Friday, January 29, 2016

Your taxes and the Obamacare 1095 form

Most of you have received your W-2 forms already and have filed -- or will be filing soon -- your income tax returns. Some early-filing taxpayers, either when meeting with an unsuspecting tax professional or doing taxes on their own, have come up to an obstacle: They’re told they need their 1095.

You don’t need it. Well, at least for 2015 taxes…and only if your health insurance was provided by your employer or the government.  

Before we get into that, let’s look at the background of the 1095.

The federal government wants to make good on its Affordable Care Act edict that everyone must be insured. So, this is the first year that tax forms will officially reflect that with reliance on supporting documentation. It’s a quick and easy way for the IRS to figure out who they have to smack with the non-compliance fee (which the Supreme Court called a tax) which is 2 percent of the annual household income for those were uninsured for all or part of 2015. It’s a far more severe penalty than last year’s.

The IRS is demanding proof of coverage in the form of a 1095, which is more or less the insurance version of the W-2 which serves as your proof of income and the accompanying tax withdrawals. Individuals who purchased insurance on their own from a government exchange will receive form 1095-A. Those who received insurance from the government (Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, etc.) will receive form 1095-B. Those who work for a company with 50 or more employees will receive form 1095-C from their bosses.

While the exchanges are ready to produce the forms, state governments (the administrators of Medicaid), employers who manage their own payroll, and payroll processing firms like Paychex, ADP and thousands of smaller ones across the country are, for the most part, not prepared. The same can be said for the employers and employees who will receive the 1095s from those firms (those same employers have to file the related 1094-C). Therefore, they have all been granted extensions. January 31 was the original deadline to provide those forms to the insured. The IRS moved that to March 31.

The IRS is encouraging anyone who bought insurance on the exchange to wait for their 1095-A before filing taxes.

As for those who will receive a 1095-B or 1095-C, the IRS says that you do not have to wait for your forms to file your taxes since they won’t come until too close to the April 15 Tax Day. The IRS also says that upon receipt of the forms you do not have to re-file your taxes or amend your returns. This year, they will take you on your word that you were insured. But, they encourage you to hold on that somewhat obsolete 1095 in the event that you are audited by the agency.

Going forward, the use of – and keeping of – 1095-B and 1095-C forms will be required. You will need the form when filing your tax returns at this time next year. 1095-A forms are considered “live” this year.

It’s confusing, but who ever said taxes were supposed to be easy?

From the 01 February 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, January 28, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The DEC wants your feedback about the doe-only portion of deer season

Niagara County deer hunters weren’t the happiest bunch this past season. With little warning and limited back-and-forth with the public, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) surprised us when they went overboard in their plans to control Niagara County’s oversized whitetail population by instituting antlerless-only (read “does only”) bookends to the deer hunt. In 2015, and basically only here on the Lake Plains, the first two weeks of the recently-expanded bow season were relegated to doe hunting as were the much-beloved late-season archery and muzzleloader hunts.

Hunters looking for buck early in the season had to hold off,
much to their dismay. (BOB CONFER / CONTRIBUTOR)
Dedicated hunters who plied their archery skills all off-season, scouted the best animals, and paid the highest property taxes in the country for their hunting grounds were left being told how to manage their herds and denied the ability to hunt as they normally would have.

No hunter suffering from buck fever was going to sit in his stand the first two weeks of the bow season looking specifically for does, knowing that there was a chance that the 12-point he’d been watching all summer would walk under his stand and there was absolutely nothing that he could do about it!

Or consider the plight of hardcore blackpowder hunters who know the biggest bucks of the year are to be had in December after the vast numbers of shotgun hunters had left field and forest. Their hunt was absolutely ruined. I know of only one hunter who went into the woods in that late season to harvest a doe.

The statistical outcomes proved the hunters were disinterested.

The number of female deer harvested from 2014 to 2015 did not substantially differ between the
affected wildlife management units (WMUs) and nearby WMUs that followed the old rules (where
either sex could be taken during the bow and muzzleloader seasons). During the antlerless-only portion of the early bow season in 2015, the reported take of female deer was unchanged from 2014 in both types of WMU. Then, during the regular (shotgun) season and late bow/muzzleloader season, the reported take of female deer declined from 2014. Thus, overall reported female take (across all season types) declined for the year.

