Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Scouting offers the counterculture to hate

Too many young men in America are broken. They are consumed by hate. Their lives are devoid of love – they aren’t receiving it, nor are they giving. 

Vicious teenage boys mentally torture their peers in ways we never would have imagined as kids. That relentless needling has caused many of the bullied to end their lives, seeing death as the only way to escape the brutality.   

Boys – and men behaving like boys – have mistreated women badly for too long. The much-welcomed #MeToo movement has been changing the power structure and culture of abuse in business, government, academia, and entertainment decades after women were allegedly granted power through the women’s lib movement. How did what these women are fighting become normal behavior for so many men?

Then there’s the issues of school shootings and gang violence. It’s always young men pulling the triggers and indiscriminately killing their peers. It takes an evil soul to want to inflict such carnage on those you grew up with and shared the schools, playgrounds, and streets with.

And, we can’t forget the hatred towards self that is manifested in the opiate crisis. Just a few years ago, the demographic of the opiate addict was a 38 to 42 year-old father who got hooked on pain killers as an unfortunate outcome of a work injury. Today, it’s 18 to 22 year kids who pick up the drugs for kicks, despite the incredible amount of public awareness on the ills of heroin.

How do we as a society overcome all of the hate?

We don’t seem to be doing a good job of that at all.  

That’s because we teach and preach to the negative. School administrators, the media, public figures, and parents routinely say “don’t do this” or “don’t do that.” It’s rare that we deliver messages of personal growth and betterment to the positive with a far more powerful “do this” or “do that.”

It seems that we know what constitutes hate, but we haven’t created a counterculture to it.

Or have we?

The Boy Scouts of America has always offered such an alternative.

To simplify the goals of the organization, the purpose of Scouting is to help create better husbands, fathers, volunteers, and leaders. That is done through life-changing personal development exercises in the form of any number of fun, engaging experiences from camping to merit badges to service projects.

While participating in these activities and living their lives outside of the pack or troop, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts follow some simple yet effective rules that define the parameters of personal behavior while serving as a guiding light for the love of mankind and the betterment of the world for everyone.

Consider the Scout Motto (Be prepared), the Scout Slogan (Do a good turn daily), the points of the Scout Law (A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent) and the Scout Oath (On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight).

Those are some pretty powerful moral and personal codes to live by.

We need more of that in America, but it hasn’t been happening. In recent years, membership in Scouting has been around 2.3 million, down from a peak of 5.2 million in 1960. Boys haven’t been exposed to the program like they once were because of the changed make-ups of families, busy moms and dads, the plethora of alternative youth programs (sports, band), electronic media becoming a babysitter, and the disinterest some parents have in what they perceive to be “traditional values.”

A resurgence in Scouting could be what saves the American male. Scouts don’t make up the abusers and killers who give men a really bad name. Hate isn’t in a scout’s vocabulary; instead, he learns and lives by love. Scouts are the ones aiding the oppressed, saving lives, helping to build up their communities, and making the world a better place.

Just take a look at some of the results locally. The Iroquois Trail Council, which oversees 2,300 scouts in eastern Niagara and the GLOW counties had another banner year of results in 2017: 51 scouts completed dramatic, world-changing Eagle projects; our boys contributed more than 50,000 hours of their time to community service projects; and they stocked local food pantries with 12.5 tons of goods.

Those are just a few of the trackable victories. There are countless more that don’t show up in statistics like the things these boys and teens do in their day-to-day lives to ensure their classmates, families, and neighbors have far better days on this planet.

We need more young men like them. If there was ever a way to beat hate in America, it’s with Scouting.   

From the 05 March 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, February 23, 2018

Cuomo’s state forest tax plan will harm landowners

Under state law, New York State pays property taxes on its state forest lands to school districts and local governments. To many, that may seem to be a rather peculiar practice – it’s a shift of funds, government paying government.

Even so, it’s an absolute necessity.

It would be unfair to put the entire tax load on the few private landowners and residents of communities where New York is the primary landowner. Consider the Adirondack Park, for example, where 2.6 million of the Park’s 6 million acres are state land. That’s 43% of the total land mass there.
That’s not a situation unique to the Empire State’s most revered bastion of wild lands: Even here in Western New York, public lands are plentiful.

In Allegany County there are 57,417 acres of state forest, which makes up 9% of the county. That belies the vastness of some state preserves because towns like Bolivar and Wellsville are devoid of state forests; but head to the northeast to Almond or Birdsall and you’ll see that Department of Environmental Conservation signs dominate the roadsides.

In total, Allegany County towns collect $463,426 in property taxes from state government while the school districts bring in $1,034,425. If the state didn’t dole out that nearly $1.5 million, it would all be put on the residents of the county and the out-of-towners who own weekend retreats. Doing so would really hurt taxpayers in the Alfred-Almond school district where the state pays $148,112 to Alfred, Almond, and West Almond and $407,768 to the school itself.

That would be an incredible burden to put an already-burdened tax base -- WNY does have, after all, some of the highest property taxes in the nation thanks to a bevy of unfunded mandates beyond the control of local policymakers and school districts.

So, as you can see, government paying government makes sense, especially when one form of government controls the lands in a given area.

It has been the practice of the state since 1886 to make these tax payments on an ad valorem basis, which is the most equitable means of doing so as it mirrors the taxation taken upon private landowners whereby the property is taxed as a percentage of the assessed value. If the assessed value of comparable properties were to rise in a given community, the state’s assessed value would grow at a like rate.

Governor Cuomo, though, is looking to throw out 132 years of this logical tradition. Within his budget proposal is a plan to drop the ad valorem standard and go to a PILOT (Payment In Lieu of Taxes) program that would see the base amount set at today’s values with an incremental growth of PILOT payment (at a maximum of 2% per year).  

