Thursday, June 22, 2017


When hiking with the uninitiated in the Niagara Frontier’s June wilds I like to tell them that they haven’t lived until they’ve had a wild strawberry.

It certainly sounds like an absurd statement, doesn’t it? If you’ve had one strawberry, you’ve had them all.

Not so.

The wild strawberry is nothing like our cultivated specimens. The flavor is intense, at a magnitude of that of the farmed varieties. They are juicier and seem like an entirely different fruit. Incredible.

After having one you can see why the French began developing and cultivating strawberries in the 1700s. But, by doing so and making larger fruits, they lost much of the flavor (don’t get me wrong – farm raised strawberries are still pretty good).

“Larger fruits,” you ask?

Yes, wild strawberries are nothing like those developed by Man. They are tiny little things, from two-
tenths to four-tenths of an inch in length. You’d need to find dozens to make for a snack of any size. And, that’s not going to happen. You’d be lucky to find just one dozen strawberries in a patch. You can find these berries during the second half of June, in open areas of woodlands, pastures, and places that some naturalists consider “waste areas” (roadsides, ditches, rail beds, etc).

They like full sun or else the plant cannot produce fruit. Prior to the strawberry appearing, you will see a dainty white-petaled flower with a yellow center that will stay in bloom for most of the second half of May.

The leaves have saw-toothed edges and come in threes. The adage “leaves of three, let it be,” (which
many people apply to poison ivy) has to be ignored if not altered, or you could destroy these wonderful plants in your lawn or hedgerow.

There are plenty of tasty plants (like clovers and wood sorrels) and beautiful plants (trilliums, Jack in the Pulpit) with three leaves, so proceed with caution before spraying Round-up on these plants. If you do find the flowering strawberry plants in the spring, weed around them so you can enjoy the fruits.

While we’re talking about the strawberry, let’s end on a technical note. Maybe you’ll win Jeopardy! someday with this one.

The strawberry is not a berry. By definition a berry has seeds inside of it. The seeds are on the outside of the strawberry, which means the strawberry is an aggregate accessory fruit, which is a nicer way of saying “ovary” (who really wants to say, “Boy! I could go for some ovaries right now”?). Each of those individuals items that you see as seeds on the outside of the strawberry are actually individual fruits and the seeds are inside of them.

But, enough of the technical mumbo-jumbo. You really need to get away from the computer, go
outdoors and have a wild strawberry…you haven’t lived until you’ve done so.

From the 22 June 2017 All WNY News

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Property taxes: What’s fair?

A few weeks back I cut short a day of work to make the 5 hour round-trip to Bolivar in Allegany County to contest my camp’s assessed value during the town’s Grievance Day. Despite being on a remote seasonal road, a mile and a half from electricity, and having no structures on the land, my assessment doubled while the assessor estimated that my taxes will rise by more than half.

Last week, my travels and efforts proved all for naught: A care package came in the mail from Bolivar officials saying my grievance was denied and that they would stick with their initial findings. 

The frustration that I’ve had over this brings to the surface the vast unfairness that is inherent to New York’s property model. 

Spend some time mulling over these questions…

Why should senior citizens on fixed incomes who have been paying into the system their whole adult lives continue to pay high taxes for things they won’t use anymore, but once did and once paid for accordingly through taxation at that time?

In comparing properties of equal size, why should a childless couple pay as much as a family of four, when the family of four consumes far more in public services (especially public schooling)?

Why should someone who loves his home and wants to make it better with a swimming pool, patio or an addition have to suffer the consequences at reassessment and end up paying more in taxes than someone who left his land idle?

In rural locales like Niagara County, why should farmers carry the highest portion of the revenue burden just because they happen to own vast tracks of land? Are they receiving a proportionate amount of services?

Why should property owners pay so much for Medicaid (in most New York locales it’s 52 to 64 percent of the county tax) when it should be the obligation of the population as a whole to fund this forced benevolence deemed to be so necessary?

How is it just that municipalities and schools in Allegany County and the Adirondacks can reap revenues from who are basically absentee landowners living elsewhere (camp owners) who come to town just a few weekends and weeks a year and acquire almost no benefit from the taxes they’ve paid? Why should those non-resident property owners be excluded from having a vote in how their taxes are being used in the places where they are paying them?

