Friday, January 27, 2017

WNY Prosperity Fellowship is combatting the brain drain

In this column I’ve often lamented Western New York’s brain drain – young geniuses, reared and/or educated here, leaving our region for greener pastures. It’s confounding, because the far western counties are home to 25 colleges and universities with total enrollment in excess of 75,000. Despite the attractiveness of that intellectual environment there’s been little to keep them here once their studies are done.

Despite that ongoing exodus, there is some hope coming from the very brightest of those students.

Last week, I had the honor of taking more than two dozen students from the University at Buffalo on a tour of Confer Plastics and then speaking with them about the strengths and weaknesses that WNY poses to manufacturers. Our plant was one of many stops that they made across the region last week, as they also visited and heard from the New York Power Authority, tourism leaders and economic development officials to name a few.

Their whirlwind tour was a critical part of their unique educational program – the Western New York Prosperity Fellowship. Funded by the Prentice Family Foundation, the Fellowship is granted to gifted students who go through a competitive application process. The University identifies these young men and women as future leaders of our community and they chose only accomplished students that are civic-minded and have an entrepreneurial spirit while being desirous of contributing their talent to revitalizing and sustaining the region. 

University officials, led by program director Hadar Borden, have done a bang-up job of selecting such participants. I and all of my tour guides were incredibly impressed by each and every student on the tour. They came from all walks of life and all communities with a wide variety of pursuits – some were MBA students, others were PhD candidates, and their fields ranged from engineering to health sciences to public administration to urban planning.

Each and every one of them were completely engaged and interested and posed some of the deepest questions ever asked on our tours. These are young people who “get it”. They are certainly high-level achievers, the sort of people we want, need and deserve running businesses, developing technologies, and ironing out public policy in WNY.

Past Fellows are doing just that. A list of recent alumni (the program started in 2009) reads of well-positioned professionals holding roles such as international marketing managers and engineers at some of WNYs most recognizable and important companies. These are people in their twenties and thirties doing great things because they were exposed to WNY’s values and needs through the Fellowship and saw a lifelong role for themselves in the region.

The Fellows are the folks that in some way or another I’ll be working alongside, whether directly or indirectly, for the next few decades as we strive to make the local economy better. They are the same people who will be making the community a better place for my children and one day theirs.

Sometimes, based on past trends and present issues, I can’t help but pessimistically wonder about the future of WNY. But, these students have given me some optimism….our future is in good hands with Fellows like these.   

From the 30 January 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: What’s with the dead birds in your yard?

In what seems to have become a rite of winter throughout Western New York, it’s almost certain that rural residents living within a couple of miles of large dairy farms and airports will, over the next months or so, be subjected to an odd, even frightening, sight – starlings literally falling out of the sky and dying before them. When the carnage concludes, homeowners will find dozens of the birds dead in their lawns.

In recent years, this columnist has picked up as few as a dozen and as many as 120 at a time from his yard.

At first blush, some might think that a deadly contagious illness overtook the avian community. Others might believe it’s another sign from an angry god.

Their deaths were caused by none of the above.

Instead, the birds will have expired due to an application of a chemical agent known as “Starlicide.”

This compound is produced by Purina (which some may find strangely hypocritical given the company’s basis in animal health) and it is the most effective tool -- maybe the only effective tool -- in controlling this most onerous of birds. Upon consuming feed tainted with Starlicide, starlings slowly expire over a 24 to 36 period as their organs congest.

As unsettling of a sight as hundreds of dying and dead birds may be to the average person, it’s a welcome sight to farmers, aviators and nature lovers. They are all affected by this invasive species, brought to our shores in the 1890s when fans of William Shakespeare made the ill-advised decision to release every bird mentioned in his plays to the Americas (the very same reason we are inundated with house sparrows). The starlings multiplied and took over the skies, being just as much at home in the Big City as they are in farm country. It is estimated that there are over 200 million of them in the US. You can’t find an American who is unfamiliar with these black birds that have green and purple iridescent tips on their feathers.

