Monday, January 18, 2021

Let MLK's legacy live through service


On Monday, the nation celebrated the life of the great Martin Luther King, Jr., the most visible and impactful leader of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The MLK holiday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, 15 years after King’s assassination.  


Eleven years later, in hopes of carrying his actions and messages of service and sacrifice well into future generations, the federal government took the holiday one step further by designating MLK Day as a Day of Service which challenges Americans to volunteer in honor of King.


I always hope that some of those who did have the day off did something in their communities in his honor. I also hope that it becomes addictive and that Day of Service becomes a Lifetime of Service.


God knows we need it. Nowhere near enough people serve.  


Have you ever wondered why it seems like you see the same people engaged in the efforts of your local non-profits, churches, fire companies, and youth organizations? It’s not an illusion. Those tireless souls really are involved in everything.


They not only want to be, but they have to be because so few are giving up their time. The situation is surprisingly bad in the Empire State.


AmeriCorps produces a report that looks at volunteerism rates across the nation. Looking at the last 4 years of activity, the Empire State ranks 49th, with just 19% of our residents volunteering; compare that to first-ranked Utah (43%) and our neighbors like Vermont (33%) and Pennsylvania (28%).


The lack of participation is pretty universal when you break down the demographics. In earlier reports, it was found 20% of New York teenagers volunteer, while only 14% of college-aged adults volunteer. Only 16% of those aged 25 to 34 give of themselves while those aged 35 to 44 see the highest participation rate at 24%. Jump ahead to Baby Boomers in the 55 to 64 age bracket and 20% of them volunteer in the Empire State.


Think about the depth of the situation: Less than 1 out of every 5 residents lends a hand to the community at large.


That is, in a way, counterintuitive, because we should have one of the higher participation rates based on need alone.


New York is the 17th most-impoverished state in the Union. 11% of our population is disabled. 16% of the state’s population are senior citizens -- and that number is much higher in Upstate. 18% of New Yorkers drop out of school. There are almost 2,000 volunteer fire departments in the state. All of those factors scream “help!”


So, what can we do?


For starters, if you or your family have ever partaken in an event or club run by volunteers (Easter egg hunts, Boy Scout troops, little league teams, food pantry distribution, etc.) or had a property or life saved by unpaid first responders, thank those who made that all possible. A simple “thank you” goes a long ways in validating, maintaining and inspiring their efforts. 


Secondly, take the time to participate yourself. Join a community organization. Assist a youth group. Go out of your way to make one’s day (if not one’s life) brighter. It’s challenging, fun, and extremely rewarding. There’s an unmatched joy that’s had in giving and watching others receive the services you provide.


MLK knew that, and he said it best, in various ways:


“Life's most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”


“Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”


"We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to mankind."


Let us not let his legacy become relegated to just a day off from work or school. Let us do as he did, and commit to our lives to making everyone’s lives – theirs and ours -- better. 



From the 18 January 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Monday, January 11, 2021

Let’s make the Somerset rail trail a reality for Niagara County


Standing like a sentinel on our north shore watching over Lake Ontario is what used to be the Somerset power project. It once provided well-paying jobs to 100 families and it produced megawatts of electricity like they were going out of style. It came to be that the plant’s means of power generation – coal -- did go out of style as federal and state mandates forced its closure. The plant was decommissioned last March.


Since the announcement of its demise, local and state officials have worked to find businesses to take over the property, a means to put the structures and local residents to work. Some ideas kicked around were mining of digital currency and development of call and data centers.


One thing that hasn’t been looked after with similar vigor by political power brokers since the closure (it probably didn’t help that the Covid crisis struck) is the future of the rail line that once fed coal cars to the plant.


The Somerset Railroad Corporation (SRC) managed 13.4 miles of track that ran from the busy rail spur in the city of Lockport northward through the towns of Lockport and Newfane and then eastward into Somerset. This past October, the SRC submitted an application to the federal government’s Surface Transportation Board requesting to abandon that line since it has no other purpose – it served only the power plant; there are no other clients or stops along the line. SRC has said it will salvage the tracks, rail ties and other materials while leaving the bridges intact (there are bridges over Red Creek, Eighteen Mile Creek and Routes 78 and 18).


By the SRC committing to clean the infrastructure right to the rail bed while leaving the bridges, the opportunity is ripe for an awesome rail trail in Niagara County.


There are dozens of rail trails across the state where former railroad rights-of-way have been converted to public trails. They are multi-use; most are designated for walkers, runners and cyclists, but some are open to snowmobile traffic. Depending on the trail, the town, county or state, as well as volunteer organizations, have assumed management. They are typically gravel or grass although some are a little more elaborate, like the 3.3 miles in the town of Pendleton that was paved.


These trails make for excellent public assets. Two fine examples that I frequent are the TOBIE Trail in the central Adirondacks and the WAG Trail in Allegany County.


The Thendara-Old Forge-Big Moose-Inlet-Eagle Bay Trail connects those communities. It was the site of a former railroad that was built in the 1880s to serve camps in the area and get tourists to destinations throughout the Fulton Chain of Lakes. It became obsolete in the age of the automobile, meeting its demise in 1929. The wonderful mostly-gravel trail came to be not long ago and covers 16 miles, passing along and through state forests and the quaint host communities. When I hike it every day of my annual summer vacation I encounter many people enjoying the TOBIE, but their numbers are dwarfed by the number of snowmobilers who use it all winter and pump millions of dollars into the local economy with stops at bars and restaurants and stays at hotels and rentals.


Closer to home is the trail that traverses the old Wellsville-Addison-Galeton line, which was built in 1895 and was in service until 1979. The grass and stone trail is 9 miles long and is in the center of the Genesee River valley, affording users access to world-class fishing and excellent birdwatching in agricultural and forested environments. Some businesses have benefited from the presence of the trail, from campgrounds and restaurants to the WAG Trail Inn which operates a treehouse (yes, treehouse) bed and breakfast across the street from the trail.       


You see, the benefits of rail trails are as multi-faceted as the trails themselves. They provide access to the outdoors -- and the physical, mental and spiritual health that comes with it – while also providing potential for significant economic development. 


Niagara County and New York State shouldn’t pass up the opportunity before us. Since the SRC has filed for abandonment, any public agency can put in a railbanking request to the Surface Transportation Board. Congress granted that power in 1983 as an amendment to the National Trails System Act. The government – whether it’s our county or state – need only submit a request along with a Statement of Willingness to Assume Financial Responsibility (not unexpected when transforming this into a public asset).


I encourage local and state officials to act soon. I also suggest that interested parties – conservancy groups, Chambers of Commerce, the Wine Trail, small businesses, snowmobile clubs – contact their legislators. Almost 14 miles of trail right through the heart of Niagara could benefit all of us. 


Know that it will take time to make a rail trail. There’s a lot to do: Governments would have to agree to funding and maintenance; the federal government would have to give approval; the Somerset Railroad Corporation has to remove the line; local officials would have to secure trail access points and much more. But, if we all get on board and start the engine now, this vision could become a reality 15 or 20 years down the line, paving the way for improved quality-of-life for future generations.  



From the 11 January 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Monday, January 4, 2021

Silencing dissent in the Empire State, one party at a time


On January 2nd I received in the mail my annual property tax bills. Though I might complain about the costs and where some of the money is going, I still look at the payment of my taxes as an obligation of citizenship – I like having roads, a sheriff’s department, parks and a judicial system.


Understanding and valuing my role in government made what else I got in that day’s mail a little frustrating. Along came a postcard from the board of elections. The bearers of bad news, they said that my party enrollment changed from the Libertarian Party to OTH-LBT.


The “other” designation means that the State of New York no longer recognizes the Libertarian Party as a party. Instead, they look at it as a political movement. Gone is ballot access and all that comes with it.


In essence, my party -- just like the Independence and Green Parties whose members also received such notifications -- was castrated.


This came to be courtesy of revised election law that was hidden in the bowels of the 2020-2021 state budget. In various ways, it threw up roadblocks to third parties that were and could be making inroads in a nation divided.  


Under the old rules, a party could achieve ballot access by securing 50,000 votes in the race for governor every 4 years. The new rules require minor parties to requalify every 2 years by receiving either 2 percent of total votes or 130,000 votes in a presidential or gubernatorial race.


Of the minor parties in New York, only the Conservative and Working Family Parties remain standing after reaching that criteria in the 2020 election (The Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen garnered 60,000 votes in New York, which would have surpassed the old threshold).  


The loss of ballot access makes things very difficult for those who want to break up the status quo. Rather than putting all of their grassroots and administrative efforts into developing ideas, candidates, and support, the unqualified parties have to complete a petition process in order to get a candidate listed on the ballot.


Of course, the State made that more difficult, too. It used to take 15,000 signatures. Now, it’s 45,000. Just imagine the roadwork, hustle, and hassle that is needed to canvas the state for 3 times the number of signatures than were needed last year at this time.


Removing ballot access from a party also removes some democratic principles from party members. An unqualified party is unable to have a primary for state-wide offices. That means it’s up to party heads to decide who’s running under their title; it’s not up to the people of the party. That not only silences different voices it can also lead to infighting among the power brokers of the party.


This is all part of the State’s plan.


They want that infighting.


They want alternative ideas to be quieted.


They want the minor parties to be unrecognizable and forgettable.


They want the two-party system to continue its domination.


They want to control every one of us and everything we do.   


The nine-member commission that devised these new rules for the Legislature was made up solely of Democrats and Republicans, so it’s not the least bit coincidental that it was a commission doing the work of the two Parties, not of the many People. If that commission’s very significant policy changes don’t tell you that they think the minor parties could pose a threat to their power, especially now as people seek alternatives to the duopoly than has torn apart the country in ugly ways, then nothing will.


Some will say that’s conspiracy talk, that minor parties are meaningless and can have no positive impact. I could say the same about the major parties. Look around the state. What have Governor Cuomo and his Democratic cronies done to improve our economy’s standing? What did Governor Pataki and his Republican cohorts do to stave off economic decline? Nothing and nothing.


By offering alternatives, third parties could be a means to improve outcomes and to mend a broken New York, a broken America. But, now, they’ll wave to work their tails off more than ever to keep their different ideas and different people front and center.


So, it was with great irony, hypocrisy and intent that we received our tax bills the same day as the mailing about the crippling of those parties. In one way, the State wants – no, demands - us to be good citizens, but, in another way, it’s taking away our ability to do that.   



From the 04 January 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News