Beyond those glaring displays of wrong, consider the very act of property taxation itself. You are led to believe – and even possess legal documents that show as much – that you own your property. You really don’t; ownership is only theoretical. It’s more accurately stated that you are renting the property from your local governments and school districts at a premium, because, if you didn’t pay your taxes it wouldn’t take long for that governing body to take that property from you --- even if the mortgage was fully paid-for. How is that fair? It would be no different than someone taxing your savings account – after all, it is property, isn’t it?

This travesty carries special meaning in New York State, where property taxes are 57% above the national average. Across America people think of their property taxes in terms of hundreds of dollars; here, we think of them in thousands of dollars.

Let’s look at one of the extremes. One of my clients from Tennessee 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. We’re talking magnitudes of difference in taxes paid.

New York’s cure for this problem was not to cut property taxes, but rather to still allow them to grow, but only at a supposedly-stunted rate (the 2 percent tax cap). That’s still a princely sum: Crunch the numbers of what would become of your taxes after just 5 years of capped increases.

The extreme view would see property taxes abolished. We know that will never happen. But, a myriad of changes could be accomplished to mitigate the unfairness of property taxes in the Empire State. Just a few of those ideas discussed in this column over the past 12 years: replace the state’s Medicaid program with an HMO-driven voucher system; utilize clawbacks on businesses that break their promises to IDAs; utilize assessment caps and adjust assessments to true market value (how in the world did assessments go up during the Great Recession?); and add another 1 to 1.5 percent on sales taxes across the state to use a fairer consumption-driven tax to decrease property owners’ contributions to Medicaid.

Those are all common sense measures that could cut back on some of the unfairness and princely sums that are inherent to our property taxes. But, instead, it seems like the state legislature, Governor and local governments prefer to maintain that air of unfairness, taking advantages of citizens and businesses alike, further damning the once proud Empire State.

From the 26 June 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, June 8, 2017

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: May apples – the cancer-fighting forbidden fruit

In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit and destined all of mankind to some pretty miserable aspects of existence.

No one knows exactly what the forbidden fruit was, but the image that most people have in their head is that of an apple.

There’s a plant in Western New York that goes by the name of apple – specifically the May apple – but it’s not an apple. I would, though, consider it a forbidden fruit.

The umbrella plant

The May apple is a fairly common springtime wildflower that can be found in forests, woodlots and hedgerows found all across the Niagara Frontier, from the lake plains all the way to the highest peaks of the Allegheny Plateau.

May apples can form fair-sized colonies on the forest floor; it’s not uncommon to see a dozen to a few dozen plants in one area. They can be readily identified by their tell-tale umbrella-like appearance.

The May apple stands a foot to a foot-and- a-half tall. At the top of its split stem are two large leaves that are deeply-lobed, giving it appearance of having multiple leaves when really you are just seeing 5 to 9 lobes. Those two leaves cover a fairly large area, reaching a foot in width together.

Those leaves act as a canopy. Below that canopy is an exquisite single white flower. Those circular flowers are about 2” in width and they bloom in WNY woods in mid-May. That is where the plant gets half of its name.

The forbidden fruit

The other half of the May apple’s name comes from the fruit that begins to appear in the last week of May and becomes fully ripe around the second week of June.

It’s a yellowish fruit, about 2” long that is lemon shaped. Most wilderness survival and edible plant guidebooks count the May apple as being edible. Some folks say that it tastes like strawberry. Others think it has a dull flavor that doesn’t warrant harvest.

Either way, I’ll never know. I don’t want to chance it.

It’s a stretch to consider the May apple to be edible.

The May apple as a whole is an exceptionally poisonous plant and the same can hold true for the fruit.

When unripe, it is poisonous. The unripe apples are green while the ripe ones are yellow. But, with two colors so close to one another (greenish-yellow is the more accurate description of the ripe fruit), what actually constitutes ripe?

Even when you have good timing, you’re still pushing your luck: The seeds within the fruit are toxic as are the fruits when eaten in quantity. What constitutes “quantity”?

I’ll play it safe and hold off on my woodland harvests until the strawberries and blackcaps ripen.

A plant of powerful poisons

The May apple has been spared decimation by whitetail deer, unlike the trilliums we discussed a couple of weeks ago, because the plant is so poisonous.

The leaves, stems and roots are not kind to the digestive system. It will inflame the stomach and intestines to the point of killing whoever eats it.

Native Americans ate May apple as a means to commit suicide -- although it was anything but a quick and painless death.

The magical Mandrake

Because of the appearance of the plant is close to the Middle Eastern Mandrake, an esteemed plant of supposed magical powers, early settlers thought they could use it for magic, too.

They did get some use out if it.

They learned from the indigenous peoples that May apple, in small amounts, could rid the body of intestinal worms and serve as a powerful laxative. Also, its juices could be used to control plantar warts.

The cancer fighter

Modern science has found real use for May apple.

The plants produce podophyllotoxin, a building block of the cancer drug etoposide. That drug helps treat lung and testicular cancer and lymphoma. In chemotherapy, it has been shown to inhibit the activity of an enzyme essential for the replication of cancer cells, preventing their spread.

In some form or another, May apple has been used as a cancer fighter since the early 1970s. In that decade alone, some more than 130 tons of May apple roots were either grown or harvested in the wild.

In recent years, a more efficient means of extracting the toxin has been employed, ensuring that the plant’s natural stocks won’t be decimated.

The May apple is surely an interesting plant. If you see one while out exploring the Niagara Frontier, marvel at it…don’t eat it. You’re taking a chance if you do, so appreciate its beauty and its value in helping to keep alive your family and friends who are battling cancer.

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

From the 08 June 2017 All WNY News

Say “no” to Congress’s tariff plan

Tariffs used to have a wonderful place in the financing of the US government. Through the 1800s, tariffs were responsible for as much as 95 percent of the federal budget, gradually becoming 30 percent just after 1900 as excise and use taxes took up the majority.

Then came the dark days of February 1913 when the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified. Somehow, the states thought it was wise to officially grant the federal government the power to indiscriminately levy an income tax on the citizenry, taxing individuals on their labor and successes.

Taxing people rather than trade became the norm and tariffs became something of an afterthought. Now their utilization is minimal at best (tariffs now account for less than 1 percent of the federal budget) and their non-use is something our leaders have negotiated in our various trade pacts.

House Speaker Paul Ryan is trying to change that. Earlier this spring he floated the idea of the Border Adjustment Tax (BAT), which is, despite the fancy name, nothing more than a tariff. It would tax at a 20 percent clip any imported goods (finished products or work-in-process materials) sold or used in the USA.

While it might sound good at first blush to those who voted for Trump on his trade policies alone (“Make America Great Again”) as well as those who work in US factories, when you look at it in greater detail it’s not that swell of an idea under our current system.

The BAT would be just another tax thrown atop the insidious amount of taxes (income, sales, excise, property, etc.) that we already pay. Every product and service would become much more expensive because of it. That would hurt the domestic consumer and not the importing corporation.

As for those companies, the tariff would not, as House leaders say, incentivize businesses to onshore their offices and production facilities. There’s no way that businesses would come back to America in droves because their consumers would have to pay more because of a tax, especially when there’s no way that we’re instantly going to start a smartphone manufacturing industry in the states, produce consumer electronics, make toys, dig for resources like rare earth elements, or do anything else that disappeared overseas for the long haul.

Only the relatively small number of companies making competing products here in the states (like Confer Plastics for example) would benefit from the tariff on a competitive standpoint and, again, only under a cursory glance. I’ve written here before about China-made rip-offs that we deal with on a daily basis. The BAT would take away any advantage they now have over us. But, I also know that I and every one of my coworkers would be paying dramatically more for everything under the sun and all of our customers would have less money to spend on our consumer and leisure products because the tariff would cut into their discretionary income.

Those companies we compete against and those that make items that face no US competition chose overseas venues because they wanted to retreat from a variety of embedded cost structures that make American production and back office more expensive, be it labor costs, regulatory issues, or the most impactful item of them all – the corporate tax rate of 35 percent, the highest in the developed world.

If that tax rate were to drop to 15 percent as President Trump has been championing, then you would see real substantive on-shoring that no tariff could ever accomplish. That’s because the tax rate directly affects those corporations (and substantially at that) rather than their consumers.

If this were the good ol’ days before the Sixteenth Amendment, I would argue for strong tariffs, because, frankly, it’s morally bankrupt to tax people on their efforts and hours worked as the income taxes do.

But, the income tax is never going way. It’s here to stay and it’s surely not getting any smaller. Don’t be surprised, too, if in the coming years, income taxes like FICA increase dramatically as resources get strained. Couple that with the modern era of a highly-integrated global economy, and we’re looking at what could be huge burdens on every household in America were the BAT to pass.

Believe me, I’d like to see my foreign competition destroyed, but not if American families’ pocketbooks suffer collateral damage that could easily trigger another recession. 


From the 12 June 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers