Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Only in New York is your home is not a wise investment

Common sentiment is that real estate – specifically the home - is one of the best investments that a family can make. For most of the country that’s true. Not here, though. New York is one of the few states in the Union in which real estate is not a wise investment.

That’s because, simply put, our property taxes are too high.

The onerous amalgamation of local, county, and school taxes strip real estate of any future returns it might have because your payment of these taxes must be considered a part of the investment in your home.

In Niagara County the median home value is $105,200 and the property tax burden on said home is $3,209. Suppose someone buys that median home as a starter home and hopes to sell it off in a decade or two. To come out even, based on taxes-paid alone, he would have to sell that home for $137,290 after 10 years or $169,380 after 20. That’s nearly impossible in the Buffalo-Niagara region.

Making matters worse, that basic analysis makes two major assumptions. One, taxes won’t rise in every one of those years. As we’ve recently seen, even the tax cap can’t stop them. And, two, the property owner will put absolutely no money into that home for remodeling or repairs. Those unaccounted-for factors – 100% guaranteed to happen – have the lack of a payback on housing set in stone.

This is a uniquely-NY problem.

Depending on what metric some real estate and good government groups use, property taxes in the Empire State are anywhere from 57% to 85% higher than the national average.

I’ll stick with the more reasonable – and realistic – 57%. For every $100 other Americans pay, we pay $157. That’s the average; let’s look at one of the extremes. I know someone from Tennessee who pays a paltry $660 per year in property taxes for his 2,800-square-foot suburban new-build. In comparison, my coworker who lives in North Tonawanda has a similar home for which he pays $6,800 in taxes annually. Another coworker pays $5,480 on his like-sized abode in Amherst.

Think about it: they will have paid $68,000 and $54,800 in property taxes, respectively, after just 10 years. They will never make that up in resale value. Never. But, the man from Tennessee will for sure; what he pays in taxes over 1 decade is even less than what the North Tonawanda resident pays in 1 year. For him, and many other Americans, it makes complete sense to invest in real estate, be it housing or land, because their taxes are so low.

It’s depressing for New Yorkers, because for most our homes are the single largest investment that we will ever make in our lifetimes; and it’s something that many bank on as the key to their personal wealth. This has taken on greater meaning since we’ve all lost faith in the stock market because of the Great Recession and the continued fiscal woes globally which are having a significant negative impact on the ag and manufacturing sectors here. As 401(k)s have ridden roller coasters and pensions ride a fine line of sustainability, we’ve all looked for other options to save for our retirements and our heirs, things like hard assets such as gold or real estate. Only in New York State is the latter an even poorer investment than down markets and low-yielding bonds and CDs.

Let’s put all this into historical perspective. A tea tax - but a pittance - was the straw that broke our colonial backs and jumpstarted the American Revolution. Our property taxes are far more extravagant. Will that someday ignite that same fire of change in New Yorkers? Let’s hope so, and soon. We’ll never be a rich people and a booming economy as long as the status quo is maintained in state leadership.

From the 29 August 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers


Monday, August 29, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The pitcher plant -- Western New York’s carnivorous plant

Nearly everyone is familiar with the Venus flytrap, the famed carnivorous plant of the southeast that snaps shut on insects that might end up within its mouth-like leaves.

Many folks don’t know that its equally-carnivorous but much less dramatic cousin, the pitcher plant, can be found in Western New York.

It just so happens that now is a great time to find this rare plant. Its large, brick-red nodding flower is in full bloom in August, alerting you to the pitcher below.

Those bladder-like leaves that give the plant its name are a vessel which collects water, and ultimately, insects on which it feeds.

It’s an evolutionary tool made out of necessity; pitcher plants grow in bogs, mossy acidic wetlands of which we have very few on the Niagara Frontier. Two bogs that immediately come to mind are Hanging Bog and Moss Lake, both being located in Allegany County and both being places we will explore in future installments of this column.

In a bog, decay happens at incredibly slow rates. As an example, some happy archeologists have found human bodies that were essentially mummified in European bogs, well-preserved hundreds of years after their death. Because of that slow rot, there is very little nitrogen available for flowering plants, hence bogs being home to mostly mosses. Flowering plants that do remain need to find nitrogen by alternative methods.

