Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The state should leave local elections alone


The 2023 election cycle has been something that you’d expect during an odd-numbered year. Local elections have been in the spotlight and you’ve had the ability to directly focus on the people and policies that legitimately affect your day-to-day to life – who governs your county and community and how they approach things like municipal budgets, property taxes, roads and bridges, public safety, water and sewer infrastructure, parks and public spaces, and energy projects. 


If the New York State Legislature has its way, it won’t be this way much longer.


During this year’s legislative session, both houses passed, along party lines, their respective bills A4282-B and S3505-B which would move most town, village and county elections outside of New York City to even-numbered years.


If that happens, local elections would be lost in the cacophony of polarized state and national elections which seemingly become more hateful, more well-funded, and more inescapable every cycle.


Amid all that grandstanding and advertising, the issues that matter most, the issues we have the most direct control over, would be lost in the shuffle. There’s no way electors will be properly educated on matters in their villages, towns, and counties when Presidential or Gubernatorial campaigns dominate the news, social media, and water cooler talk. Will anyone even pay any attention to mayoral or town council debates after they’ve been exhausted by the deluge of Presidential debates and the associated wall-to-wall coverage?


Proponents of the change believe voters will be more engaged. For example, in a September interview with Spectrum News, Senator Sean Ryan said he voted for the measure because significantly more people participate in even-year elections. He asked, "In the even years, between 50 and 70,000 people vote in Amherst, but in the odd years, only about 25 to 30,000 vote so we're going to have a lot more people participate in elections and how can that be a bad thing?"


It can be, because voters who would normally choose to not vote in local elections will be there only for the glamour positions (like President) and will likely and blindly vote for local officials solely along party lines. That’s in stark contrast to the traditionally active local voters who know the issues and the individuals and will often vote for people and policy over party, understanding that local politics are an entirely different animal with much more nuance than national elections. Do Ryan and sponsors Senator James Skoufis and Assemblywoman Amy Paulin actually believe that the person who never cared about local races suddenly will in even years, then somehow wade through the state and national politics and vote in the most prudent way?


More people should vote, always. But, good citizenship isn’t the act of just placing a vote. It’s the act of placing a vote that’s informed and aligned with what best serves you and your fellow citizens, and that becomes more pronounced in local elections because of the magnitude of the quality-of-life issues mentioned earlier. If you want local elections to matter, make them matter, just as we do now by giving them their own day in the sun. They’ll be completely devalued otherwise.


And, while we’re speaking of “value”, supporters of the bills also say the change will save taxpayers money. This bogus claim comes from the same legislators who passed early voting just a few years ago as an unfunded mandate placed upon county taxpayers. Plus, there will be city races and county races that remain in odd years, such as Sheriff, Clerk, and District Attorney, maintaining the need to go to the polls and the cost structure that currently exists.


This bill now awaits the yea or nay of Governor Hochul. If you want to maintain the sanctity of local elections, I encourage you to contact her office and ask her to veto A4282-B and S3505-B. The various forms of contact can be found on the Governor’s website at governor.ny.gov



From the 01 November 2023 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, and Wellsville Sun  

Friday, October 27, 2023

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Pine siskins – be ready for the invasion

In the winter of 2012-2013 pine siskins, little birds from the Far North, invaded the United States by the hundreds of thousands. During most winters they are just casual visitors to the States and could be considered uncommon. But, something happened to the pine cone crop in Canada during 2012, right at the same time that the siskin population exploded. It was the perfect storm. The hungry birds were driven south to fill their bellies.

For many bird watchers, it was a once-in-a-lifetime irruption (which is really the more appropriate word for “invasion”). That winter at my bird feeder I had them by the dozens. Reports from around the country had them at many feeders by the hundreds.

Since then, I’ve had them grace my feeding station during only 3 other winters and I haven’t had them in my backyard in 3 years.

But, I’m getting ready for a really good winter. This fall is giving me the feels of a good year, maybe even something close to 2012. 

In irruptions of years past, my first encounters with siskins would usually occur around Thanksgiving. But, here it is the late-October and they are already here. Last week, I saw a flock of nearly two dozen of them.

I’m not alone. They are being reported in excellent numbers across the northern tier states.

Even Tyler Hoar’s winter finch forecast – famed in birding circles – notes that their might be a strong flight of siskins southward in the 2023-2024 season due to a poor white spruce crop in Canada’s boreal forests. You can see Tyler’s full report about various species of interest at: https://finchnetwork.org/winter-finch-forecast-2023-20240

If you are wondering if you might have siskins in your yard, look skyward to the tree tops for flocks of a half-dozen to 30 tiny birds. Their manner of flight quickly identifies them. Whenever travelling in flocks, they quickly bunch up when taking off, then just as quickly separate into undulating single entities.

Siskins are finches that sort of look like sparrows. They are much smaller than your typical sparrow (like the English sparrow) and are closer in size to the diminutive chipping sparrows you have in your yard in the summer. To most, they would seem almost non-descript, with a dark wing and a brown and white streaked body. What gives them away is the small patches of yellow on their wings and at the base of their tails.

Siskins have a unique call, quite unlike other members of the finch family. Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds describes it as “a buzzy shreeee” – it’s an upwardly-inflected high-pitched sound that often competitively devolves into a coarse version of the same.

To bring siskins to your yard and keep them there this winter you need to feed them seeds. Black oil sunflower seeds won’t do it. Their small, pointy breaks cannot crack such larges seeds. Instead, they need little ones like nyjer seed (often called thistle although it is not a thistle). Those seeds are best offered through a standard tube feeder or better yet a special thistle feeder that is a tubular mesh wall through which the siskins pull the nyjer seeds.

The birds are very social. Bring one to your feeder and he’ll bring his friends, who will bring theirs. In an irruption such as the one underway, as winter approaches you could have at least a dozen at your feeder every day most all day.

You won’t regret it once you do. Siskins are ridiculously tame. When they frequented my yard in past winters I would routinely walk right up to the feeder to visit them and the birds would continue to eat with my face just inches from theirs. You can quickly train them, too, to eat out of your hand. They will even be accustomed to your habits of when you feed them — they will wait for feed time and scold you if you are off schedule.

This all makes the pine siskin a great “gateway bird” for kids. Introduce them to the wonders of these birds – let them see them up close and personal and feed them out of their hands – and you can get a child more interested in nature and less interested in video games and TV. A love of the outdoors starts somewhere, and siskins actually make for a good starting point. Who knows – these friendly cherubs might even rekindle your love affair with nature.

From the 27 October 2023 Wellsville Sun


Wednesday, October 25, 2023

A look at New York’s ballot proposals


To many, this November’s ballots lack the interest and political drama of next year’s, when voters will choose the President of the United States and contentious down-ballot races will loom large across the country.


But, that doesn’t mean this year’s elections are meaningless. Every election matters, especially when it comes to local offices…and bonus items. This November, New Yorkers have the chance to decide on two amendments to the state Constitution.


As I do in this column whenever proposals come to the fore, I offer a quick review of each.


Proposal one asks the following: The proposed amendment to Article 8, section 4 of the Constitution removes the special constitutional debt limitation now placed on small city school districts, so they will be treated the same as all other school districts. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?


For purposes of this constitutional amendment, a small city school district is one that includes at least part of a city that has a population of fewer than 125,000 people. To put that into perspective, among those within the readership of this column, small cities are Batavia, Lockport, Niagara Falls, and North Tonawanda. There are 57 such districts across the state. 


In its current form, the state Constitution limits how much debt a small city school district can have. It can’t be more than 5% of the value of taxable real estate in the district (although there are exceptions for certain expenses).


Other school districts, such as rural ones most common to this readership, are not subject to a constitutional debt restriction. Instead, theirs is provided by state law. Currently, it can’t be greater than 10% of the value of taxable real property within the confines of the district. If this amendment passes, small city school districts would be eligible to have the same debt limit as those other districts, whether it’s that 10% or the next value enacted by legislative action.


Proponents of the “yes” vote, such as various school officials and New York State United Teachers, cite greater flexibility when it comes to investing in infrastructure and facilities. Most school campuses are aged, going back to the school construction boom of the 1950s and 1960s, and some are even older than that. To update such facilities – especially when it comes to HVAC, modernization, connectedness, and electrification – takes a considerable amount of money that can exceed the current debt limit.


Those who suggest voting “no”, which seems to be only individuals and no distinct organizations, indicate that New York’s spending per pupil is already the highest in the nation and small city school districts already have the ability to exceed the constitutional debt limit if they rely on the consent of the governed – every debt-incurring investment they propose can happen if 60% of voters approve it.


The second proposal on the ballot asks: The proposed amendment to Article 8, section 5 of the Constitution extends for ten years the authority of counties, cities, towns, and villages to remove from their constitutional debt limits debt for the construction of sewage facilities. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?


The state Constitution limits the debt counties, cities, towns and villages can incur, capping it at 7% to 10% of the value of real property within their jurisdiction. That limit, under the existing exemption, does not include debt for sewage treatment and disposal construction projects. Every 10 years since 1963, voters have been asked to extend that exemption. The active exemption is set to expire on January 1st.


Those who would like to see this amendment passed – of which there are many from municipal leaders to the organizations they belong to – note that the costs of upgrading or replacing sewage treatment plants and systems are incredibly high. Were those investments put into the standard debt basket some municipalities would choose to push out those expenditures to a later date, or spend less on them, which can put public and environmental health at risk in the event of a sewer failure.


A deep search of the internet and social media finds nary a voice opposed to this 10-year extension, likely because it has been the way of doing things for the past 60 years. Once something becomes tradition and has been passed a half-dozen times already, by a wide margin, it would be hard to fight or find fault in it. It works.


Make your voice heard about these ballot items – and your local offices -- this November (or October, if you choose early voting). Just be sure to turn the ballot over to find the constitutional amendments! 



From the 25 October 2023 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, Wellsville Sun