Farmers are certainly familiar with them. The birds congregate in feedlots by the thousands, stealing feed and defecating in animal food which spreads disease, including transmissible gastroenteritis virus which can be deadly to young swine. It is estimated that starlings are responsible for $800 million in agricultural losses every single year. So, with no other options left to contain the birds and prevent the damages, farmers and the USDA regularly poison the birds every winter when they gather in the greatest concentrations (thus making a mass kill easier).

Similar campaigns occur around airports. There, the colonizing birds can prove to be deadly when traveling in large flocks and into the paths of aircraft, getting stuck in their jets or gumming up their propellers. Starlings were the known culprits in the infamous 1960 Boston crash of Flight 375 that killed over 60 people and remains to this day as the single worst bird strike in history. Many more starling events have followed over the years, including a late-1990s crash that killed 34 people in the Netherlands.

Even bird lovers like myself savor the demise of this feathered fiend. Starlings are a scourge upon native species, especially fellow cavity-dwellers. Take our beloved state bird, the bluebird, for example. That beautiful creature was nearly wiped out in New York because of starlings. If not for the efforts of birders and volunteers throughout the Empire State, they would have been; naturalists and outdoorsmen countered the overpopulation of the aggressive starlings by erecting bluebird-specific birdhouses throughout the state. Because of that, the bluebird has become common once again over the course of my life. Eradicate the starlings and we might see similar success stories with other birds like the rarely-seen redheaded woodpecker (of which I’ve only seen 2 in my life because of the starling invasion).

Taking all of that into consideration, and knowing that the poisoned birds are no threat to you, your pets, or predators, you should accept the mass deaths of starlings with open arms; that is, after you’ve taken the time to pick up their corpses. We would be better served by more mass poisonings of them each winter for this simple reason: the only good starling is a dead starling.

From the 26 January 2017 All WNY News

Friday, January 20, 2017

NY already behind on paid family leave

In the early months of 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo consistently touted the progressive leadership of the Empire State in championing the strongest paid family leave policy in the nation.

The new rules go into effect next January.  Employees will be eligible for 12 weeks of paid family leave when caring for an infant, a family member with a serious health condition or to relieve family pressures when someone is called to active military service.

Benefits will be phased-in, beginning at 50 percent of an employee’s average weekly wage, capped to 50 percent of the statewide average weekly wage. Once fully implemented in 2021, payments will hit 67 percent of their average weekly wage, capped to 67 percent of the statewide average weekly wage.

This program will be funded entirely through a payroll deduction on employees who will be eligible to participate after having worked for their employer for six months.

That’s all we know about the program.

Despite being a leader in this endeavor, the state is already behind: With less than a year to go to implementation, policymakers, state agencies, employers and employees have been left in the dark about how the program will be launched, administered, and funded.

It’s eerily similar to the cloak of darkness that had county clerks across the state scrambling to figure out how to address the SAFE Act’s handgun recertification issue after 3 years of zero guidance from the Governors’ office. That was rectified by a surprise bombshell dropped at the very last minute in which administration of the policy was granted to the State Police.

This won’t be that easy.

While we know that the Workers Compensation Board (WCB) will manage the paid leave program, every single employer in the state has much to do in the next 11 months to get prepared and hold up their end of the bargain. They have to learn state policies, make their own internal policies, update employee handbooks, educate employees on the leave act and how to apply for it, tell workers how much they are contributing to the state fund, and work with payroll companies to appropriately earmark and disburse the insurance fees.

That’s a lot for businesses to learn and prepare (after all, it is a stark culture change for most) amidst all the other things they do on a day to day basis -- like running their companies and keeping people employed.

When will they find out what’s expected? It certainly won’t be anytime soon and it probably won’t be until after summer. By then, it might be so late that you could easily imagine the state delaying the launch of the program and/or being saddled with a lawsuit delaying it.

I lean towards a late-summer, early-fall info campaign not out of pessimism but because the state truly appears to be making little headway.

I attempted to navigate Cuomo’s 2017-2018 budget to see if I could ascertain how much was projected to be collected and disbursed over the first few months of the leave program. I found nothing. I also found nothing on the WCB’s breakdown. What I did find in a budget narrative was an “out” of sorts for the Governor – under “legislation required for the budget” there was a line that requested the development of a Risk Adjustment Paid Family leave Fund. So, while the previous budget (2016-2017) saw the announcement of the birth of the paid leave program from a grandstanding standpoint, the necessary legislation never accompanied it. Here we are a year later and the plan is still lacking teeth and legality.

Somehow, in the next few months, the Legislature has to work together (if that’s even possible) to allow the fund to even exist at all. Then, the WCB, number crunchers, and others have to develop a sustainable budget and determine what the insurance fee (tax) will be. Once that is settled upon, only then can the policies be ironed out and delivered.

It’s a disappointing lack of true leadership by the state. Having a vision is fine, but if there’s no strategy, no meat, to back up the vision, it’s totally meaningless.

8 million private sectors workers will be eligible for the program. They and their bosses need to know soon how it will all work – something that state officials still don’t know, a full year into the discussions.      

From the 23 January 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Buffalo Billion’s missing ingredient

At his recent regional State of the State address held at the University of Buffalo, Governor Andrew Cuomo touted the Buffalo Billion Part 2, a collection of 25 publically-aided projects that will allegedly grow and inspire the local economy.

As with the first installment of the Billion, the focus was on manufacturing, healthcare and life sciences, tourism, and infrastructure. While most of the lager sectors of the economy had a gift thrown their way, one of WNY’s most significant remained conspicuously absent from these economic development plans – agriculture.

At first glance, that makes sense, because the announced goal of the Buffalo Billion was to excite some of the destitute urban areas in Buffalo and Niagara Falls in an effort to help those city centers rise from the ranks of rust belt ghost towns. Rural WNY got the short shrift under such a concept. Plus, with hundreds of individual farms in the area, how do you invest in something that wouldn’t benefit a few but could benefit all? 

But, if you look at the human aspect of the Buffalo Billion – that is, by investing in the region you can help improve the socioeconomic status people living in the urban areas – there’s a way that local ag can be tied into it for the betterment of many.

Currently, various hardscrabble neighborhoods in the Queen City and the Falls are bereft of access to produce. Called “food deserts” by urban planners, those communities-within-a-community don’t have farmers markets -- let alone grocery stores in most cases -- and residents have to rely on whatever is in walking distance or near a public transit stop (and carrying groceries on a bus is no easy task). Because of the reliance on small marts and convenience stores, those families are left to diets of processed foods and canned goods, with fresh fruit and vegetables being a rarely enjoyed nicety. It’s no wonder that poor neighborhoods have unconscionably high rates of diabetes and heart disease.

Food deserts have not only created a public health crisis but they also drain the economy because those who live in food deserts are likely to be Medicaid recipients, and the outlays of public funds to address their illnesses are incredible.

Administrators of the Buffalo Billion could address the health of those residents and the economy by tackling the root cause of this situation – lack of access to healthy foods and the inability of local farms to get good foods to those who need it most.

An appropriate use of state economic funds would be the development of sustainable, year-long cooperatives and/or farmers markets with SNAP (food stamp) compliance strategically staged in the various food deserts. Those oases would provide the neighboring populations with healthy foodstuff and ingredients within reach of their homes.

There are many successful examples of such public-private initiatives that can be found across the country.

The East End Food Co-op in Pittsburgh was created by a Steel City ministry to address their food deserts –  it serves 11,000 households and has 90 employees. The Hendersonville, North Carolina co-op saw a 2016 expansion that allows the health food store to serve 2,800 member homes. The New Orleans Food Co-Op opened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and makes produce available to its 3,700 limited-income members.

There are dozens more examples of programs successfully combatting food deserts in cities similar in economic make-up to ours. Local city and state officials wouldn’t necessarily have to re-invent the wheel, they could learn from and feed off the successes of those markets.

But, it takes a considerable initial investment to make such programs work. Building and marketing a dozen stores selling locally-grown produce in poverty-stricken areas of WNY? That’s chump change to something that touts itself as a billion dollar initiative.

Are you listening, Albany? There are a lot of Western New Yorkers hungry for change…but there are many more who are just plain hungry.       

From the 16 January 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers