Notes on the news

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

My take on recent developments:

There’s a movement afoot to redevelop the outer harbor into a park. Doing so would give Western New Yorkers a grand 120 acre playground in the summer – and a 120 acre wasteland in the winter, and a good part of the spring and fall, too.

Should a good chunk of the 120 acres provide the public access to its waterfront? Absolutely.

Can that be done while still accommodating development that could not only attract visitors year-round but add to the city’s tax base? Absolutely.

Are the two objectives mutually exclusive? Absolutely not.

Nearly everyone agrees its long past time to do something with the outer harbor. A park would be easier and cheaper to pull off than development. But doing so would squander the waterfront’s immense potential.

It’s great to evoke the design principles of Frederick Law Olmsted or mention the use of geothermal or solar energy to power the park’s lights. But building only a park would result in the ultimate “lights are on but nobody’s home” scenario for a good part of the year.

Ever wander down to LaSalle Park in the winter? No? I didn’t think so.

Like a Zombie back from the dead, the Cuomo administration, is giving a second life, of sorts, to the Empire Zone program.

The state killed the program under Cuomo’s predecessor in the face of overwhelming evidence it was a colossal failure. Let’s put it this way: A program conceived to promote jobs and investment in inner-city neighborhoods functioned largely as a vehicle for well-heeled corporations to avoid paying taxes.

Empire Zones were the one thing Bob Wilmers and Carl Paladino could agree on. Of course, Wilmers actually added jobs in exchange for his bank’s tax credits, while Paladino is mostly noted for using the program to build million dollar waterfront condos.

For unexplained reasons, the Cuomo administration has decided to reconsider a decision made three years ago to toss some 30 companies from the program for shenanigans that included reincorporating under a different name to appear to be a new business. Between them, the companies enjoyed about $7 million a year in tax breaks.

“The companies are among the most textbook examples of politically savvy businesses that took advantage of loopholes in tax law to help their clients and themselves to benefits meant for new businesses in distressed areas,” Michelle Breidenbach of the Syracuse Post-Standard reported Sunday.

The Cuomo administration has reconstituted a defunct Empire Zone board to take up the issue, but is refusing to say why. Or who is on the board. Or when it is meeting. In fact, it is refusing the talk at all to the press about anything related to the board, the Post Standard reported.

Ah, transparency.

The New York Power Authority will once again be lead by a Western New Yorker. The question is whether it will do the region any good.

Cuomo has nominated John Koelmel, president and chief executive officer of First Niagara Financial Group, for appointment on the board. Cuomo is expected to push for his election as chairman of the authority, whose holdings include the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston, which generates a lot of hydropower – and profits – for NYPA.

The authority has a history of treating the plant as a cash cow with little regard for Western New York. About a third of the plant’s hydropower is earmarked for local manufacturers, but rather than allocating the power to maximize its economic potential, the authority has continued to dole out the lion’s share to the usual suspects, who treated the discounted power as a birthright.

Richard Kessel made a concerted effort to at least share some of the wealth with WNY when he served as NYPA president and CEO, but the Cuomo crowd ran him off last year for unrelated reasons. The task of standing up for WNY now falls to Koelmel – if he’s allowed to. Suffice to say, Cuomo is going to have a lot to say about it.

There are two schools of thought regarding the Niagara Power Project. Congressman Brian Higgins is among those who contend WNY deserves most favored nations status because NYPA is exploiting the region’s natural resources. Others content the plant is simply another state asset that owes its hosts nothing more than it does, say, Poughkeepsie.

The latter position has held sway most of the time and Cuomo has shown no public predisposition to change that. Let’s see if Koelmel does.

The governor has established an Education Reform Commission to figure out how to fix what ails the nation’s costliest education system.

Two things are noteworthy.

The governor charged the commission with a laundry list of problems to study, ranging from student performance and teacher evaluations to parent involvement and technology utilization. He also wants it to tackle a key governance issue – duplication of services -  that is going to require leadership from Albany to change.

The governor’s press release notes:

 “New York’s education system is organized into 700 school districts, more than half of which educate fewer than 2,000 students. Each of the 700 school districts has its own administration and back office functions, creating duplication, waste, and inefficiencies in the way school districts deliver education.

The Commission will examine potential strategies to reorganize the state’s education system including district consolidation and/or shared services; comparing models from other states to achieve efficiencies and improved education outcomes; identifying reforms and savings in special education; maximizing informed participation in local elections; and facilitating shared services, consolidation and regional governance.”

 The makeup of the commission is also noteworthy.

It has 20 members. Executives with Wall Street credentials. Lots of educators from New York City. Politicians. University types. Etc.

Not one is from Western New York.