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A call to raise pay rate, with possible trade-off

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

Albany

Community, faith and labor representatives called on state legislators on Tuesday to hike the minimum wage. While that discussion isn't new, the possibility that legislators could vote to raise their own pay before the session starts up in January, critics say, would be unacceptable without politicians helping their constituents.

"Maybe it's really hard to wear a suit all day and listen to yourself talk. I don't know," said the Rev. Frances Rosenau, associate pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany. "Maybe they do need a raise. (But) don't all New Yorkers? Don't all people who put in an honest day's work need a raise?"

The state's minimum wage is set to rise to $8.75 on Dec. 31. Some critics have called for $10.10 an hour; others want $15 an hour. There also have been calls for indexing the minimum wage to inflation and for raises for tipped workers.

Legislators are paid a $79,500 base salary, which doesn't include per diems worth $172 per day and other covered expenses.

Legislators now have an opportunity for an almost immediate bump that comes around every two years. A sitting Legislature cannot vote to raise its own members' salaries, meaning any pay increase OK'd over the next two years wouldn't take effect until 2017. But approving a raise before January could mean a pay raise starting in 2015.

It isn't clear if legislators would come to Albany for a special session or if legislative pay raises would be brought up. Although Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos said last week that he'd like to see it come up for a vote, he balked at the idea of trading progressive desires, including a minimum wage hike, for a raise. And some local legislators who spoke to the Times Union earlier this month were hesitant to support a legislative pay raise without making it part of a larger package — possibly including a minimum wage increase or per diem changes.

Politically, there is impetus for liberal legislators to try to get a minimum wage increase passed before January, when Skelos' Republicans will have a majority in the chamber. As things stand now, if all senators elected as Democrats banded together, they would have a 32-vote majority.

But there are uncertainties. It isn't known if all senators, Republican or Democrat, would come to Albany for a special session, meaning projecting vote totals is difficult.

Also, the Independent Democratic Conference and Brooklyn's Simcha Felder, who since he was elected in 2012 has conferenced with the GOP, would stand with Republicans, with whom they apparently plan to continue working.

And the Republican-IDC majority coalition would need to allow a minimum wage increase to come to the floor in the first place.

Mark Emanation, a community organizer for Citizen Action of New York, said he isn't hopeful that the Senate and Assembly, where Democrats hold a dominant majority, would take up a minimum wage increase.

A special session would likely include discussion on funding infrastructure maintenance and improvement. Another possible topic is sending aid money to snow-fatigued Western New York.

Emanation said jobs are desperately needed and infrastructure work could help. But he says the minimum wage must be part of the discussion, too.

"I saw the other day that they're going to feed almost 11,000 people in Schenectady Thanksgiving (dinner) that can't afford a Thanksgiving dinner. There's only 70,000 people in Schenectady," he said. "So if 11,000 of them are so poor that they can't afford a Thanksgiving dinner, there's something wrong. And I'm sure the legislators are all going to have wonderful Thanksgiving dinners."

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Deletion of aide's emails at issue in food-cart case

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

Albany

The lawyers for a controversially named Schenectady food cart complained to a federal judge that the Cuomo administration purged the emails of a top aide who had warned that allowing the Wandering Dago to remain at Saratoga Race Course represented "a problem waiting to blow up."

The deletion occurred despite the administration's email retention policy for state agencies, which calls for the preservation of communications "that are to be preserved due to active or reasonably likely litigation."

The owners of the Wandering Dago, Andrea Loguidice and Brendan Snooks, filed suit in late August 2013 against officials at the state Office of General Services and the New York Racing Association, claiming that the truck had been rejected by OGS's summer lunch program on Empire State Plaza and banished from Saratoga Race Course on the first day of the 2013 meet due to state officials' objections to its name. Loguidice filed a separate lawsuit last month, claiming that she was fired from her job as an attorney for the Department of Environmental Conservation due to her connection to the truck.

While "dago" is generally understood to be a slur on Italians, Loguidice and Snooks insist it is nothing more than a tribute to her ancestors, laborers who were paid "as the day goes."

In a Nov. 6 letter to Magistrate Judge Randolph Treece, Wandering Dago attorney George Carpinello of Bois, Schiller & Flexner said that a lawyer for Bennett Liebman, Cuomo's former deputy secretary for gaming and racing, informed the plaintiffs that all emails relating to the cart had been deleted. Liebman, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, retired in August.

On July 19, 2013, Liebman said in an email to New York Racing Association President Christopher Kay that he feared "people will find the name of the truck both offensive and insensitive, and that the fallout for authorizing this truck will inevitably land on NYRA."

Later that same day, the cart's owners were informed by NYRA Vice President Stephen Travers that they'd have to operate under a different name or depart the premises. They were gone the next morning.

The Cuomo administration initially told the New York Times that no top official had asked for the truck to be bounced. After Liebman's email was read in open court during a Sept. 19, 2013, hearing, a spokeswoman claimed the administration had been unaware of the communication.

Citing the trashing of Liebman's email as potential "spoliation" of evidence, Carpinello asked Treece to grant an "adverse inference instruction," which would allow the plaintiffs to argue that the deleted emails would have demonstrated that NYRA officials expelled the Wandering Dago due to the "direct instigation" of state officials.

In a response to Carpinello's complaints, Assistant Attorney General Colleen Galligan told Judge Treece that the OGS defendants — including Commissioner RoAnn Destito — shouldn't be punished for the deletion of Liebman's emails when they "did not have any control over Mr. Liebman or his email." The attorney general's office is representing OGS; NYRA's outside counsel offered up the Liebman email at the September 2013 hearing.

Galligan also argued that the evidence Carpinello seeks "still exists and has been provided to plaintiff."

In a ruling issued last week, Treece agreed with Galligan that the NYRA defendants shouldn't be sanctioned for a decision they had no control over, and said there were insufficient facts to determine if evidence had been destroyed. He ordered Liebman to provide the defendants with his former office's email retention policy, and that the matter could be taken up during Liebman's deposition.

Cuomo's office adopted its new email policy on June 30, 2013. It calls for email at agencies to be deleted after 90 days, with notable exceptions including documents that are the subject of a pending Freedom of Information Law request and those related to current or anticipated litigation.

"If an employee's email is on legal or litigation hold, none of his/her email will be purged until the legal or litigation hold is released by (state Office of Information Technology Services) Counsel," the policy states.

Citing the ongoing lawsuit, a Cuomo spokesman declined to offer an explanation, or say whether a litigation hold had ever been placed on Liebman's email.

Carpinello and Galligan also jousted over the disclosure of Liebman's weekly reports to the executive chamber, which Galligan said were exempt from disclosure as "material prepared in anticipation of litigation, executive privilege and intra-agency communication."

Treece knocked down those arguments, but said that the doctrine of "common interest" between the governor and an agency called for a certain level of confidentiality.

Even so, he ordered Liebman to provide the plaintiffs with any portions of his weekly reports concerning the Wandering Dago.

Visit the Capitol Confidential blog for more.

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

Visitor center touts state offerings

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

Albany

Just in time for holiday giving, Empire State Plaza finally has a decent souvenir shop.

Slated to open at noon on Tuesday with a ribbon-cutting, the new visitor center and gift shop at the north end of Empire State Plaza concourse offers everything from prints and postcards depicting the Capitol complex to T-shirts featuring the iconic "I Love NY" logo. There are also finger puppets depicting George Washington, Susan B. Anthony and other historic figures immortalized in stone on the Great Western Staircase.

As part of the Taste NY program designed to showcase Empire State agriculture, the shop also sells a selection of New York packaged foods ranging from barbecue sauce and candy to Hudson Valley granola.

The store is part of the state Office of General Services' efforts to improve retail offerings and signage at the Capitol ahead of the beginning of the 2015 legislative session.

"People have been asking our tour guides every day for souvenirs and mementos," said Barbara Maggio, OGS' director of curatorial and visitor services. "We see (the store) as almost a public service."

The shop, open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, will also serve as the information center for tours of the Capitol, the Empire State Plaza art collection and the Executive Mansion, and as a hub for tourism information from every region.

Categories: State/Local

High winds Buffalo's next test

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

Buffalo

Fears of disastrous flooding from a rapid meltdown of the Buffalo area's 7 feet of snow eased on Monday, but high winds became a menace, threatening to knock down trees and power lines.

Forecasters, meanwhile, defended the National Weather Service following criticism from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who accused the agency of failing to anticipate how bad Buffalo's epic snowstorm would be.

Cuomo, in the region for a sixth straight day, said state-deployed pumps and sandbags were in place as rain and temperatures over 60 rapidly melted the snow. Residents shoveled snow in T-shirts against the backdrop of white drifts.

By late morning, minor to moderate flooding was reported in several creeks, but nearby homes were largely spared, and the sewers in Buffalo and elsewhere were handling the runoff.

The snowfall across the Buffalo area ranged from less than a foot to about 7½ feet, depending on where the bands of snow coming off Lake Erie hit hardest.

Forecasters said the potential for flooding remained through Wednesday morning.

"As of this moment, the situation is not as problematic as it could have been," Cuomo said a day after advising residents to pack a bag in case they needed to leave their homes. "But again, a question mark until we know fully what Mother Nature holds for us throughout the rest of the day and tomorrow."

The new threat, he said, was wind — gusts up to 65 mph, with the potential to uproot trees from the soggy ground and knock out power needed to operate homeowners' basement sump pumps.

David Fruehauf was out early clearing leaves from a storm drain in front of his house in suburban Orchard Park, and said he would remain vigilant as the snow melted.

"These are the enemies of a sewer," Fruehauf said, kicking at colorful leaves surrounding the drain. "There's still a long ways to go. The (snow) is shrinking, but it's got to have a place to go."

At a news conference, the governor said he hadn't intended to upset forecasters when he said over the weekend that the weather service was "off" on its predictions for the storm.

"It came down earlier than forecasted and it came at a higher volume than they forecasted," he said.

Al Roker of NBC's "Today" show and The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore fired back, defending the weather service's predictions as timely and accurate. In a tweet on Sunday, Roker said the agency's meteorologists "did their jobs."

"Seems like (Cuomo's) folks didn't look" at the forecasts, Roker tweeted.

National Weather Service spokesman Christopher Vaccaro said the snowfall "was very well forecast."

"Nobody should have been caught by surprise," he told The Associated Press.

Most snow-affected school districts remain closed Monday, and at least four called off classes for the entire Thanksgiving week.

Categories: State/Local

Casino decision could come Dec. 17

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

Albany

New Yorkers on Dec. 17 may find out where as many as four new upstate casinos will be built, a top gaming official said Monday.

Speaking at a New York City meeting of the state Gaming Commission, Executive Director Robert Williams said the Gaming Facility Location Board, which will award the licenses, has tentatively planned its fourth and final meeting on that day.

"The Gaming Facility Location Board has met on three occasions to discuss the financial and employment histories of those applicants responsive to the Request For Application to Develop and Operate a Gaming Facility in New York State," Williams said.

"While information relative to the board's review and deliberation has been scarce, I understand that they have tentatively scheduled Dec. 17 in Albany for their final meeting.''

Sixteen applicants are competing for what could be up to four licenses in three upstate zones: the Capital Region, Hudson Valley/ Catskills and the eastern Southern Tier.

At a meeting Friday at Long Island's Hofstra University, the Location Board went into a closed-door executive session, which would have allowed them to review finances of the various competitors.

While the gaming companies have been competing fiercely for those licenses, opponents of the casino expansion say they also plan to fight until the end.

"We are not going away. We live here. I think it's obvious to everyone that we are resolute," said Cara Benson of Save East Greenbush, a group that doesn't want a casino in that community, in an email.

Capital View Casino and Resort, which is backed in part by Saratoga Harness Racing, is proposing a facility in East Greenbush.

Just to the west, Hard Rock International is proposing to build a Hard Rock Hotel & Casino at DeLaet's Landing along the Hudson River in Rensselaer.

That proposal last week drew support from Assemblyman John McDonald and Sen. Neil Breslin, both of whose districts include Rensselaer.

They wrote in support of the plan to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, although it remained unclear what the impact would be: The decision, at least technically, will be made by the siting board.

Also competing in the Capital Region are the Howes Cavern Resort & Casino in Howe's Cave, Schoharie County, and Rush Street Gaming and Galesi Group's proposed Rivers Casino & Resort at Mohawk Harbor along the Mohawk River in Schenectady.

rkarlin@timesunion.com • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

South Buffalo roads reopen

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

Buffalo

For the first time in five days, it's legal to drive in south Buffalo.

Mayor Byron W. Brown announced an end to the driving ban there Sunday, leaving Lackawanna as the only community still with a ban.

"With 6 feet of snow in six days, now the driving ban has been lifted," Brown said.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz affirmed that the Lackawanna driving ban is still active in a tweet sent at 3:59 p.m.

"While great progress being made traffic slowing efforts to go curb to curb on Ridge Rd in 3rd Ward," Poloncarz wrote.

As the region continued to dig out from this week's massive lake-effect storm, one of New York's senators called for a quick release of federal emergency funds to the storm-ravaged region.

"The people of Buffalo and western New York have truly proved again why this community is called the City of Good Neighbors," Brown said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who will be here Monday to tour the area, said her office sent letters to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture calling for immediate approval of any recovery requests that come from New York.

State Sen.-elect Marc Panepinto of Buffalo also called for an aid package to western New York.

He wants the state to reimburse local governments for unexpected costs associated with the storm.

"The communities of western New York have been hit hard by this winter storm and are in need of emergency aid right now," Panepinto said.

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo signs bill legalizing sparklers

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

Albany

A bill signed last week will give New Yorkers a new way — at least legally speaking — to spark celebrations.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed on Friday a bill that will permit the sale and possession of sparklers and novelty devices (caps for toy guns, snappers, party poppers, etc.) except in New York City.

The signing comes after vetoes of similar bills in 2011 and 2013. In his approval message, Cuomo wrote that the current incarnation of the bill improves upon the old ones because it includes the New York City ban and requires "municipalities outside of New York City to affirmatively enact a local law electing to be covered by this legislation."

According to its justification, the purpose of the bill is to clarify existing fireworks laws, which haven't been used effectively, in part because of poor definitions. Only 63 convictions have been obtained since 1956, according to the bill, which was sponsored by state Sen. Michael Nozzolio and Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle.

Don't get too excited that regulations on fireworks in the more traditional sense are loosening, though. The bill just removes from the definition of fireworks and dangerous fireworks sparkling devices, novelties, toy caps and other similar devices.

But not so fast, kids. The bill also amends the crime of unlawful sale of dangerous fireworks to a minor. That misdemeanor now includes fireworks, sparkling devices and novelties.

The effects of the bill are twofold. According to the bill memo, modernizing the fireworks statute "will provide law enforcement with an important tool in reducing the use of illegal fireworks and homemade devices and encouraging the use of safe and legally regulated novelty devices."

The sponsors also argue that "there will be considerable revenue from state sales tax" by allowing the sale these items.

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

The Week Ahead

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

We all know that Thursday will feature turkey and football. But what will the rest of the week bring? Take a look:

MONDAY

• The state Gaming Commission meets at 1 p.m. Monday in Manhattan. Before you ask: No, we will not learn the winners of the upstate casino license hunt in this meeting, which will be webcast at http://www.gaming.ny.gov

• Rep. Paul D. Tonko, faith groups, low-income residents and anti-hunger groups gather for the annual Thanksgiving Action Against Hunger to call for food to be treated as a human right. The groups will discuss the status of emergency food, minimum wage and child nutrition programs at 11 a.m. at Emmanuel Baptist Church, 275 State St., Albany.

• Health care advocates announce the formation of the New York State Palliative Care Collaborative at 11 a.m. in LCA Press Room 120, Legislative Office Building, Albany.

TUESDAY

• The state Joint Commission on Public Ethics meets at 10:30 a.m. at its office on Broadway in Albany. The meeting will be livecast at http://www.jcope.ny.gov

FRIDAY

• Weather permitting, the Empire State Plaza ice rink opens for free skating from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

— Casey Seiler, Matthew Hamilton and NYSNYS.com

Categories: State/Local

Donors build for future

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

Albany

What does $3 million buy?

In politics, the answer can be elusive. Gov. Andrew Cuomo's top 10 donors — a list made up of conglomerates, multinational firms and real estate barons — may be hoping their generosity gets them a return phone call. Or perhaps more.

"Contributions are ... a principal means by which firms and sectors buy access to legislators, executives and administrators," said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. "So it's absolutely essential for them to be in the game with these folks."

According to a New York Public Interest Research Group report released in October, nine of Cuomo's top 10 donors in the four-year election cycle — in which he raised a total of more than $45 million — are tied to real estate or construction. The 10th, Cablevision, is a massive telecommunications company based on Long Island.

While individuals or single entities were limited to giving Cuomo $60,800, NYPIRG's analysis show that all of his top donors employed the so-called "LLC loophole," which allows a single giver to use any limited liability companies they control to give the maximum amount many times over. Cuomo has said he wants to close that loophole, but refuses to unilaterally disarm by turning away the money currently flowing through it.

While the real estate interests that dominate the list have been donating to New York politicians — governors, legislators, municipal officials — for years, the coming session could prove to be especially significant for the lucrative residential development market. In June, rent regulation laws for New York City will expire, as will a tax abatement program for residential developers. It's also expected Mayor Bill de Blasio will push one of his administration's trademarks: affordable housing.

If enacted legislation favors tenants too much, landlords could lose revenue. If new laws require certain levels of affordable housing in new developments, builders could cash in on incentives to build more of those units.

"Whether they get what they want, who knows," NYPIRG's Blair Horner said of real estate interests. "Obviously they've been forking it over big-time. They've been relatively successful ... over the last 10, 15 years at getting some rollbacks in rent control regulation. And we're gearing up for the big fight again."

Of the top 10 contributors, representatives of two responded to requests for comment. A spokesman for Access Industries' Len Blavatnik (No. 7 on the list with $215,800 in donations to Cuomo) said the founder of the international investment group — which also has real estate interests — does not typically talk about his campaign contributions. Cablevision spokeswoman Lisa Anselmo downplayed the company's political activity.

"As one of New York's leading employers, it should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that we participate actively in the political process as virtually all major companies do," Anselmo said in a statement.

Lobbyist disclosure information filed with the state Join Commission on Public Ethics offers a rough road map for desires of Cuomo's top givers.

For example, Glenwood Management Corp. — owned by Cuomo's top donor Leonard Litwin, who gave $1 million through energetic use of the LLC loophole — has lobbied for "real estate issues, construction, related land use, environmental issues, housing rent legislation issues, real estate development, tenant legislation and housing NYC," its JCOPE filings show.

Other filings were more precise: In 2012, Extell Development (No. 2 on the list) lobbied for a specific bill in the state Senate that would have amended real property tax laws in New York City; that bill never made it to the floor. In the first six months of this year, Brookfield Financial Properties lobbied for lower Manhattan property tax legislation, and asked the City Council to approve amendments to a zoning rule related to a property at 9th Avenue and West 31st Street, according to JCOPE filings.

It's not clear from lobbying data what many other firms and companies might be seeking. JCOPE doesn't list lobbying information from the past few years for Cablevision (No. 5 on the list with $250,000 in donations); BBL (No. 10 with $182,500); Kasowitz, Benson, Torres and Friedman (No. 8 with $200,000 in donations); or Blavatnik's Access Industries.

At least one donor has a prior Cuomo connection, though his staff has denied favoritism.

The Daily News reported in August 2013 that LLCs with ties to Extell Development Co. (which along with owner Gary Barnett and his wife, Ayala, is No. 2 with $300,000 in donations) each donated $50,000 to Cuomo's campaign only days before he signed a bill with tax breaks for Extell and other developers.

That bill stirred up controversy in the Assembly, as well: The bill was sponsored by Housing Committee Chair Keith Wright, though he said he didn't know about the tax breaks, inserted when disgraced Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez was still chairman.

Cuomo spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa said at the time that any implication of a quid pro quo was "an irresponsible distortion of the facts."

Cuomo isn't the only elected official who can count on support of wealthy donors. According to Capital New York, Cuomo's top 25 givers spent six times as much to get Republicans elected to the state Senate as they did to elect Democrats over the past four years. Litwin gave 79 percent of his $1.5 million in Senate contributions to Republicans. Only 9 percent went to Democrats, the report said.

Real Estate Board of New York President Steven Spinola praised both Cuomo and the Republican-controlled Senate.

"I think the governor has done a terrific job of changing the direction of the state of New York in his first four years," Spinola said by phone. "That's one of the reasons I think you see the support he has received, not just from my members but across the board."

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said the governor, while keeping the entire state's best interest in mind, is focused on passing the strongest rent control laws in a generation and creating a tenant protection unit. "His record of promoting affordable housing and protecting tenants speaks for itself," Azzopardi said.

Muzzio said the real estate industry has interest in all levels of government, especially at local and state levels. The rent regulations that expire in June, he noted, are absolutely essential to developers and housing owners.

"You're talking about big bucks," he said. "You're talking about a huge financial stake in the game."

Cuomo also had two other attributes that help him solicit donations: fiscally conservative policies and incumbency.

SUNY New Paltz political science professor Gerald Benjamin said owners of big companies benefit from a business-friendly agenda, both personally and professionally. Cuomo also has pushed to make New York attractive to new business, which could help builders contracted to construct new facilities or office space.

"There might be specific expectations of investments by the state," Benjamin said. "The state is a massive sponsor of business both directly and through its ancillary organizations, its public authorities. People want to be a friend of the people who make the decisions having to do with that, even if there may be no direct untoward relationship."

Being the man already in charge of making those decisions likely helped.

"The devil you know is always better than the devil you don't know," Benjamin said.

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Law firm hosts sixth annual Turkeys for Veterans programs

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

ALBANY — Active duty and retired military personnel can pick up a free turkey at the Tully Rinckey offices in Albany Monday through the law firm's sixth annual Turkeys for Veterans program.

The firm and Hannaford Supermarkets will provide more than 100 free turkeys between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the 441 New Karner Road offices. The turkeys will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis with proof of a military ID. There will be a limit of one turkey per person.

Categories: State/Local

Buffalo area presses on after onslaught of snow

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

Amanda Enright and her husband, Joe, woke up Friday morning in their ranch home in Elma to find cracks along the walls where they meet the ceiling. Overnight, at least another foot of snow had fallen on top of the 5 to 6 feet that were already piled on their roof.

The fire department told them they had to do something fast. The Enrights got their three children out of the house and Amanda put out a plea for help on Facebook. Her nephew who lives nearby came. Then friends in Amherst rode down Transit Road to come to the rescue.

One by one, they climbed up and started heaving snow off the roof. In three hours, it was clear.

It was a day of digging out.

Across the Snow Belt on Friday, people stripped down to their shirtsleeves and soldiered on with the endless, backbreaking work of shoveling snow that towered above their heads.

New snow totals for the back-to-back storms this week were announced by the National Weather Service. They're officially over the 7-foot mark.

The highest logged in the area: a staggering 88 inches in Cowlesville in Wyoming County, just over the Erie County border near Marilla.

As the snow removal slowly progressed, the devastation of the two storms became clearer.

The death toll from the storm climbed to 13. Late Friday night, officials announced that a 68-year-old Cheektowaga man died of a heart attack while clearing snow from his driveway.

Police investigations were under way into the deaths of two men who were found inside cars buried deep in snow, including one near a Cheektowaga parking lot Friday morning.

Both the victims had called AAA for help during the storm, but that help never arrived.

The storm cleanup has already cost Erie County government $2 million, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said Friday night, and the cost is rising.

As roads were cleared Friday, abandoned cars, some burned out, could be seen in ditches.

At least 30 major roof collapses were reported across the region, many of them on barns and other agricultural buildings.

But the ocean of snow seemed to be starting to subside Friday as high-lift front-loaders were able to make at least one if not two passes through many snow-clogged streets, and plows that had been powerless in chest-high snow were finally being put to use.

Temperatures Sunday will start to steadily rise, continuing in the next few days until they reach as high as 60 degrees. By Tuesday, all this record-breaking snow may have melted.

But there is nowhere for the water to go, because many storm drains -— particularly in the hardest-hit areas — are clogged with snow.

"You start to get this real heavy thaw, and it starts filling the streets" said National Weather Service Meteorologist Tony Asuini of this unprecedented situation. "It could be a real mess."

Scientists with the National Weather Service were on the ground Friday conducting samples to determine how much water is contained in the snow. They determined that when the snow melts, it will amount to about 3½ to 6 inches.

"I'm just trying to think about where all this water is going to go," said Asuini. "The water's got to go somewhere."

In South Buffalo alone, more than 35,000 tons of snow had been hauled away in trucks and dumped into an increasingly mountain-like mound by the Central Terminal on the East Side.

The Thruway, closed since Tuesday from the Pennsylvania border to Henrietta, reopened just before 3 p.m. Friday. Some exits remained inaccessible, confusing drivers who hopped on the moment they could. Traffic tie-ups were almost immediately reported, including congestion at Route 219 just after it had reopened.

Amazingly, almost all the major highways that had been shut down were back open. The only one to remain closed as of Friday night was Route 5 from Blasdell to the Niagara Thruway entrance in downtown Buffalo.

That had law enforcement officers pleading with residents to stay put if at all possible.

"Stay in your homes," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo asked increasingly impatient residents.

For some, there was no choice, as they remained snowbound in their homes. Some faced new frustrations as passing payloaders and plows barreled through streets, creating new walls of snow at the foot of driveways that had just been cleared.

"We are unable to get out to a store as we live on a major highway that we are not being allowed to walk on as it is unsafe," wrote Debbie May of Big Tree Road in Orchard Park in an email begging for help. "No one can get in to help us. We have been literally barricaded in since Tuesday. The stadium a half mile down the road is getting a lot of press, but we are being ignored as the street is being considered as 'cleared.' We need help, yet none seems to be on the way."

Categories: State/Local

Desperate letters of farewell

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

At one point during her 13-hour ordeal, Karen Rossi got out a pen and paper and wrote farewell letters to her two daughters.

Her car became stuck in a snowbank at Transit Road and William Street in Lancaster, not far from home. A passing plow pushed her farther into the snowbank, and then the intense lake-effect storm completely buried the blue Chevy Cobalt.

Rossi couldn't tell if it was day or night from inside the car.

"It felt like I was underground, buried in a casket," she said. "It was surreal."

As the hours went by, she became wet from trying to dig her way to daylight and her car was running out of fuel. As someone who had worked in an emergency room, she knew it didn't look good.

Rossi had started out at 3 a.m. Tuesday from Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, where she works as a pharmacy technician, for her home in Lancaster.

"On a clear road, it takes me 20-plus minutes to get home," she said, "but I didn't get far before I started getting stuck. There always seemed to be someone behind me to push me out."

However, she had no such luck. She stayed in the car, and before her phone died, she called her daughter, who advised her to keep the car's tailpipe clear of snow so she could run the engine to keep warm without poisoning herself with carbon monoxide.

"I kept watching the news, and it was freaking me out," said Madelyn Rossi, 17. "

Karen Rossi couldn't open the car door.

"So I rolled the window down and used a sweatshirt to dig along the car to make a tunnel to keep the tailpipe clear," she said.

As her phone battery began to run out, she texted her daughter repeatedly, telling her, "My phone's going to die. I love you."

Eventually, Rossi decided she had to try to attract attention to her plight.