While that might seem at first glance as a win for towns and schools (they are guaranteed added revenue, albeit it small, every year), it will, in the long-term, shift an unfair portion on the tax base onto private landowners. That’s because state lands would never again be assessed at fair market value or anything even close to it.

A PILOT would be especially dangerous in Allegany County and other Southern Tier counties. Despite housing values within the villages and hamlets not rising as an outcome of a depressed Southern Tier economy, undeveloped forest lands, hunting camps, and rural homesteads have seen dramatic increases in price for variety of reasons including but not limited to, one, speculation that maybe one day, under another governor, fracking might come here and, two, a much-improved national economy is once again encouraging people to invest in camps and other vacation properties. As a perfect example, the assessed value of my woodlands in Bolivar which are on a seasonal road and have no structures or utilities doubled last year.

Not all towns have been reassessed. And the growth in forest land values don’t show any chance of letting up anytime soon.

So, if the state approves this in the next few weeks, they would secure today’s pre-reassessment market values as the floor of the PILOTs and they would never again see an increase (other than the maximum of 2% annually) which would spare Albany substantial adjustments in taxable value like the one which hit me in 2017.

Currently, state lands in Allegany County are assessed at around $53 million. After 10 years of the PILOT program growing at say a 1.5% clip (since the full 2 is not guaranteed), they would have a perceived value of $61.5 million.

That 16% growth doesn’t reflect the assessed value increases local taxpayers have been faced with and will be faced with. An unequal and much larger portion of local budgets would be put upon them.

There is still a chance to fight this.
To our advantage, there were 1983 court proceedings that verified that this long-held taxing and assessment power held by local governments was just. And, property owners, newspapers, and environmental groups in the Adirondacks and Catskills have come out against the PILOTS in great numbers.

I encourage landowners from all corners of the state to do the same. Reach out to your state legislators and encourage them to maintain fairness and equity when it comes to the taxation of state lands.  

From the 26 February 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thoughts and prayers won’t end the violence

Another school shooting. Another round of "thoughts and prayers".

That doesn't cut it. Never has. Never will.

Even Jesus Christ knew that prayers weren't enough. So, he went out and boldly changed people and took on the norms.

That's what we have to do. We have to fix broken people and broken systems.

Yet, why haven’t we? Standing idly by while kids continue to get butchered is a sign of a dysfunctional society….one as broken as the minds and souls of the perpetrators of these crimes.  

The 1999 Columbine massacre and its 13 dead should have been a wake-up call. It wasn’t.

Neither was the Sandy Hook incident in 2012, even though 20 of the 26 killed were children aged 6 or 7.  Innocent, cheery children were gunned down in a place that is supposed to be safe, in a country that is supposed to be safe.

It happened again in Parkland, Florida, last week. All those prayers that were tossed around after Sandy Hook did absolutely nothing to save those students and their teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

It’s time for action. It’s been time for action.

It starts with an improved semblance of gun control.    

This is coming from someone for whom guns are a part of his everyday life. As I write this column, I have a pistol next to me that is used for defense of myself and others. In a few hours I will be eating a lunch the meat of which was provided through the use of a gun.

But guns shouldn't be part of everyday life for all Americans. There are an incredible number of mentally unstable people out there, many more on the fringes of instability, and others who have committed heinous acts of domestic violence or are battling life-changing addictions.

They shouldn’t have guns. They shouldn’t be granted pistol permits. And, they shouldn’t be allowed to purchase any long guns. Period.

Yet they are getting them. In almost all cases with school shootings the weapons were acquired legally. The universal background check obviously isn’t working.

We’re getting to the point now that every gun owner should be certified with a more detailed background checks – including mental health evaluations -- and the related installation of red flags that prevent that person from purchasing and owning weapons if something is wrong.

As I look at the plight of America, I don't mind being "inconvenienced" by a background check or evaluation if, one, it allows me and the vast majority of sane gun owners to keep our firearms rather than losing all of our rights wholesale because of the murderers and, two, it keeps crazy people away from guns and from massacring innocent children and adults.

But, this is about more than guns.

It’s about people, too.

Why do people do these evil things? How are their hearts and minds so devoid of light and love that this is the escape? How many people harbor those feelings and desires and have never acted upon those thoughts? How did they get to that point?

The answers, quite simply, are that they aren’t getting the help they need nor are we offering it to them.

Our modern medical system treats mental illness, especially the hardest cases, like the so-called redheaded stepchild. New hospitals and health campuses are being erected across the country at spectacular rates (look at the acres of splendor assembled at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus) and they are being handsomely funded by taxpayer dollars, but the focus is always on physical health. No one is interested in making multi-bed facilities for the most mentally ill.

It doesn’t help that in the 1970s it became the in-thing to close institutions once known as “insane asylums” due to a rash of such organizations mistreating their patients and the continued development of psychiatric drugs (never mind that those drugs create their own problems).

Sure, there were plenty of real world examples of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” but many hospitals did wonders in helping get people cured or giving them a consistent, comfortable environment in which they could manage their illnesses and their lives.

Mental health experts say there is a 95 percent decline in mental hospital beds since 1960, even though there are many more people who deserve that level of help.

So, where are all these people who need such help now?

They’re out there. Walking the streets.

It shouldn’t be that way. Public health policy should be about curing and helping the whole person. But it’s not. We need to help the sick – all of the sick -- which, in turn, helps society. Ignore them, and you hurt them….and potentially every one of us.

A little gun control and a lot of psychology and psychiatry can go a long ways in fixing what ails America. It’s worth it if parents like me know we can send our kids to school with some understanding that they’ll be safe…and that we will be able to see them again after the final bell rings.

From the 19 February 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News