The DEC is now admitting they made a mistake. In their own words: “From this preliminary assessment, the antlerless-only rule does not appear to have substantially improved our ability to reduce deer populations in the treatment WMUs as needed.”

Now, they are considering something atypical to their operations -- going back to the old way of doing things and quickly.

Usually, the agency prefers to maintain altered harvest regulations for a minimum of 2 years prior to
assessment. But, because they do not have any reason to expect a different outcome in the future from 2015’s results, and because the rule was unpopular with most hunters, they are considering rescinding the rule for 2016 and again allowing hunters in Niagara County to take deer of either sex throughout the bow and muzzleloader seasons.

The DEC is looking for your feedback on this plan. Hunters, let them know how you feel and that you want your hunting seasons back. You spend too much money on taxes and dedicate too much time in the woods or in front of a target to not have the ability to hunt bucks.

You can submit your comments regarding the rescinding of the regulation by February 5, 2016. To do so, send an email to the DEC at using the subject line ”Possible deer and bear hunting changes for 2016.”

Regardless of what happens, the situation that led to the DEC’s ill-fated ideas in 2015 still exists: There are too many deer in Niagara County. They want the does killed off so there are less deer born because the vast herds are destroying millions of dollars in crops, tearing apart homeowners’ valuable landscaping, and stripping the local woodlots of their fragile wildflowers. Something had to and has to be done. In the future, the DEC might consider an extra doe-only hunt that goes well into January. Or, they might have to take it upon themselves to control the population on their own terms and with their own methods….which is never a good thing.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where the deer have all but destroyed spring wildflower populations. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 29 January 2016 East Niagara Post

Friday, January 22, 2016

New York should capitalize on astro-tourism

Astro-tourism has become one of the fastest-growing trends in tourism. What once was travel only partaken by hardcore astronomers has become mainstream in recent years as more and more people from all walks of life are venturing to places with dark skies (that is, away from the city lights) to see the northern lights or observe celestial bodies and meteor showers in skies nearly as pristine as those that our ancestors slept under.

It’s something that New York should capitalize on, but really isn’t. All told, the state and individual counties and chambers of commerce spend millions of dollars every year on advertising all of the natural wonders in our state (like Niagara Falls, the Adirondacks, and the Thousand Islands). Very little, if anything, is spent on promoting our dark skies, despite having some very special sites in the Empire State. 

In the Southern Tier, a good chunk of territory that runs along the Pennsylvania border and includes towns like Alma, Whitesville and Jasper falls under nearly dark sky jurisdiction and stargazers are greeted by nighttime skies featuring countless stars and thick imagery of the Milky Way. The skies are so dark that at a 2014 meeting of Alma residents that focused on the future of the community, a long discussion was had about opening up beds and breakfasts in that Allegany County town for the sole purpose of catering to people who would sleep during the day to be outdoors at night.

Approximately two-thirds of the Adirondack Park, a massive area, falls into that same category of night sky, too. There is a small area within it, though, where the skies are even darker, the darkest in the entire northeast. About a half hour to the east of the ever-popular community of Old Forge is a dark sky area centered around Raquette Lake. There, skywatchers are treated to the heavens exactly as they were before Thomas Edison’s light bulb took hold and drowned out the stars. In that place, 10,000 stars can be seen with the naked eye. To put that in perspective, that’s 7 to 10 times what you can see on a good night in rural Niagara County.  

To see exactly what I mean about dark sky ratings, refer to the dark sky finder at There, you can zoom in and out of the map of the United States to find the best places to see the stars.

The nearness of the Southern Tier and the Adirondacks to the population centers of the northeast is appealing to this newest demographic of outdoor adventurer….both locations are just one tank of gas away from 56 million people.

They could all use that primordial exposure to the sky above. We all could.

In a 2010 column for this paper I lamented the loss of dark skies in the immediate area. Thanks to the city lights of Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Lockport and the Greater Toronto Area, Niagara’s skies are anything but dark, even in our rural communities. That nighttime misery, as bad as it is, is nothing compared to that of New York City, where its residents never see stars unless the electrical grid goes out as it did in August of 2013.

That outage was probably a wake-up call to many metropolitan denizens. That’s because the first time that you have unfettered access to the heavens is unforgettable, you feel like a new person -- spiritually and intellectually. You’ll want more of that experience…guaranteed.