Once again, she climbed out through the car window. This time she dug upward with the sweatshirt and a snow brush.

"I finally got up to where I could see the sky," she said. "I was standing on the window frame, but I couldn't see out. I started waving the bright red snow brush. Little did I know, there was no one coming."

She climbed back down into the front seat and waited.

"Sitting in the car, it's funny what you think about," she said. "You get punchy. You realize the magnitude of the situation. You never think this is the way you're going to pass away. I started to think about my life and my family and my daughters."

Rossi, who just turned 47, found a scrap of paper in her purse, tore it in half and started farewell notes to her daughters.

Although she was wet, cold and exhausted, she continued to climb out the window, crawl her way up and wave the red snow brush, hoping it would attract someone's attention. "I waved that forever. My arm would get sore," she said, "and I would stop, and then start again."

Then she heard a voice.

"I see you. I'm going to get you out," a man yelled out. "I have a shovel."

Categories: State/Local

Letter lobbies Cuomo for site

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

Albany

Assemblyman John McDonald of Cohoes and state Sen. Neil Breslin of Bethlehem sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo pressing for the Rensselaer casino proposal to be one of the possible four to receive licenses from the state.

The proposed site for the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino project at de Laet's Landing on the Hudson River lies within the districts of both Democratic lawmakers.

In the letter, dated Friday, they argue that the location would stand the best chance of boosting the economic fortunes of not only Rensselaer, but Albany and Troy as well.

"We believe that opportunities for employment and tourism will extend to both sides of the river in Albany and Rensselaer Counties," the letter states. " ... Issues such as transportation, job training and employment are critical to our constituency and will be of utmost importance with regard to this project."

It's unclear how sending a letter to Cuomo might affect the current site-selection process, which is ostensibly in the hands of the Gaming Facility Location Board, a subsidiary of the state Gaming Commission.

"At the end of the day ... the members of the (Gaming) Commission are appointed by the Legislature, yes, but also by the governor," McDonald said in an interview.

McDonald acknowledged that the letter was sent "late in the game." The location board is expected to announce its recommendations for up to four upstate casino licenses — in the Capital Region, the Catskills and the Southern Tier — at its next meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.

"Is it too late? I hope not," he said, noting the flurry of rumors that have been swirling about where the Capital Region's casino license might land.

Competing proposals would place casinos in Schenectady, East Greenbush or Howe Caverns in Schoharie County.

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

Endorsement becomes an issue

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

Albany

The union's endorsement of failed gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout is emerging as an issue for a group organized to challenge Susan Kent for the presidency of the Public Employees Federation, a major state workers union with elections scheduled for June.

"Many members are concerned about how it's going to play out," Todd Kerner said of contract negotiations that will start in the spring between the union and the Cuomo administration.

PEF under Kent's leadership endorsed Teachout, a Fordham Law School professor, over Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the September Democratic primary.

That has prompted some union members, including Kerner, to wonder if snubbing Cuomo was wise because PEF will soon be negotiating with the administration.

The current contract expires in April.

A lawyer with the state Department of Taxation and Finance, Kerner has joined a slate of challengers dubbed the Coalition of Union Professionals, or COUP, that came together this month when members looking for a change met in Albany.

Heading the slate is Wayne Spence, a Long Island parole officer who is also a PEF vice president. He was elected in 2012 with Kent.

Spence, like the other challengers, said he grew disenchanted after Kent fired many of the union's top staffers and replaced them what they say are her allies.

The challengers also point to an advertising budget of more than $700,000 the union awarded to a marketing company that had worked on Kent's campaign, Inspired Marketing Solutions.

Kerner is running for vice president. Other COUP candidates include Nikki Brate, an information technology specialist with the Department of Financial Services, who is planning to run for secretary-treasurer against incumbent Carlos Garcia; and Peter Banks, a nurse at the SUNY upstate medical center in Syracuse, and Adreina Adams, a parole officer in Brooklyn, who are running for vice president slots.

Brate is currently the union's coordinator for Region 8, which includes the Capital Region and has about 18,000 of the union's 54,000 members, Spence said.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

More snow falls, and so do roofs

Albany Times/Union - 24 min 10 sec ago

Buffalo

Roofs began to creak and collapse and homeowners struggled to clear waist-high drifts atop their houses Thursday as another storm brought the Buffalo area's three-day snowfall total to an epic 7 feet or more.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo begged drivers "pretty, pretty please" to stay off slippery, car-clogged roads in western New York while crews tried to dig out. Some areas got close to 3 feet of new snow by Thursday afternoon.

Things could quickly get worse: Rain and temperatures as high as 60 were forecast over the weekend, raising the specter of flooding and an even heavier load on roofs, where the snow could absorb the downpours like a blanket.

More than 50 people were evacuated from several mobile home parks in suburban Cheektowaga and West Seneca because roofs were buckling. Bellevue Fire Department Lt. Timothy Roma said more than a dozen buildings and carports collapsed, as did a metal warehouse operated by a Christmas decorations company, where damage was estimated in the millions.

Local media reported that about 180 residents of a Cheektowaga assisted living facility were evacuated after the ceiling began bulging under the weight of the snow.

Homeowners and store employees around the region climbed onto roofs to shovel off the snow and reduce the danger.

"It's getting heavier," said Cheektowaga resident Thomas Mudd Jr., who with his wife spent several hours shoveling 4 to 5 feet off his roof. "It's supposed to warm up and we're supposed to get rain on the weekend, which will make it even heavier. So I didn't want my roof collapsing."

The storms were blamed for at least 10 deaths in western New York, mostly from heart attacks and exposure.

With roads impassable, driving bans in effect and the Buffalo Bills' stadium buried in snow, the NFL decided to move Sunday's home game against the New York Jets to a location yet to be determined.

Earlier in the day, Cuomo said holding the game would jeopardize public safety.

National Guardsmen drove nurses to work. State troopers helped elderly residents trapped in their homes. State officials assembled 463 plows, 129 loaders and 40 dump trucks from across the state.

Some Buffalo-area schools were closed for the third day, burning through snow days with winter still a month away.

Thirty-seven inches fell on the town of Wales southeast of Buffalo late Wednesday and Thursday, for a three-day total of more than 7 feet.

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Categories: State/Local

Hearing ordered for SLA, Empire

Albany Times/Union - 7 hours 24 min ago

Albany

A state Supreme Court justice ruled that Empire Wines and the State Liquor Authority should meet in a hearing before they do battle in court.

The Colonie-based retailer filed suit against the SLA in September, seven weeks after the authority sent Empire a letter saying it was in violation of a regulation that allows the SLA to revoke, cancel or suspend a liquor license because of "improper conduct by the licensee." SLA cited Empire for shipping wine to states that bar direct sales to consumers or require out-of-state retailers to obtain permits.

Empire doesn't deny shipping the goods, but its lawsuit argues that there is no New York state law or regulation barring the shipment of wine to customers in other states. Moreover, the suit claims that the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government and not individual states the power to regulate interstate trade.

In an 11-page ruling dated Tuesday, Justice George Ceresia of Troy rejected Empire's additional complaint that the statute SLA is using to challenge its license is excessively vague, and denied Empire's request for a preliminary injunction preventing the agency from taking action.

Empire is scheduled to have its hearing before the SLA on Wednesday, Dec. 3, in Albany.

SLA Chairman Dennis Rosen has forcefully defended action against Empire, while insisting that the authority won't be going after every state retailer that ships wine to the 37 states that are off-limits.

"In addition to sending this case back to the SLA for an administrative hearing, Justice Ceresia's decision also upholds the SLA's clear statutory authority to bring charges when a liquor store illegally sells and ships wine," said SLA spokesman William Crowley

In a statement, Empire spokesman Josh Goodman said Ceresia "did not dismiss the case on the merits. Instead, the court made a fairly routine decision to allow the SLA's administration process to go forward, concluding that Empire's arguments should first be made before the agency itself."

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

Hailing Higher Tax Revenue, City Lowers Expected Taxi Haul

Gotham Gazette - 8 hours 31 min ago

Taxis (photo: @nyctaxi)

NEW YORK—When Mayor de Blasio signed his first executive budget at the end of June, the City was expecting income of $766 million from the sale of 550 taxi medallions. But five months later, those estimates have been substantially reduced. According to the November Financial Plan released Tuesday, the City is now forecasting $506 million less coming into City coffers this fiscal year.

Officials from the city's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) attributed the dip to more realistic planning, not a shaky medallion market or competition from startups Uber and Lyft.

"The original plan was very aggressive," an official from OMB said at a budget briefing on Tuesday. "Actually, no one has ever seen a plan like that before in New York City. This is a much more realistic plan."

Instead of selling 550 taxi medallions this fiscal year (FY 2015), the City will only sell 200. The plan calls for the sale of 350 medallions in each fiscal year from 2016 through 2019. The $1.5 billion projected revenue from medallion sales by fiscal year 2018 remains the same, according to OMB.

Medallions are not cheap, with the average price at roughly $1 million. In February of this year the City sold 168 medallions with the average winning bid at $863,000. In March it sold an additional 32 with an average price of $2.3 million.

The "aggressive" nature of the original plan was known and approved by de Blasio's budget team in June, so what's changed? In addition to heeding warning from the Financial Control Board about what was clearly an accelerated plan, officials from OMB cite a much lengthier than anticipated process to close on medallion sales.

Part of that longer process is due to the fact that the new medallions being sold must be for wheelchair accessible taxis, a determination recently made after years of litigation. Those vehicles take longer to build, something apparently not originally factored in.

The City was also awaiting final approval from Albany regarding its Accessibility Plan, which the City must follow to make the entire fleet of over 13,000 taxis wheelchair accessible by 2020. Plan approval was needed to move forward with more than 400 medallion sales and was finally given by state lawmakers in August. The City spent the months since the passage of its budget looking at past schedules and factoring in the Accessibility Plan to formulate a new roadmap.

"We had the luxury of being able to do all that research into past medallion sales scheduling and we thought it was the smarter, wiser way to go considering the new dynamic of the accessible medallions," Allan Fromberg, spokesperson for the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) said by phone Tuesday evening of the new plan.

Unspoken at the budget briefing were the fiscal realities surrounding the taxi medallion sales. When then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg positioned medallion sales into his final two budgets, the city was facing a much different fiscal picture.

The medallion sales were sorely needed to plug budget gaps that plagued the city, a byproduct of the Great Recession and higher healthcare and pension costs. As we near the end of the 2014 calendar year, the financial state of the City is stronger than it has been thanks in large part to a bullish stock market and better than expected tax revenue. Out-year budget gaps are below historic averages, meaning the medallion sales are less of a budget lynchpin and more of a bonus - or contingency plan.

"Thankfully we are at a place, budgetarily, where we can make smart decisions based on policy and good regulatory practice rather than budgetary needs," Fromberg said.

While outlook still seems bright for medallion sales, there is the great unknown of how new tech companies like Uber and Lyft will affect the medallion market in the future. The City is hedging its bet that medallion sales, which have climbed exponentially in the last decade, will, at the very least, stay at recent levels.

OMB projects each medallion will sell for the same between now and the end of the Financial Plan, which runs through fiscal year 2018. Gotham Gazette asked OMB for that budget figure, but was referred to TLC. A spokesperson for TLC could not provide the figure, but said it was a conservative estimate.

Uber and Lyft have only recently begun operating in New York City and in the coming years even more competition could be introduced into the marketplace.

Gotham Gazette asked OMB at the budget briefing if the emergence of Uber and Lyft played a factor into the revision of the numbers. The question was referred to TLC.

Fromberg said TLC "looked at a lot of factors" when coming to new renderings.

"I wouldn't point to one particular company or mode of transportation. I think we looked at a broad swath of things," Fromberg said. "But at the end of the day it really did just come down to smart scheduling."

***
by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette
@MeriwetherK

Categories: State/Local

Around NY

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 11/25/2014 - 1:07am

Assembly GOP re-elects leader Brian Kolb

ALBANY -— The Assembly Republican Conference re-elected Brian Kolb on Thursday as its leader.

Kolb retained his title despite a call from four members to delay the vote until December so conference members could discuss future plans.

Few Republicans dissented on the resolution to re-elect Kolb, although the exact result of the voice vote was unclear. Some conference members thought they heard one nay vote, another thought three members voted nay. "It all went well, we took the vote and, believe it or not, I had the most votes and I won," Kolb said.

On Monday, a letter to fellow Assembly Republicans calling for a delay of the vote and a better plan for providing an alternative to the Democrats' plan was released to reporters. That sparked speculation that the four members who signed it wanted Kolb gone, although they denied that before and after the vote.

"Anybody that read that letter would see that we never called for a removal of leadership," Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, one of the signatories, said, adding that he will support Kolb as leader. "It says clearly let's grow this conference together. Let's have a positive vision moving forward."

Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, another signer, said while she was upset that the letter was released to the media, she had a good discussion with Kolb after the vote.

The Republicans face an uphill battle to have their voices heard in the chamber, which is dominated by 100-plus Democrats and led by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Monday's letter highlighted supposed shortcomings of the conference leadership, including being "notably silent" about the Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal, standing quietly during Moreland Commission inquiries into Republican conference members and lacking an alternative vision to the Democratic majority's.

-— Matt Hamilton

'Now' talks GOP's return, Senate's future, storm

Don't miss this week's episode of "New York Now," the award-winning co-production of WMHT and the Times Union. Highlights include:

WMHT's Matt Ryan reviews the week's headlines, and the state Senate Republicans' return to Albany for the first time since June.

Times Union state editor Casey Seiler talks to former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch about his new role as an advisor to the panel that will help Detroit recover from bankruptcy.

Seiler convenes the Reporters Roundtable with Jimmy Vielkind of Capital New York and Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio to discuss the possible future of the Senate, the storm in Buffalo and a harsh rebuke served up by the Authorities Budget Office.

"New York Now" airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. and 11 p.m. on Sunday on WMHT Ch. 17.

Categories: State/Local

Bill on autistic placements is on governor's desk

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 11/25/2014 - 1:07am

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has until Friday to sign or a veto a bill that would let parents appeal decisions to bring adult autistic children back to New York state for special residential placements.

While the governor is said to be leaning toward a veto, the affair has sparked furious lobbying by providers of out-of-state services and it represents the latest chapter in a years-long controversy about where people with special needs should be cared for.

For some time now, the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities has been bringing people it is responsible for back to residential centers or homes in New York state.

It's coming as the agency seeks to become less dependent on traditional institutions like state hospitals and rely more on community settings.

But if a child with autism, for instance, is brought back to the state, his or her parents have the ability to contest that before an administrative law judge.

That's not the case, however, with the approximately 103 adults who fall into the "transitional care'' category.

A bill sponsored by GOP Sen. John Bonacic of Middletown and Democratic Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee of Suffern would let guardians for these people also contest their transfers back to the state.

"We are the only ones who are denied this right" said Gene DeSantis, a lobbyist for the Judge Rotenberg Center, where some of the New Yorkers live.

The Canton, Mass., facility cares for people with autism and other disorders who are severely self-destructive or disruptive.

It's expensive, running more than $200,000 per year per person, compared to the estimated $138,000 for other placements,

And in some instances Rotenberg employs mild electric shocks to discourage destructive behavior, a technique that is controversial.

Critics say there is no need for the use of shocks, although some parents who have children there say it's the only thing that seems to work.

"They have the personnel. They have the staff," said Charles Bryant, whose 20-year-old son is at Rotenberg. He doesn't get the shocks but Bryant said he has shown improvement.

The policy of bringing people back to New York state affects about 30 institutions, said Paul Nathanson, of Bracewell & Giuliani, which also represents Rotenberg Center.

Categories: State/Local

Leader to leave research agency

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 11/25/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Timothy Killeen, who for the past two years has been president of SUNY Research Foundation, will become the next president of the University of Illinois. His appointment was announced Wednesday morning in Chicago.

Killeen took over the foundation in May 2012; its previous head, John O'Connor, left in June 2011 after an outside ethics agency accused him of violating the Public Officer's Law.

In a statement, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher called Killeen "a visionary leader who will undoubtedly thrive in this nationally prominent position, where he will oversee the state's three-campus system of public higher education, the nation's largest medical school, and a diverse and successful research portfolio."

Killeen, whose scholarship is in geosciences, was paid an initial salary of $300,000 for running the foundatiion and serving as SUNY vice chancellor for research. His wife, Roberta Johnson, who holds Ph.D. degrees in geophysics and space physics, was on the UAlbany faculty in the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences.

Categories: State/Local
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