This is where the pitcher plant’s strange-looking anatomy comes into play. Whereas the Venus flytrap appears to be a quick eater, the pitcher plant takes its sweet time through an elaborate process.

The leathery, green sometimes burgundy leaves, with deep-red veins, which make it look like a bodily organ, have pools of water within them. The stench of that stagnant water and the death within draws flies and other carrion-eating insects into the bladder. The downward facing hairs within the pitcher do not allow the insects to fly or crawl out. Those hairs are said to issue a narcotic, which stuns the insects that then fall into the water. Bacteria in the water break down the drowned insects and the pitcher plant emits an enzyme that converts the insect mush into nitrogen that the plant consumes through the walls of the leaves.

It sounds like a lot of work, and it takes a lot of time, that is if the plant is lucky enough to catch some insects. All of that, in conjunction with the rarity of bogs, makes the pitcher plant one of the least common plants on the Niagara Frontier. It has a precarious diet while living in a precarious habitat.

That has led New York State environmental officials to count the pitcher plant as an exploitably vulnerable native plant, a classification teetering on threatened. So, if you see one, do not pick it, even if you count yourself as a skilled terrarium gardener. Not only is their harvest strictly prohibited on public land, but doing so also compromises the long-term population of one of our more interesting plants.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 18 August 2016 All WNY News

Thursday, August 25, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The wood turtle – Western New York’s interesting rarity

Earlier this year, while driving on County Route 38 in Allegany County, I saw a turtle crossing the road. Like any nature lover worth his salt, I got out of the truck and picked him up to put him in a safe spot.

I expected the slow-moving pedestrian to be a painted turtle which is, without a doubt, the most common turtle in Western New York. So, I was startled – and incredibly happy -- when I discovered it was a wood turtle!

After excitedly admiring the turtle for a good 15 minutes, I finally put him in Alma Pond.

It was especially rewarding to have my initial good deed magnified by protecting such a rare specimen.

Yes, rare.

I count myself as a good herpetologist. For years, I traipsed around Allegany and Niagara Counties in an effort to help the state with its reptile and amphibian atlas. I found many an interesting creature but never expected to ever see a wood turtle. They are incredibly uncommon in Western New York and the Department of Environmental Conservation counts them as a species of special concern.

Their numbers are down in most every state and province because of predation (mostly by the overpopulated raccoons), habitat loss, illegal collection (they allegedly make great pets) and vehicular turtleslaughter.

That’s sad, because the wood turtle is one of the more interesting reptiles out there.

It got its name for two reasons: One, it’s deeply grooved shell looks like hardwood and, two, it can be found in the woods.

For a good portion of the year, the wood turtle will venture a considerable distance from water (up to a half mile). In the late-spring and summer they can be found in wet meadows, fields, and forests, foraging on insects, slugs and fungi. While hunting, it even does something one might consider a magical power: It stomps its front feet which mimics the sound of rain; those vibrations bring earthworms to the surface, making a good meal for the turtle.

They are excellent walkers and relative speedsters for the notoriously-slow turtle clan. In one study of wood turtles, it was found they averaged 354 feet of travel a day, pretty darn good for a small reptile no longer than 8 inches in length. When I released our friend to Alma Pond, my family and I were in stitches because he seemed to be in a full run and was actually moving quickly.

That ability to cover territory in a hurry aligns well with the turtle’s unique homing abilities. It was discovered in scientific experiments using mazes that the wood turtles had homing abilities comparable to those of rats, which is pretty extraordinary for a reptile. A follow-up to that had a biologist move specimens a mile and a half from home --- they made it back in less than 5 weeks!

Wood turtles are also attractive little buggers, which might account for their popularity with reptile collectors. Besides the woody shell, they have a bright orange neck and legs and their underbelly is yellow with black blotches. They are active, too; the one we played with kept his head out most of the time, was inquisitive and even roared at us in his own way (it sounded like a whisper).

When not gallivanting in the wild during the warm months, wood turtles can be found underwater in the winter. They will go to the bottom of a river, stream or pond and bury themselves in brush or mud and stay there all season. Sometimes, that can account for their demise as it makes them susceptible to being really buried during flash flooding, a regular occurrence of springtime thaws in Allegany and Cattaraugus Counties where they can be found.  

That’s yet another thing makes them a marked animal – they are rare for a reason (actually, quite a few reasons), and they are creatures better left in the wild and not put in an aquarium.

If you see one in the wild appreciate it and take some pictures; never take it home.

And, if you see a turtle crossing the road, help it out --- you never know just what you might be saving.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 25 August 2016 All WNY News

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

New York State legislators do not deserve raises

When working in the private sector, pay raises are contingent on one or a combination of 3 things: The merit and successes of the individual, the current and projected health of the organization, and the health of the overall economy. Because of the final factor (and its contributions to the second), annual raises of any measurable size have become something of a rarity since the start of the Great Recession. Nationally, wages will have risen 2.7% this year.

Despite the working class facing such tumultuous times, the political class thinks they are free of such encumbrances. It has been the buzz in Albany, yet again, that state legislators are looking for a raise this year. They currently make a base salary of $79,500 and want to take it up to $116,900, an increase of more than 47% -- never mind that their real wage is already near mark after taking into consideration committee bonuses and the $172 per diem benefit for when they are in Albany.

When you consider the 3 factors behind raises, our senators and assemblyman aren’t deserving of a $37,400 raise, let alone one of $2,147 (which is what it would be were they to see just 2.7% like their constituents).

Let’s first consider the merits of in the individual. $79,500 is a rather exorbitant sum to be paying a part-timer. These positions were devised to offer regular people a chance to contribute to the development of the Empire State by having sessions for 6 calendar months per year and during those sessions mandating 0 to 4 days per week in the state capital (the legislative calendar typically shows only 55 in-session/budget days for the period of January through June). When the 6 months were up or when the legislature wasn’t in session during the week, the legislators could go back to their “real jobs” on the farm, in their offices and plants, or at home raising their families.

Sadly, the system been mutilated so much that people are led to believe that being a legislator is a full-time, year-round job equipped with regional offices and full-time staffs. Realistically, under such circumstances, one could look at the second half of the year as being nothing more than politics, rather than policy, a means to perpetuate incumbency through alleged necessity and importance. Really, what does attendance at parades and dinners contribute to the overall welfare of our state?

So, we need to look at the seats for what they are and what they should be – part-time, supplementary gigs - and realize that we cannot permit their income growth.

Now, let’s look at the organization through which they are employed.

At $5 billion, last year marked the state’s largest surplus since the 1940s. That was all smoke and mirrors, because it was created by windfalls from a variety of bank settlements.

Recent history shows are more horrifying picture. The state government had a budget gap of $2 billion in 2013, which followed deficits of $10.4 billion in 2012, $8.5 billion in 2011, and $21 billion in 2010.

If the fiscal health of the state is directly attributable to their budgets, the laws that they introduce, and the tough-but-necessary cuts they are afraid to make, then how, just by looking at those years alone, do the legislators deem themselves worthy of reward? If anyone ran a company like they run a state, that individual would be among the ranks of the unemployed, either through termination or the total collapse of their firm.

And, it’s that factor that leads to the last: the overall health of the economy. Every bill among the hundreds passed every year by the legislature (a whopping 718 bills in 2015) either steals rights and freedoms or adds to the cost of living and doing business in New York State. Because of that, existing businesses (not the new ones which are granted special favor and public charity like SolarCity) face incomprehensible government-created financial burdens when compared against their competitors from other states. That has forced businesses to stagnate/downsize/close/leave, which in turn has caused the same to happen to our residents, young and old alike. In the period from 2010 to 2014, 38 of the 50 Upstate counties lost population. Upstate is dying.

It’s that final factor of assessing job performance that is the most damning to our legislators. They are complicit in the destruction of the once accurately-named “Empire State”. They’ve driven our government to ruin, which has done the same to our economy and each and every one of us in it.

Only a politician would think they deserve a bigger paycheck for that.


From the 22 August 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Monday, August 15, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Fall colors will be muted this year

Battling through one of the most oppressively hot summers in memory, many Western New Yorkers are pining for the more temperate days and cooler nights of the fall. With the natural autumn (not the one based on man’s calendar) less than a month away, there is hope in sight.

But, that sight will be duller than years past.

With this year being one of the driest on record, this fall promises to have some of the worst colors on record. This will prove to a real downer to the leaf peepers who look forward to driving across our wonderful region every fall, and it will put a really effect the Southern Tier’s tourism economy, one that already had a setback earlier this year with dismal skiing and snowmobiling conditions.

At press time, Buffalo was looking at year-to- date precipitation deficit of 8”. This has had a major effect on plant life, even including the largest of trees that have stood the test of time and have seen similar droughts. They just aren’t getting the nutrition they need.

Here’s what we can expect this fall:

The leaves will drop earlier and quicker

Last year was a very healthy year for WNY trees and we got to experience a late and sustained coloring of our forests. Colors started appearing in earnest during the third week of September and many places still could brag of good color well into the last week of October. Portions of Niagara County had good color up to Veteran’s Day.

This year, though, because the leaves haven’t been able to become as robust, they will fall earlier. You can expect to see leaves coming down by September 15 th and I would be surprised if the Southern Tier had colors worth sightseeing later than Columbus Day. This will put a damper on some fall events like Wellsville’s famous Ridgewalk and Run, the success of which is determined by the fall colors.

This drought is a color killer

2015’s colors were exceptional, a picture-perfect collage of really intense reds, yellows, and oranges. I thought it was one of the top two or three autumns this century. This year’s will be the worst, hands down.

A wet spring and dry fall always produce the best hues. But this year, we’ve been dry through the entirety of the growing season.

Many of those unhealthy leaves will fall even before changing color while others, especially the yellows and orange will be show more of a brown hue. If it’s any consolation, some of the reds might be bright this year.

Farmlands will produce better views

Many leaf peepers migrate to the Southern Tier to see the Allegheny Plateau and foothills sporting color, depth and a greater, wider view. This might be the year to not do that.

Those old growth forests tend to be less diverse than those of northern Western New York where the forests, woodlots and hedgerows are much younger. As Mother Nature tries to reclaim an environment, there is a far greater number of species trying to stake a claim. So, you will have a greater variety of trees and colors, and those variations will be able to, in some cases, overcome the dullness of the trees that have typically afforded us the best views. That means that the best views this year could be in the flatlands of the lake plains in Niagara and Orleans Counties.

While the leaf forecast might seem dismal, you should always get out and see them when you can. If we have a decent weekend weather-wise in late-September and colors have changed, go out on the road with a camera and some friends. If you don’t take advantage of that good weekend, it might be too late when next you have time available. The window for fall colors will be that brief this year.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 11 August 2016 All WNY News

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Perseids meteor shower to put on a show this year

Western New York sky watchers have had a relatively eventless 2016 – no eclipses, a brief and disappointing look at Comet Catalina, and almost no northern lights.

Many of us are hopeful that next week’s annual Perseids meteor shower will more than make up for all of that.

That shower, which peaks this year on Aug. 12, is usually the most prolific of such shows every year, producing 60 shooting stars per hour.

This year’s looks to be a multiple of that, an “outburst year” or “peak year," because of how the debris field, which is remnants of Comet Swift-Tuttle, is positioned by the gravitational pull of the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn. Some scientists think that will increase the rate to as many as 200 meteors per hour!

The last time an outburst occurred was 2009 and astronomers were entertained with 140 per hour when watched from the darkest skies.

Dark skies are critical to enjoy this show at its best. You have to get away from the lights of the cities and villages. The best places to watch in the north of our reading area would be from the Lake Ontario shore, while those in the south are encouraged to get as close to the Pennsylvania border as they can, where some of the darkest skies in the entire northeast can be found. For city folk, it would be an excellent time to book a getaway to Allegany State Park.

The shower peaks on Aug. 12 (which is really the night of Aug. 11), but you will see a high volume of meteors from now until then. After that, we’ve passed the debris field and numbers drop off dramatically, so much so that next Friday night could be a dud.

If you look for them prior to midnight on a given night, you will be disappointed and wonder what the hype is all about. You have to go outdoors after midnight and hang there until dawn to really appreciate it. That’s because it is those hours that have our viewing area positioned towards the incoming dust (and, yes, most of these brilliant streakers and fireballs are nothing more than dust).

Because of the way we are tilted into the incoming particles, all of these meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus, hence the name, which after midnight you will be able to find at due northeast about halfway up the sky.

This year, the moon won’t dampen the display because it will be only at a quarter of full, so its light will be low and it will have set by 1 a.m.

Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the show – maybe an hour or two, because the shooting stars can come in waves. Also, to get the best effect, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the darkness (sometimes as much as 20 minutes), so don’t fiddle with your flashlight and don’t go onto your smartphone tweeting about every fireball you see. Keep it dark!

The overnights of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday will be the best next week (with Thursday being a must-see) so if you don’t mind screwing up your sleep cycle and being a little groggy at work, get up (or stay up) and see these Perseids shower. It will be worth the torture and grogginess this year. You can count on that.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 04 August 2016 All WNY News

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Finding that work-life balance

Wireless technology has been a boon to businesses in the twenty-first century as it gives them unprecedented access to their clients while considerably speeding-up various functions of their operations. That same technology has also been a bane to workers. The ubiquitous smart phone has become a  ball-and-chain, weighing them down and making them accessible to their bosses, customers and the grind of work at all hours of the day and night.

In my personal and professional dealings I have witnessed far too many people frustrated, even burned out, over the unfretted access that their employers have to them. I’ve had many a meeting interrupted by someone’s phone going off. I’ve watched as my friends have had to take calls or answer emails long after they’ve left the office. This 24/7 routine can sap the enjoyment out of work and life in general.

Surveys have shown that after the close of a typical workday 40% of white-collar workers remain connected right till the next day. Other studies have also shown that people just can’t get away, even when they are away. More than 80% stay connected to the office while on vacation, checking in at least once a day. 40% check in multiple times a day.

It’s an epidemic and it’s not just Corporate America that is to blame. I’ve seen small businesses and non-profits exert the same amount of unnecessary pressure on their workers.

No one can rest. If they do, they are blasted by supervisors or ripped by their customers. Many workers are willing participants in this mess, feeling guilty if they haven’t checked their emails or messages in the evening or on the weekend.  

Why is this expected of everyone? Just because the technology exists, it doesn’t mean we should abuse it.
I have a policy at the plant -- shared with my customers and suppliers -- that says my coworkers are off-limits after hours, on the weekends and while on vacations. Much to the frustration of some of my clients, we don’t even give out my coworker’s cell phone numbers. 

We don’t want them to take their work home with them because quality of life is contingent on a good job and it’s also contingent on a life outside of that job. Plus, a rested employee, one who can maintain a decent personal life, is a better employee overall.

The rule at the office is that our people must follow the same rules when dealing with our customers and suppliers. 

It may seem old-fashioned or outdated to some business managers since we live in a 24-hour world. But, everyone needs to realize that constant connectedness with cell phones, smart phones, and the like is maybe a dozen years old. The business world did just fine before that and it will be just fine when today’s technology goes the way of the telegraph.

If we can do it with a 24/6 facility and products that are sold to and competing against companies from all over the world, other employers can do it, too. If they keenly focus on what matters most during business hours --- high levels of effective customer service and the very best product quality – there is no need to harass employees after they’ve punched out for the day and subject them to a constant barrage of information and requests. Let them be people – and not just assets to your company – and you’ll find they’ll be more productive and they might even stay with you for a while.

Likewise, workers need to disconnect when not at the office. How many of you glance at your aggravating smart phones and pine for simpler times? That bygone era is just one power button away. Use it. Turn off the phone at night when you are trying to relax or spend time with your children. Be you on the weekends. Make a vacation an actual vacation.

The company will still be there the next day and so will the work -- get it done then.

From the 08 August 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers