s other services. That source of income, which for many chambers accounts for a third or more of their clientele, is significant and it keeps overall membership fees down while affording chambers the funds to focus on doing what they do best — policy and promotion.

Unfortunately, that standard practice looks to be on its death bed. And, so do many chambers of commerce.

ObamaCare’s creation and institution of health insurance marketplaces (exchanges) will put undue stress on chambers by taking away their ability to attract members solely on the basis of healthcare. A good many of the non-business enrollees will drop out of their chamber and enter the exchange, duped by government reports that insurance purchased on the alleged open market will be cheaper.

Take the state of New York for example, where residents have been told that their healthcare costs will drop by 50 percent. An article in the New York Times said that state officials figure that 615,000 people will now buy insurance on their own in the first few years of ObamaCare, and that is what has driven down the costs. According to the report, regulators have approved rates which, for the designated "Gold Plan," are below the average HMO cost in the state.

What the Times failed to report in any detail, and what ObamaCare’s other promoters remain mum on is this: They are not comparing apples to apples. The standard HMO plan used in the comparison has everything that you would expect out of health insurance — affordable copays, access to doctors and hospitals of your choice, and low out-of-pocket expenses. The ObamaCare Gold Plan, on the other hand, covers just 80 percent of expenses. So, compared to the average HMO plan, consumers will be paying much more, not necessarily up front in the premium, but when all is said and done, as any services utilized will be billed to the insured at 20 percent of total cost. At that rate, any lengthy stay in the hospital following a car accident or a battle with cancer will bankrupt most working-class families. Even the myriad fees for lab work, emergency rooms, and the like will strike many an unsuspecting pocketbook. Many more consumers will wrongly think they’re doing well under the more “affordable” Silver and Bronze plans. It’s dangerous.  

It's dangerous to chambers of commerce and their business members, too. After having lost their unsuspecting non-business partners who naively buy into the ObamaCare propaganda, overall chamber membership could decrease by a third for many chambers across the nation.

What does that mean?

One of two things: The price of membership rises or services suffer.

Let’s first consider the former. If a third of a chamber’s revenues wither away, in order to maintain the same quality of service when it comes to marketing and civics, chambers will have to boost their rates to businesses by a third. The difference between $250 and $333 in annual dues may not seem a lot to larger businesses or outsiders with a passing interest in business, but that sum can make or break the budget of a very small company (like an ice cream stand or diner), especially if that corporation purchases health insurance through the chamber, because, accordingly, health insurance costs will rise for everyone in the chamber because the buying power of that co-op decreased when people left its ranks.

So, to keep everything less expensive, and not lose even more paying customers, chambers may have to ditch services deemed unimportant or less important to the overall goal of the chamber to promote the region they serve. As an outcome, the policy arm of those chambers will be cast aside. That plays to the favor of Big Government because the small businessmen and businesswomen would lose the skills and abilities of someone deeply involved in public affairs, and they would not be in the know about — or have a common, powerful voice to combat — the development of onerous municipal codes, the creation of bills in the state legislature that are unfriendly to business, and the writing of rights-stripping laws and regulations at the federal level.

Because of these issues, chambers of commerce — and the businesses they promote and protect — will suffer. Revenues will drop. Services will disappear. Many chambers that rely on individual and family health insurance as a means of survival will die. Businesses, in turn, will do the same as their very best advertiser and cheerleader goes silent.

It’s yet another frustrating domino effect of ObamaCare, one that was especially unnecessary because healthcare exchanges have always existed. We have always known them as chambers of commerce — there anyone could go to buy insurance affordably. But, those days will soon be gone as the government drives people away from those privately run, privately funded exchanges to those run by government and funded by taxpayers, whether they participate or not, to the tune of $4.4 billion dollars.

Obviously, there is nothing affordable about the Affordable Care Act — directly or indirectly. Its thoroughly negative impact reaches farther than anyone could ever know. Once chambers of commerce become a thing of the past, what other bastion of Americanism is next?

From the 20 August 2013 The New American at:

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


I quite often get into discussions with folks from the Big City (Amherst/Williamsville) who wonder why I choose to live in rural Eastern Niagara County which is, in their eyes, so far away from everything. They cite how they are just blocks, or a couple of miles at most, away from every store, restaurant, theatre or any other amenity that young families would ever want. “Quality of life” is their recurring mantra. 

They see my rural way of life (and that lived by residents in neighboring small towns like Middleport and Newfane) as almost alien. I see theirs in the same light and wonder sort of quality of life – which is appreciated by millions of suburbanites and urbanites across the nation - can be appreciated solely on the basis of consumption. What good are all of those places when the average family might be able to afford to visit them once, maybe twice, a week, or delve into debt to do so more often?

To country dwellers, quality of life is more than just the immediate and accessible consumption of a bunch of fancy dinners, consumer goods or the hippest movie. It’s about appreciating the simple things in life, mostly making memories with family and friends in the out-of-doors.

I look at the postage stamp lawns and jail-like fenced-in properties of the Williamsville types and wonder who would want that. Those of us who live out in the country have lawns and properties larger by multiples, where we can appreciate regular close encounters with wildlife and let our children roam, playing and learning in great amounts of wide-open space, rather than the confines of their living rooms and in the constant company of the latest video game.

Similarly, I look at the lack of public play space in the Big City and I take pride in our abundance of ball diamonds, soccer fields, and playgrounds out in the country. While kids in our neck of the woods get together by playing sports, the suburban kids hang out at the mall.

On top of that, look at the other places that the allegedly-deprived rural families have access to. Out here in God’s Country, we are just a 10 to 20 minute ride away from things that kids (and adults) really dig like the Olcott Carousel Park, the countless activities at Becker Farms, sledding and snowmobiling in the winter, hiking destinations like Royalton Ravine Park, and water activities such as boating, jet skiing, fishing and more on the likes of Lake Ontario, the Erie Canal, and Glenwood Lake.

Getting back to what is the basis of quality of life for the suburbanites, who said that we’re lacking in access to consumption? Most of us are just 10 minutes away from a grocery store, other shopping can be had in Lockport, Medina, and Albion, and we are within a 20 minutes drive of countless restaurants whose offerings and prices are far better than those had in Williamsville, from the Interesting (Shamus) to the Italian (DeFlippos) to the International (Old Mill Run). And, about that 20-minute drive: It’s wide open, scenic driving; quite the opposite of the stop-and-go congestion faced by the Big City folk who blow 10 minutes just to go a few miles.

Usually having lost the argument by that time, city dwellers typically comment on how great their schools are. Really, are the kids afforded that better of an education? When you speak of graduating classes in the hundreds, you’re telling me that through the child’s entire school career she was just a name or a number, lost in the shuffle, one of many. In our much smaller schools, everyone knows one another personally, teachers can devote more attention and care to each and every student, and the community at large is much more engaged in lending a helping hand to education.

Living out in the country isn’t for everyone. That’s obvious; just look at the population and the widely-held disdain for it. But, we like it that way. Call us greedy, but we like having this superior quality of life all to ourselves. 

Gasport resident Bob Confer also writes for the New American at Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer.

This column originally appeared in the 26 August 2013 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


President Obama will be visiting the area in the coming days and we’re told that his focus will be on improving the economy and strengthening the middle class. With our region’s long history of decline in once-mighty blue collar employment there is no better place to share such a message. You could say that WNY is a trendsetter in economic malaise, for manufacturing is a sector that here, long before the recession that wracked the nation at large, saw production jobs and the associated wealth creation leave for more fruitful economic climes domestically and abroad.

Being the leader in losses is a title we don’t want and don’t deserve. But, there’s no better place for our country to learn from, regarding both the bad ideas and policy that got us here and the good ideas and policy that can get us out. Let’s learn from the past, past, and future and build on our strengths to make the nation better.

So, just how do we improve manufacturing and, in turn, the middle class?  The ideas are endless (that’s what this column has focused on hundreds of times and ways over the past 8 years), but there are some big concepts and big ideas that I hope Obama – and other elected officials – emphasize in both talk and action. For brevity’s sake, here are what I would consider to be the top two keys to strengthening the producing class:  

Capitalize on our resources

It has long been believed by the President and other Democrats that our future in energy is dependent not on oil, but on wind and solar.

That’s the wrong approach to take because neither resource is collected by technologies that could be deemed efficient. Were the United States to shift to such energy production, we’d be besieged by power bills that would rival New York’s – the second highest in the nation and the most significant reason for manufacturers having left the Empire State. It would be the death knell for anything that currently boats a “Made in the USA” label.

Recently, though, the President has broken from the far left of his party and alluded to the greatness of the vast natural gas reserves that other states have been reaping with hydrofracking (“fracking”). This resource can be extracted efficiently, cleanly and smartly with investments by the private sector being done under the watchful eye of the public sector.

The abundant gases can be used to make very clean electricity on the cheap, which will instantly and significantly lower one of the largest production costs (manufacturers could see power bills drop by 10% or more). Similarly, the gas can be used to make polyethylene, which can satisfy domestic demand for plastics, helping the market which has seen higher prices due to higher global demand. This could lead to plastic prices dropping by more than 20%.  

Both of those factors will lead to greater middle class employment in the manufacturing sector because exports would increase and domestic consumers would buy more goods --- all courtesy of significantly lower input and selling costs. 

Capitalize on our people

Why do we as a society think that a college education is the gateway to success? For many it is. But for just as many, it’s the gateway to debt.

Success can be also be had for those who want it by utilizing vocational education, offered by many public schools and regional consortiums (like BOCES). Such programs have been grossly underutilized to the determent of the middle class: The National Association of Manufacturers reports that the skills gap is so significant that 600,000 open positions are wanting nationwide while 400,000 more exist in the trucking industry. It’s obvious that opportunity exists. 

We need to make good on that opportunity and transform our national educational policy – if not society’s outlook on alleged “dirty jobs” -- to account for teens being not just college-ready, but workforce-ready, too. Give people the skills that the marketplace needs. We need to emphasize and empower those blue-collar scholastic pursuits, as well as the associated STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) curricula, skill sets in which other nations’ students are besting ours.

Education is critical to bettering our society, but we need to stray away from standardized testing, Common Core, and the like and refocus on real world applications. Simply put, we need a middle class equally adept with their hands and their minds.

Energy and people. Those are two things that drive every manufacturer. They are two things that can drive our economy, too. 

Gasport resident Bob Confer also writes for the New American at Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer.

This column originally appeared in the 19 August 2013 Greater Niagara Newspapers