It’s time that the good people at “I love New York” and other tourism offices across the state took advantage of that desire to be mystified by the stars. With even just a little focus on astro-tourism, they can bring in new customers who will, in turn, be repeat customers. We’re already losing tens of thousands of astro-tourists every year to Pennsylvania’s well-promoted Cherry Spring State Park. Let’s not get further behind in that regard as astro-tourism really takes off.      

From the 25 January 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Turkey populations on the decline

Over my 41 years I’ve seen some significant swings in wild turkey populations on the Niagara Frontier.

Over the first half of my life, turkeys were very uncommon in Niagara County. I can clearly remember riding the school bus through the town of Hartland every day and getting excited every time I saw a longbeard out in a field. I couldn’t wait to tell my dad when he got home from work.

But, after I graduated from college, it was like a whole new world for turkeys. Their population exploded and they became abundant in Niagara Count. Large flocks were the norm. Their local numbers peaked in the first decade of this century. You could see that in the turkey harvest numbers for Niagara County: In the spring huts of 2007 and 2008, local hunters bagged 423 and 444 toms, respectively, while the less-popular fall hunt saw a peak harvest of 91 birds in 2006.

But, in less than 10 years, fortunes have changed dramatically. There are fewer flocks and smaller flocks locally. Look at some recent harvest totals: 2014’s spring hunt saw just 149 toms taken, while 2015’s take came in at 148. The fall totals have been abysmal. In 2014, Niagara County hunters took 27 birds. In 2013, they took only 8. Yes, 8 (that’s not a typo).

This is not an issue unique to the Lake Plains. Numbers across the state have plummeted. In Allegany County, for example, last May’s harvest was 30% of the 2007 peak. I hunted there every weekend of May last year and encountered just one tom…the hills and hollows from where their gobbles used to echo were eerily silent. It was a little depressing.

This is not a result of overharvest. A number of factors have contributed to the decline. Recent springs have not been kind to turkey chicks. After warm starts to each of the past three or four Mays, the weather changed for the worse. Wet and cold came as the young hatched and there were mass die-offs. The turkeys have been unable to replenish their populations.

Also, many conservation professionals believe that Lymphoproliferative Disease Virus (LPDV) has struck many flocks. LPDV is a disease that foreign trade recently brought from Europe. The sickened birds get lesions on their skin and even on their internal organs. These pox-like lesions cover their eyelids (making it hard to find food or see predators) or fill their throats (making it impossible to swallow). So they either starve to death or are easily taken by coyotes.

What also concerns me is the lack of hens locally. I recently saw a flock of 14 birds in Gasport. All but one were toms. You can’t grow flocks with so few egg layers. Similarly, my friend saw a flock of six longbeards in the Town of Lockport. Nary a hen was to be seen.

Due to all of these factors, turkeys will continue to die off across the Niagara Frontier.

The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) could use your help in tracking their numbers in the winter months. The DEC’s Winter Wild Turkey Flock Survey is conducted from January through March and is used to monitor trends in relative abundance of turkeys statewide. This survey helps them assess the general health of the wild turkey population prior to the breeding season in the spring. It’s easy to help them, too. They have a form that can be downloaded (link). Fill it out when you see flocks (there are sections for three observations on each sheet) and send the form to them at:

  • Winter Turkey Survey
  • 625 Broadway
  • Albany, NY 12233-4754

It’s actually a pretty important survey as it will, in conjunction with harvest analysis, help wildlife officials determine what to do with population management and future hunts. Last year, the DEC took the Southern Tier’s fall season from 1 month to 2 weeks. There’s always a chance they might drop hunters’ spring allotment from 2 birds to 1 for the season.

These really are some dicey times for turkeys and the outdoorsman who have enjoyed their exciting hunts and tasty table fare.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he ranks spring turkey hunting far more exciting than deer hunting. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at 

From the 21 January 2016 East Niagara Post

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Liability bill would protect local agritourism

Agritourism is a critical part of the Niagara County economy. Local farms and food and beverage producers with open doors and experiential activities bring to our rural communities hundreds of thousands of visitors ever year who spend millions of dollars to buy their products, see their processes and spend some time down on the farm. In the county limits, we have seventeen wineries, close to twenty Christmas tree farms, a corn maze, dozens of u-pick stands, and the incredibly-popular Becker Farms, a veritable agricultural theme park.

Those farmers and vintners aren’t the only folks who benefit from the traffic. Countless other business -- like restaurants, gas stations and hotels -- benefit from those who are experiencing the bounty of the Niagara Frontier. Plus, we taxpayers pay less in property taxes because of the sales tax revenues that come from all of those transactions.

All of that being said, we need to make sure that we have a political/economic environment that allows all of those ag businesses to succeed and not face unnecessary financial struggles.  It’s crucial to all of us.

Enter Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner. This year, the Democrat from Round Lake is introducing the Agritourism and Farm Animal Activity Liability Act. The act would be similar to laws on the books in 26 other states that clearly indicate that those who visit farms assume inherent risks. While case law in the Empire State does afford farmers some protection, the limits have never been defined in statutes.

Woerner’s proposal would most closely mirror Tennessee’s standards, which state that there is no liability for an injury to a participant in an agritourism activity conducted at an agritourism location if such injury results from the inherent risks of the agritourism activity. Under Tennessee law, inherent risks of agritourism activities include those attributable to lands, equipment, and animals, as well as the potential for the participant to act in a negligent manner that may contribute to injury or death.

Some examples of what could occur in anyone of the local settings: a dad cutting down a Christmas tree could run his chainsaw into his leg; someone could get kicked by a horse; a drunk twenty-something could jump off of a hay ride; a child feeding a goat can have his hand bit by the beast; an individual picking corn could wrench his back picking up his bushel; someone picking apples could fall off an a-frame ladder.

I could go on and on, but those are just a few of many events that could occur. “Could” is the key word. They aren’t likely to occur (agritourism is safe), but there’s always the chance – visitors come in contact with equipment, animals, heavy produce and more. Anyone with a semblance of reason can see that there are risks associated with them. Woerner’s bill recognizes that and clarifies that you are assuming the risk of participating in any agritourism activity.

If you would like to see this sort of common sense protection afforded to the local farms and wineries who keep our economy going (and provide positive memories to locals and world travelers alike), take the time to write a letter to your assemblyperson and state senator asking them to support Woerner’s bill. Otherwise, there’s always the chance – especially in our insanely litigious society – that one of your neighbors could lose his farm to the misbehavior or unsafe practices of one of his customers.

From the 18 January 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, January 7, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Harriers – a special visitor this winter

This winter we on the Niagara Frontier have been graced by good numbers of northern harriers (which were once called “marsh hawks.”)

Typically, these beautiful hawks aren’t here in any volume in the winter months because the snow inhibits their ability to hunt the open fields for mice and voles, so they head south where it’s not an issue. But, the season has, for the most part, been snow free, so our friends from the north are sticking around and having a productive time flying over local wheat and alfalfa fields.

Identifying harriers

Harriers can fly and glide up to 100 miles per day. (Photo courtesy of 
New Hampshire Fish & Game Department)
Harriers are fairly large birds of prey, coming in at 18 to 24 inches in length. To put that into perspective, the common red-tailed hawk is 19 to 25 inches in length. They look smaller, though, because they aren’t as bulky as red-tails and are more streamlined.

Male harriers have a grey back and lightly-streaked underbelly while females are brown. Both sexes have a white rump patch, which is very noticeable in flight or when the bird is perched on a fence post.

Harriers on the hunt

Strictly a bird of wide open spaces (you won’t find them in woods, brush, or backyards), they are easy to identify when they are flying about in search of rodents. They glide, with slight v-shape to the wings, and it’s that light, ballet-like flight that makes them so fun to watch.

Unlike other hawks which will fly or hover far above a field, or watch that field from a high perch,
harriers hunt close to the turf. Their beautiful maneuvers take place from 2 to 10 feet above the ground.

Those low flyovers allow them to catch voles off guard and then pounce on the mouse-like creatures
with ferocity. Other open space hawks like red-tails will dive bomb or fall onto their prey from great

Harriers can cover some impressive territory in their hunts and tracking devices have shown that the
combined distances of their flights and glides can reach 100 miles per day!

Harriers have disc-like pockets on their faces, just like owls do, which makes for great hearing ability, which adds to their ability to surprise their meals – they don’t necessarily have to see them, they can hear them running through the grasses.

A rare summer bird

Harriers used to be very common birds in the Niagara County summers, especially back in the 1940s and 1950s. Even back when I was a kid in the 1980s, I thought they could be seen in good numbers. But, they’ve been on the decline, with their population dropping as much as 1.6% per year since the late-1960s. The Department of Environmental Conservation considers them “threatened” in New York. If I see just one of these birds in June or July, I consider myself very lucky.

Their losses come from a number of factors. Mostly, it’s because of the decline in family farms and those former farms becoming brush or woodlots.

Then, the farms that do remain have changed their practices. Nowadays, you see less pasture or hay and alfalfa fields, and more cash crops like beans and corn which the ground-nesting harriers will not raise their young in. Adding insult to injury, when they do have the chance to breed in the alfalfa and hay fields that do remain, their nests are destroyed by early cuts in June. They can’t recover with a second brood, because some farms are fortunate enough to have 3 or 4 cuttings per summer.

Some birders might cast an angry glare at farms that do this, and they might blame them for destroying the harriers. But, look at it this way – the only reason the harriers existed in Niagara County and the only reason a few here and there can maintain nests locally is the fact that the farms exist. No fields equals no harriers.

It’s sort of like a chicken or the egg quandary. In this case, we know that the fields came first: Niagara County was a great forest before the White Man came, meaning that there were no harriers here at all.

But, we are blessed to have them here in the present. Although they might be rare in the summer
months, they are fairly -- and temporarily -- common right now. They will be until the snow buries the local fields. So, over the next few days, while passing through the wide open spaces of Gasport or
Somerset, pull over to the side of the road and appreciate the low-flying majestic glides of this beautiful predator. They are truly a wonderful sight to behold.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 07 January 2016 East Niagara Post

Farmers are taking a beating

Farming is a way of life -- a 24/7/365 career -- that that can grey hairs early and keep men and women up at night, even after a day of exhausting labor. It’s an ungodly stressful business to be in.

In their bailiwick, a farmer’s world changes quite often and usually at a moment’s notice. A late frost, a nasty hail storm or a fungus can ruin their crops. A disease can overtake their poultry or cattle. Then there are long-term issues to contend with such as seasonal droughts, a strong dollar, ever-changing migrant labor laws and consumers’ fickle behaviors.

Farmers don’t have it easy.

But, if you caught wind of Governor Cuomo’s press release in mid-December, you’d tend to think otherwise. The Governor’s lengthy report had indicated that the growth in New York farm receipts exceeded the national average with ag sales up 36% in the state, reaching a record $6.36 billion, a real jaw-dropping total.

After reading his report, you’d think that local farmers were swimming in cash and that the Empire State is in a Golden Era in agriculture. But they’re not and we’re not.

The December report was late to the party – it was looking at 2014’s numbers, 12 months after the fact. It overlooked the stark reality of Today and Tomorrow; while 2014 was awesome, 2015 was a nightmare and 2016 will be more of the same.

A number of factors have contributed to an incredibly-frightening decline in farm revenues across the country. Locally, the greatest impact is felt by the strong US dollar which has all but eliminated exports of milk and cheeses and led to closures of yogurt plants which couldn’t reach their much ballyhooed expectations. To that end, dairy prices fell more than 36% in 2015.

Elsewhere, avian flu wiped out whole populations of fowl. More than 42 million egg-laying hens and almost 8 million turkeys met their demise.

All said, farm income across the country was down 40% for 2015, wiping out 2014’s gains and then some.

For most people, the New Year always seems to come with great expectations. Farmers aren’t feeling it this time around. Dairy prices are still dropping. Soybean futures plummeted 16% over 2015. Corn prices are in free-fall, down 36% since 2012 and not expected to stop their decline until at least 2018. The US dollar is also getting stronger every day, which is absolutely killing the chances for any sort of agricultural turnaround in 2016.

Because of those factors, many forecasters are predicting another year of double-digit declines in farm income. Some analysts have thrown around 10%, while others are looking at losses as high as 30%.

Farming is an endless cycle of feat and famine, but too often it seems more like a famine than a feast. I can’t imagine managing a business under such conditions – running a factory is tough, but agriculture is an entirely different world. I’m glad I’m not a farmer, but I’m incredibly appreciative of those people who are stewards of the land. They are taking a beating, but they keep plugging along in their sworn duty to put food on our tables. It takes a special soul, a tough soul, to be a farmer, especially in really trying times like these when revenues, incomes, and bank accounts are looking sparse.

From the 11 January 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers