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Winter takes a toll on the faithful

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

Boston

Religious leaders in snowbound New England are beginning to ask themselves how on Earth their houses of worship will make ends meet after all these acts of God.

Churches, synagogues and mosques report attendance is down at services, as poorly timed winter storms have hit on or close to days of worship. And getting the faithful to come out is challenging, with limited parking and treacherously icy sidewalks plaguing the region.

For many places of worship, that has meant donations are drying up just as costs for snow removal, heating and maintenances are soaring.

"You have this perfect storm of people not being able to go to worship and so not bringing in offerings, combined with much higher than usual costs," says Cindy Kohlmann, who works with Presbyterian churches in Greater Boston and northern New England.

She says the financial toll could force some of the roughly 60 Presbyterian congregations in the region to close. The churches have collectively requested at least $300,000 from the national church's disaster relief fund to help cover their bills.

At the Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Boston, the Rev. Thomas Domurat says he will hold two collections at Sunday Masses in an effort to gather more donations for snow expenses.

Mazen Duwaji, executive director at the Islamic Council of New England, says the mosque he attends in Sharon, Massachusetts, is hoping to make up its shortfalls during its annual fundraiser in March.

A number of religious leaders say donations are not down as drastically as they could be, given that attendance has dipped anywhere from 15 to 50 percent. Online donations increasingly are a reliable revenue source, helping many weather the lean attendance months.

But as the winter weather wears on, expenses are piling up.

At Epworth United Methodist Church in Worcester, the Rev. Patricia Miller Fernandes is waiting to see what the final bill will be after rooftop ice loosened bricks and mortar, sending building materials crashing to the ground and leaving a gaping hole in the roof.

"We're trying not to think about that until the reality comes in," Miller Fernandes says of the repair costs.

Categories: State/Local

Pressure grows for stronger tanker cars

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

Washington

Fiery wrecks of trains hauling crude oil have intensified pressure on the Obama administration to approve tougher standards for railroads and tank cars despite industry complaints that it could cost billions and slow freight deliveries.

On Feb. 5, the Transportation Department sent the White House draft rules that would require oil trains to use stronger tank cars and make other safety improvements.

Nine days later a 100-car train hauling crude oil and petroleum distillates derailed and caught fire in a remote part of Ontario, Canada. Less than 48 hours later, a 109-car oil train derailed and caught fire in West Virginia, leaking oil into a Kanawha River tributary and burning a house to its foundation. As the fire spread across 19 of the cars, a nearby resident said the explosions sounded like an "atomic bomb." Both fires burned for nearly a week.

The two accidents follow a spate of other fiery oil train derailments in the U.S. and Canada over the past few years. The most serious killed 47 people and destroyed the town center of Lac Megantic in Quebec, Canada, just across the border from Maine, in 2013.

The government hasn't yet unveiled its proposed regulations. But among them are a stronger tank car design that includes thicker tank walls and electronically-controlled brakes that stop rail cars at the same time rather than sequentially, said Brigham McCown, a Washington-based consultant who was head of the federal agency responsible for safe transportation of hazardous materials in President George W. Bush's administration.

The oil and rail industries want thinner tank walls — half an inch thick, instead of the 9/16ths-inch that regulators propose. The thicker the shell, the less oil a tank car can hold, and with about a half-million carloads of crude hauled by rail in the U.S. and Canada last year, the cost difference could add up.

Former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said that until safety is improved, oil trains shouldn't be allowed to travel any faster than about 25 mph.

Categories: State/Local

Poverty rates, bat caves played role in casino decision

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

Albany

What do poverty rates and bat caves have to do with casinos?

Both figured in the recommendations made by a state panel as it pondered where three upstate casinos should be licensed, according to a 785-page report released Friday by the Gaming Facility Location Board, which met in New York City.

Higher poverty rates in Schenectady County, for example, helped influence the decision to allow a casino there rather than in Rensselaer County. And the proximity of a winter bat cave — known as a hibernaculum or wintering area — within a half-mile of the proposed Howes Cavern site was one of the problems cited with the Schoharie County plan.

Also Friday, the board voted unanimously to move ahead with a second bidding process to solicit what could become a fourth upstate license granted in the Southern Tier, an economically struggling area that runs north of the Pennsylvania border.

"If they believe they can make something work without any taxpayer dollars being utilized, let's explore it," said Kevin Law, chairman of the siting board.

The move to open a second bid wasn't a surprise: Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested a second round of applications after lawmakers and business leaders in the region complained they had been overlooked.

That process included detailed looks at bidders vying for up to four upstate casino licenses in three distinct regions: the Catskills; Capital Region and the Southern Tier which also included areas to the north throughout the Finger Lakes.

In the Capital Region, Schenectady's Rivers casino plan got the go-ahead, beating out the Capital View and Hard Rock projects proposed for Rensselaer County and the Howes Cavern plan for Schoharie County.

Since the plan to license casinos was envisioned as a way to spur economic growth, local poverty indicators played an important role in the decisions. Rivers had a leg up in that regard due to Schenectady County's higher poverty rate and lower home values compared with nearby Rensselaer County.

For example, the report noted that the median household home price in Schenectady County was $171,250, slightly lower than Rensselaer County's $171,750.

And Schenectady County's poverty rate was 12.4 percent compared to 11.6 percent in Rensselaer County.

Median family income, though, were a bit higher in Schenectady at $75,399 compared to $75,322 in Rensselaer.

Heavy grassroots opposition to a casino also hurt the Capital View and Hard Rock proposals in Rensselaer County, board members said.

Hard Rock also suffered since the brand-name company wasn't taking an equity role, or ownership stake, in the deal — a red flag for the panel.

Schoharie County has lower economic indicators, with a 14 percent poverty rate and home prices at a median of $149,160,

But board members found a number of problems with the application to build a casino connected with the Howes Cavern attraction, including a lack of solid proof they could get the financing for a casino-hotel-restaurant complex.

The state's permanent Gaming Commission ultimately must grant the licenses before casinos are built, and must also approve the call for a new bid Southern Tier bid process before it will go out.

In addition to Rivers in Schenectady, the Montreign casino in the Catskill community of Thompson, Sullivan County, and the Lago casino in Tyre, Seneca County, were recommended by the siting board.

Southern Tier voices complained that Lago's location, between Syracuse and Rochester, wasn't really in the Southern Tier.

Siting board members on Friday focused on the new bid process and stressed, as they did previously, that the "Eastern Southern Tier/Finger Lakes" zone was drawn by the Legislature, not by the panelists.

"We did the best job we could do," Law said. "There will always be Monday-morning quarterbacking.''

News emerged in the last week that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's Public Integrity Bureau has been questioning losing bidders.

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

Categories: State/Local

Local officials have edge in trust

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

Albany

A majority of New Yorkers may not place much trust in any level of government, but if they have to choose, they're trusting their local elected officials the most.

A Siena College poll released Thursday shows that 43 percent of voters trust their local government most or all of the time, compared to just 28 percent who place the same level of trust in either the federal or state government.

Upstaters are among the most trusting of their local officials, the poll shows, with 47 percent of voters saying they trust local government at least most of the time. Another 36 percent of upstaters say they trust local government some of the time.

Job performance ratings mirror those thoughts. Forty-two percent of voters statewide say their local government is doing either a good or excellent job, compared to 27 percent who say the same about the federal government and 30 percent who say the same about state government.

"While we are enthused by the comparatively high grades local governments receive from taxpayers, we know that more must be done to build trust and increase satisfaction among all New Yorkers," the directors of the New York Conference of Mayors, the New York State Association of Counties and the state Association of Towns, all of which partnered with Siena on the poll, said in a statement.

The new data comes at a time when trust in state government has taken a major blow with yet another scandal. In the wake of former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver's arrest in January, 92 percent of voters said in another Siena poll released earlier this week that corruption in state government is a serious problem.

While a majority said corruption also is a serious problem at the local level, the percentage was 32 points less (60 percent).

Thursday's poll surveyed 815 registered voters statewide. The margin of error is +/- 3.4 percent.

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

Categories: State/Local

Union Paradise: As industrial jobs fade, unionized public sector workers grab a larger share of the workforce

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

Albany

The Capital Region is tops in the nation for per capita union membership, according to a new national survey.

An estimated 40 percent of working people in the greater Capital Region statistical area are covered by union contracts, according to the latest figures compiled by two economics professors in Georgia and Texas.

The "metropolitan statistical area" used in the data covers Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schoharie counties. The survey suggests roughly 169,000 people are covered under union contracts.

Moreover, New York state as a whole is the nation's most heavily unionized state, with almost 26 percent, or 2 million workers, covered by organized labor.

The reasons for the Capital Region's high rates is straightforward: As the number of traditionally unionized industrial jobs in the region and state continues to dwindle, organized public-sector workers make up a larger proportion of the workforce.

The data, available at UnionStats.com, shows 29 percent of the region's private-sector workers are unionized, while a whopping 77 percent of those in the public sector work under a labor contract.

"Our three biggest sectors are government, education and health care, and all of those three are heavily unionized," said Rocky Ferraro, executive director at the Capital District Regional Planning Commission.

Health care may play a growing role in the union movement, added Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research and a senior lecturer at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

In contrast to the factories of yesteryear, many of today's union members, she said, work at relatively low-wage jobs such as health aides or janitors.

The survey is conducted by Trinity University's Prof. David Macpherson and Georgia State University's Prof. Barry T. Hirsch.

Their survey collects responses from U.S. Census data, including questions about whether people live in households with unionized employees. They then extrapolate those responses.

In an email, Hirsch cautioned that the Albany area has a lower population than major urban centers.

The survey began in 1986, and Macpherson said one could plot out trends in union membership nationwide since then. When the first set of data was compiled, 32 percent of the region's workforce was unionized.

Overall, nationwide union membership and unionization has fallen steadily since the 1970s.

The national workforce was roughly 12 percent unionized in 2014, compared to 27 percent in 1979.

The data reflects regional differences: Union participation is higher in the Northeast, upper Midwest and West Coast and lower in the South.

The Albany area's 40 percent is followed by Modesto, Calif., with 35 percent unionization, and Atlantic City, N.J., at 32 percent.

Locations like Charleston, S.C., and Waco, Texas, for example, reported having less than 1 percent of organized workers.

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

Categories: State/Local

7 Capital Region schools failing

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

Albany

As Gov. Andrew Cuomo seeks to wrest control away from what his administration claims are underperforming schools, his office released a report Thursday naming 178 "failing" schools, including seven in the Capital Region.

The report says three schools in Albany, two in Schenectady and one each in Troy and Amsterdam fail to meet standards for success. All are in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide in combined English Language Arts and math scores; have not shown test performance progress; or have a graduation rate over the past three years of less than 60 percent.

More than 4,700 students attend the schools.

"This is the real scandal in Albany, the alarming fact that state government has stood by and done nothing as generation after generation of students have passed through failing schools," Cuomo said in a statement.

The largest of the failing schools is Albany High School, which the administration's report states has been failing for 10 years. Albany's Hackett Middle School has been failing just as long, the report states.

The report notes that per-pupil spending at each of the schools during the 2012-13 school year was well over the national average of $10,608. The Albany City School District spent the most of the Capital Region schools at $19,891 per student.

Cuomo, who wants to make it possible for failing schools to be taken over by outside receivers, has insisted for years that fixing failing students isn't a matter of money.

Albany Superintendent Margeurite Vanden Wyngaard disputed the claim, saying that more state funding would allow the district to extend its school day, offer more professional development for teachers, and create better opportunities for student achievement.

"The premise of receivership is that other folks can do that better," Vanden Wyngaard said in an interview Wednesday. "And I understand that notion — but we are not a business model. We are not creating a factory or parts; we are trying to develop human beings."

Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter school policy group funded by the Walton Family Foundation, operators of Wal-Mart, said on Wednesday it would urge Cuomo and state leaders to take control of the 178 underperforming public schools deemed "priority" by the State Education Department.

The Albany, Schenectady and Troy schools highlighted in the Cuomo report also were flagged by SED.

Cuomo is calling for implementation of a program similar to one in use in Massachusetts that would allow for takeover by a nonprofit, another school district or a turnaround expert if a school has failed to meet standards for three years.

Cuomo's Director of Operations Jim Malatras recently sent a letter to Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch urging her to assign SED to conduct "comprehensive data and field analysis" of the Massachusetts program

Public education advocates aren't buying the administration's solution for failing schools, though.

New York State United Teachers union President Karen Magee said the report was Cuomo's "thin-skinned" response to recent rallies supporting public education.

Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, whose daughter attends Albany High, called the report "yet another negotiating ploy to distract us from the serious challenges faced in high-need urban areas."

Staff writer Brittany Horn contributed mhamilton@timesunion.com 518-454-5449 @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Grand jury debate gets start

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

Albany

New York lawmakers on Thursday began debating grand jury reforms meant to restore public trust when police are investigated.

The issue got increasing attention following last year's death of an unarmed black Staten Island man who got into a videotaped confrontation with white police officers. When no officers were indicted in Eric Garner's chokehold death, there were major protests across the city.

At a hearing on the state's criminal justice budget, several legislators questioned reform proposals by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who would establish oversight by a special prosecutor or judge, respectively, when police are accused of wrongdoing.

Lippman would also peel back the secrecy surrounding grand jury proceedings, which originated in medieval England, when no charges are brought in cases of significant public interest.

Individual legislators raised other options. Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, a Manhattan Democrat, said prosecutors should have to disclose publicly what charges they have grand juries consider.

He said he understood the reasons for secrecy, where witnesses should be able to speak freely.

"But a DA's an elected official. And if the people of Staten Island don't like what he charged to that jury, then they can choose to un-elect him," said O'Donnell, a former public defender. "Most crimes require intent to commit the crime. But there are some that have nothing to do with intent."

Based on his experience and the public comment by the accused police officer that he didn't intend to hurt anyone, O'Donnell said he's sure the prosecutors didn't charge any non-intentional crimes in that Staten Island grand jury.

A spokesman for the district attorney's office declined to comment on O'Donnell's remarks.

Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, now running for Congress, has said that New York law prohibits prosecutors from disclosing details about proceedings, with an exception for compelling and particular need.

He told The New York Times this week that he never entered the grand jury's chambers or met any of the 50 witnesses, that the case was handled by eight staffers and they did everything properly.

Garner's family has sued, trying to obtain the grand jury transcripts.

Categories: State/Local

Legislature honors Sox great Martinez

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

ALBANY — Pedro Martinez traded in his Major League uniform for a baby-blue plaid suit Thursday as he was honored by the Legislature for his on-field accomplishments and his contributions to the Dominican community.

Martinez, who was a part of the Boston Red Sox's 2004 World Series-winning club and called Queens home a year later as a member of the New York Mets, was honored with a pair of resolutions in both the Assembly and Senate, the first Oscar De La Renta Excellence Award and a string of laudatory statements as he stood on the sidelines with a broad smile that did not fade. Meanwhile, fans waited in the galleries of each chamber and outside, clutching Dominican flags, baseballs and autograph books, hoping for a chance to meet their idol.

The honors were done as part of Dominican Heritage Week.

Sen. Adriano Espaillat said he is "a pinstripe guy," but added "who could forget the day (Martinez) struck out 17 Yankees?"

In the Assembly, Mets fan Marcos Crespo, who represents the Bronx, lauded Martinez's body of work as incredible.

Some legislators had a bit of fun, too. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, an admitted Yankee fanatic, asked the soon-to-be Hall of Famer point blank, "Who's your daddy?" The reference was to Martinez's famed quote calling the Yankees his "daddy" after getting knocked around late in the 2004 season. Martinez and the Red Sox got the last laugh when Boston beat New York in the American League Championship Series en route to the World Series.

Martinez, wearing that broad smile, pointed back at the speaker with both index fingers and laughed.

— Matthew Hamilton

Categories: State/Local

3 arrested in NY, Florida in plot to join Islamic State

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

NEW YORK (AP) — Three men accused of plotting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State and wage war against the United States were arrested on terrorism charges Wednesday, federal officials said.

Akhror Saidakhmetov, a Brooklyn resident and citizen of Kazakhstan, was arrested at Kennedy International Airport, where he was attempting to board a flight to Istanbul, authorities said. Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, a resident of Brooklyn and citizen of Uzbekistan, had a ticket to travel to Istanbul next month and was arrested in Brooklyn, federal prosecutors said. Abror Habibov, 30, accused of helping fund Saidakhmetov's efforts, was arrested in Florida.

They are charged with attempt and conspiracy to provide material support. If convicted, each faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

The men were in custody, and it was not clear if they had attorneys who could comment on the charges. They were scheduled to appear in federal court later Wednesday.

Federal prosecutors say Juraboev, 24, first came to the attention of law enforcement in August, when he posted on an Uzbek-language website that propagates the Islamic State ideology.

"Greetings! We too want to pledge our allegiance and commit ourselves while not present there," he wrote, according to federal authorities. "Is it possible to commit ourselves as dedicated martyrs anyway while here?"

Officials said they believed he planned to travel from Turkey to Syria to join the terror group. Prosecutors say he, along with Saidakhmetov, 19, also threatened an attack in the U.S. if they were unable to join the Islamic State. Juraboev's plans included attacks against President Barack Obama or planting a bomb on Coney Island, officials said.

Federal officials say Juraboev identified Saidakhmetov as a friend and co-worker with a shared ideology. The two exchanged messages on how to get overseas, and Saidakhmetov and an informant watched videos of Islamic State training camps in Syria, according to court papers.

Habibov operates kiosks that repair phones and sell kitchenware in malls in Jacksonville, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; and Philadelphia. He employed Saidakhmetov last fall and winter and said he would help fund his travel, though he did not mention a specific sum of money, prosecutors said. The two were spotted in Brooklyn purchasing a ticket for Saidakhmetov to travel to Turkey, officials said.

The Islamic State group largely consists of Sunni militants from Iraq and Syria but has also drawn fighters from across the Muslim world and Europe.

Federal officials have expressed alarm at the idea that Americans could travel to Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State or train there and return to the United States to carry out attacks against the homeland.

Categories: State/Local

Queries to Cuomo veer far off-topic

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

Albany

The official topics at Gov. Andrew Cuomo's cabinet meeting on Wednesday at the Capitol were his previously announced proposals to fight rape and sexual assault on college campuses and his desire to devote $25 million to expanding prekindergarten programs for 3-year-olds.

But most reporters' questions concerned public corruption — not surprising, perhaps, on the day after Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's arraignment on charges brought by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara.

Bharara is reportedly looking into the demise of Cuomo's Moreland Commission panel a year ago. Cuomo was asked if he, his staff or his attorneys had been subpoenaed or contacted by federal investigators.

"Not myself," Cuomo said, adding that he might not be aware of all contacts with members of his staff: "You'd have to ask people individually."

Later in the day, his director of communications, Melissa DeRosa, said in a statement that "no employee of the executive chamber" has received a subpoena; she referred any future questions on the investigation to Bharara's office.

Cuomo said the public shouldn't worry that his administration would be swamped by the sort of ethical tsunami that rolled over the Assembly after Silver's arrest in January on fraud and extortion charges. He emphasized that the state had made "tremendous progress" in disclosure of elected officials' outside income and private clients, and talked up the five-point ethics package that he has demanded be included in the state budget.

"If you look at the genesis of most of the (corruption) cases, it is because you have a part-time Legislature, and the part-time legislator can also have an outside business," Cuomo said. " ... Many of them are lawyers. They can represent private clients, and you don't know who the private client is, and that private client can basically be represented on anything. And the case that keeps being made over and over and over is there was a conflict between who the legislator represented privately versus their public interest."

As a result, he said, public policy is often made or stymied in the shadows.

"Why doesn't tort reform ever get passed by the Legislature? Why not? These little secrets that never sit right," he said.

Asked if the executive branch should be subject to the same level of disclosure as legislators, Cuomo said, "Structurally, you don't have the conflicts with the executive because you don't have the opportunity for the conflict."

When it was pointed out that the governor has not yet released the full details of his book deal with HarperCollins, an arm of media giant News Corp., for his memoir "All Things Possible," he said: "I have released the income I have gotten from the book deal."

Cuomo's tax returns, which were made available to reporters last year, show that he received $188,333 from the publisher in 2013; his most recent filings with the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics show that he is in line to be paid deferred compensation of between $550,000 and $650,000 from the deal. He has refused to give the full scope of the contract.

"Hang around next year and you'll see the other payment," he said. " ... Be real: It's a book company, that is News Corp. You know that company, you know who owns it. ... You come up with some theory on how there was a conflict writing a book, then we'll talk about it at that time."

The International Business Times reported Wednesday morning that News Corp. had lobbied the executive branch for measures that benefited its bottom line — including a sales tax break for online publications.

"I have no idea that they lobbied for it," Cuomo said. "I don't even know what it is, by the way."

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

Wages to rise for tip work

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

Albany

Attention, tipped workers: You're getting a raise.

The state's Acting Labor Commissioner, Mario Musolino, on Tuesday accepted a state board's recommendation to raise the cash wage for tipped workers to $7.50 per hour beginning Dec. 31, their first minimum wage raise since 2011. The minimum wage for non-tipped workers will rise to $9 per hour.

Musolino accepted four of the five recommendations made by the wage board. He approved putting all tipped workers in one class, allowing New York City to raise its minimum for tipped workers by $1 if the Legislature approves a separate minimum wage for the city, and reviewing whether to eliminate the cash wages and tip credits system.

Musolino rejected a recommendation that the tip allowance be increased by $1 per hour when the weekly average of cash wages and tips equals or exceeds the applicable hourly minimum wage rate by 150 percent in New York City and 120 percent in the rest of New York.

By classifying service workers (such as waiters and hotel maids) as one type of employee under state guidelines, New York will abolish the current three-tier wage system for those types of workers. Current minimum tipped wages are set at $4.90, $5 and $5.65, depending on the type of service job an employee does.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday at a labor rally in New York City that his father, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, would have been proud of Musolino's decision.

The announcement was cheered by labor supporters and criticized by restaurateurs and hospitality industry executives.

"What we're talking about is $2.50 an hour, which comes to, if you work eight hours a day, $20 a day," state Labor-Religion Coalition Director Sara Niccoli said. "This could mean the difference between paying your rent or not. It means the difference between buying healthy groceries or living on ramen noodles. It makes a big difference."

The restaurant industry saw the move as unfriendly to business.

"It's troubling that the acting commissioner ignored legislative precedent and the pleas of nearly 1,000 hospitality industry representatives who asked him for a moderate increase phased in over time," state Restaurant Association President and CEO Melissa Fleischut said in a statement. "By rubber-stamping an extreme, unprecedented 50 percent increase it becomes hard to believe New York is really 'Open for Business.'"

Cuomo convened the wage board in July, requiring it to submit its recommendations by this month. At the time, he said he wanted to build on the momentum of the minimum wage increase phase-in that the Legislature had agreed to.

The governor now will look to parlay momentum from Tuesday's decision into another minimum wage boost. He proposed earlier this year raising the state wage to $10.50 per hour and New York City's wage to $11.50 per hour by the end of 2016. Critics in the business community have said a two-tier system would be difficult for businesses to implement.

The $1.50 increase in just one year also has left some wondering what it would do to jobs numbers. The last time lawmakers approved an increase in the minimum wage was 2013. At the end of that year, the wage increased from $7.25 to $8 per hour, then went up to $8.75 at the end of last year. That type of phase-in is something the state Business Council wanted with the tipped wage.

At the labor rally, Cuomo said the phased-in increase was done because the economy was on the rebound, and with it continuing to trend upward, it's time to increase things again.

"The concept of the minimum wage was if you work full time, you will be out of poverty and you can live with dignity and take care of your family," he said. "When it's $18,000 in New York City, you can't get there. And business doesn't have the excuse of saying, 'We can't afford anymore. We're broke,' because we know they're not. They're making record profits."

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

Categories: State/Local

Cold workplace sends state employees home

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

Albany

State workers on the lower reaches of the Empire State Plaza's Corning Tower, which houses the Department of Health, were allowed to leave early Tuesday due to a heating malfunction that caused temperatures indoors to fall as low as 45 degrees in the morning.

"It took them a little while, but (Governors Office of Employee Relations) gave them permission," said Craig Hammer, a DOH employee and health and safety steward for the Public Employees Federation union.

The problem affected floors 2 to 5 of the tower — the tallest structure between New York City and Montreal.

GOER can make the call to release workers early in the event of a heating failure or other problem in the workplace.

Hammer said the go-home decision was made at about 1 p.m., and employees learned of it about a half-hour later. They were able to go home without using their own time accruals, which are generally saved for vacation or personal time.

GOER officials couldn't be reached late Tuesday.

Hammer said that the middle and upper floors of the tower were adequately heated.

Workers on the lower floors noticed the lack of heat first thing Tuesday, and Hammer said one individual with a digital thermometer recorded the 45-degree temperature.

Office of General Services spokeswoman Heather Groll said in an email that the agency has already fixed the problem on some lower floors.

"We continue to address the issue on a few of the others," she said in an email.

She later added that the temperatures have been rising; OGS anticipates that things will be back to normal on Wednesday morning.

It wasn't immediately clear what caused the problem.

Tuesday was not the first time that state employees have been released early due to adverse indoor conditions.

Sporadic plumbing failures have led to some office releases in recent years. In 2001, the state sent home more than 50,000 employees in the Capital Region due to rising temperatures and the need to conserve energy during an August heat wave.

Such problems will likely have to wait, as temperatures in Albany aren't expected to rise above freezing until Monday, with overnight lows remaining in the single digits or below zero.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Corrupt leaders big issue in state

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

Albany

A new Siena poll out Tuesday shows that voters think corruption is a problem — a big one.

Ninety-two percent of voters said corruption in state government is a serious problem (51 percent say very serious; 41 percent say somewhat serious) in the wake of the arrest and indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Voters don't think corruption among their local representatives is quite as much of a problem, though a majority still see it as a concern. In all, 60 percent of statewide voters said corruption is a serious problem among state legislators from their area (21 percent described it as very serious; 39 percent said somewhat serious).

But more voters place importance on passing the state budget than they do on passing the ethics reforms Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he will require for on-time approval of the spending plan. Fifty-three percent of voters said passing the budget on time is more important, while 37 percent opted for the ethics reforms — even if that means the budget is late.

Fifty-one percent of voters said passing the Cuomo ethics plan will reduce corruption, though 44 percent believe the new measures won't have any real effect.

On education, 48 percent of respondents said they generally side with teachers unions on education issues, while 36 percent said they tend to stand with the governor. As for why voters think not enough students graduate high school ready for college or a career, 37 percent blamed insufficient parental involvement, while just 10 percent said the quality of New York's teachers is to blame.

Cuomo's favorability rating maintained its recent levels: His numbers are at 59-37 percent, compared with 60-35 percent in January and 58-37 percent in December. The poll surveyed 810 registered voters statewide. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.7 percent.

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449

Categories: State/Local

Advocates ask Albany to vote for increased Alzheimer's spending

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

Albany

Nearly 200 advocates representing Alzheimer's Association chapters from around the state gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to vote for $25 million for caregiver respite and support services in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed state budget.

The proposed spending would increase the amount the state pays out for such services by $23.7 million over this year, advocates said.

"New York state has historically underfunded Alzheimer's services," said Elaine Sproat, co-chair of the NYS Coalition of Alzheimer's Association Chapters and CEO of the Hudson Valley chapter. "We're reaching a small portion of people with Alzheimer's at this point."

About 380,000 New Yorkers suffer from Alzheimer's disease, which causes a decline in mental ability, including memory loss.

Current state spending on Alzheimer's services amounts to $3.06 per person with the disease, according to the coalition. California spends nearly $50 per person with Alzheimer's; Florida and Ohio each spend more than $200 per person.

The proposed spending increase includes $16.5 million in respite and support services for caregivers. These include one-on-one consultation services for families, support groups for patients and caregivers, social day programs and respite care.

Such services have been shown to allow patients with Alzheimer's disease to stay in their homes and delay going to a nursing home by up to 1.5 years, Sproat said.

chughes@timesunion.com518-454-5417@hughesclaire

Categories: State/Local

Discipline gap in focus

Albany Times/Union - 44 min 52 sec ago

Albany

The capital city's school district has a "troubling" record when it comes to the rate at which it suspends minority students and those with disabilities, according to a national survey released Monday.

The high rate nationally at which minorities and students with disabilities continue to be suspended for disciplinary problems "should shock our conscience," said Daniel Losen, director of UCLA's Center for Civil Rights Remedies. Its report looked at disciplinary records for the nation's 12,000-plus school districts.

Like many districts, they found that Albany hands out suspensions at a disproportionately high level to minority students and to those with disabilities.

For example, nearly 44 percent of black Albany High School students with a disability were suspended at least once in the 2011-2012 school year, according to the survey.

Like test scores, graduation rates and numbers of violent incidents, suspensions are reported each year to the federal Education Department. But the numbers have often been overlooked.

Experts view suspension rates as reverse indicators of student success because of the way absences from school cost valuable classroom time, reducing the chance of advancing or graduating.

To get a clearer picture of suspensions, the center broke down, or disaggregated, much of the data kept by federal authorities.

They found that nearly 3.5 million students were suspended at least once during the 2011-12 year, the most for which figures were available.

Overall, students in both elementary and secondary or high school were suspended at 3 percent and 10 percent, respectively. For white students, the rates were 2 percent and 7 percent, but black students were suspended at 8 percent and 23 percent. Those with disabilities were suspended at 5 percent and 18 percent.

The study comes a year after both the U.S. departments of Justice and Education issued guidance to schools, urging them to close this so-called "discipline gap," which has been increasing since the early 1970s.

Especially notable was the rise in suspensions in the lower grades. Albany was no exception to that trend.

The suspension rates for Albany's black elementary students rose from about 7 percent in 2009-10 to almost 11 percent in 2011-12, researchers found.

At the secondary school level, suspension rates climbed for black students from approximately 24 percent to 31 percent in the same period.

For Latino secondary students, it went from 17 percent to 22 percent, and for white students, it rose from 5 percent to 9 percent between 2009-10 and 2011-12.

Albany Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said she hadn't had a chance to review the full report, which was released Monday morning.

She said the district is working on preventive measures designed to minimize the number of suspensions. Among those initiatives: making sure there are psychologists and social workers in all of the school buildings, and developing a new code of conduct.

Suspensions, she said, should be the last step in a disciplinary process. "We expect a lot of things to happen before that," she said.

Albany doesn't have the nation's or even the state's highest suspension rates.

Schools in Buffalo and Yonkers, for example, stood out for their high numbers of suspensions. But Losen said Albany was among 24 districts that received a close look because of the city's status as a state capital.

Much of the extra scrutiny went to large urban districts like Baltimore or Pittsburgh, Houston and Kansas City.

"There are important decisions made in Albany," said Losen.

The authors were unable to include the vast New York City school system because of the confusing and inconsistent way its districts keep disciplinary records.

Researchers were unable, for example, to sift through the various categories of suspensions, such as "principal" or "superintendent" used in New York City.

"There are some policies and practices we found confounding," Losen said.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Stefanik walks tightrope on tough vote

Albany Times/Union - 18 hours 44 min ago

Washington

The push-and-pull of party loyalty versus regional politics is tugging on Rep. Elise Stefanik, a first-term Republican from Willsboro, as she considers her path through the thicket of controversy over funding the Department of Homeland Security, which expires Friday if Congress doesn't act.

At issue is the insistence of her fellow Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, that continued funding for the critical department that polices the nation's borders be tied to language nullifying President Barack Obama's executive order on immigration.

Late Monday, Senate Democrats successfully blocked a GOP effort to push through a funding bill that included language to negate the Obama executive order. The Obama policy would clear the way for about 5 million illegal immigrants to come out of shadows and work legally in the U.S.

Last month, Stefanik voted for a similar measure that easily passed the House. But it remained to be seen how far Stefanik could — and would — push her party's effort to roll back the Obama immigration measure.

As a House freshman and the youngest woman ever elected to the House, Stefanik has significant incentive to follow the lead of House Speaker John Boehner and House conservatives who call Obama's immigration move illegal and unconstitutional.

On the other hand, her far-flung North Country district encompasses all of New York's border with Canada between Lake Ontario and Vermont, and depends on DHS Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers for security.

Her district also includes parts of Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties.

But now as the clock keeps ticking and a classic Washington political stalemate is shaping up to threaten DHS funding, Stefanik's position appears to be shifting.

"This current impasse is an example of Washington policymaking at its worst,'' she said in a carefully worded statement released through her press office.

"I do not support government shutdowns, which is why I voted to fund the Department of Homeland Security,'' she said. Nevertheless, "given the broad economic importance of DHS funding to our district's northern border with Canada, I am committed to working with Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate on a compromise bill.''

Stefanik has declined repeated requests since last week to discuss her views on the funding measure.

The statement appears to leave her enough wiggle room to embrace her district's needs without totally abandoning party loyalty. It is not an uncommon situation for a lawmaker whose home-district loyalties at times conflict with party orthodoxy.

"How do you vote if party and constituency opinion are pointing in opposite directions?'' said Harvey Schantz, chairman of the political science department at SUNY Plattsburgh. "The pull of party usually prevails. But the onus is upon John Boehner, a Stefanik mentor, to shield her and other conflicted Republicans from a vote that may prove unpopular back home in the district.''

Once a mainly commercial crossing zone of little strategic concern compared to the embattled Southwest border, the U.S.-Canada border in recent years has become a two-way conduit for drugs, guns, illegal cigarettes and undocumented immigrants. The Buffalo region of DHS Customs and Border Protection last year logged 438 drug seizures valued at over $1.4 million.

The 5,500-mile U.S.-Canada border sees 300,000 people and $1.5 billion in trade cross every day, according to DHS data.

A shutdown of DHS would effectively furlough virtually the entire DHS workforce, including 40,000 Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers. Skeleton crews would keep working but could not be paid until Congress approves new funding.

For Stefanik and other GOP lawmakers worried about a difficult decision on DHS funding, help may already have arrived in the form of a Texas federal judge's decision last week that stopped the Obama immigration initiative in its tracks.

The Obama administration has moved to lift the stay and is appealing the decision. But the process is likely to take months to work its way through the legal system, giving Republicans cover to vote for a "clean'' funding bill with no immigration-related constraints.

On Monday and over the weekend, a rising chorus of GOP lawmakers counseled their colleagues to avoid any confrontation that would result in a DHS shutdown.

Among them was Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who said on ABC: "I hope my House colleagues will understand that our best bet is to challenge this in court, that if we don't fund the Department of Homeland Security, we'll get blamed as a party.''

Categories: State/Local

Legislative reform urged for outside income limits

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Who are state lawmakers working for? A coalition of good government groups wants to make sure it's the public, not outside clients.

In their new report "Serving Two Masters: Outside Income and Conflict of Interest in Albany," the New York State Public Interest Research Group, Reinvent Albany and Common Cause recommend the adoption of congressional-style outside income limits and far stricter disclosure standards.

Their calls come as lawmakers look to curb the type of behavior that has led to the downfall of some of the state's most high-profile elected officials over the years, most recently former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

The groups seek a cap on income at 15 percent of the highest salary authorized for a sitting legislator, the prohibition on practicing professions that involve fiduciary duties, and more clearly defining what is and isn't outside income.

The groups also want lawmakers to be required to provide detailed descriptions of any income they or family members make in excess of $1,000.

They're calling for more independent and beefed-up ethics enforcement agencies as well.

"There's been a long track record of problems," NYPIRG's Blair Horner said at a Capitol news conference.

"We think that stems from the inherent conflict of interest from allowing lawmakers to have essentially unrestricted outside income. Essentially, New York lawmakers can serve two masters."

Outside-income reforms — and other types of ethics reforms — have become a major Albany talking point this year in the wake of Silver's arrest and indictment on corruption charges related to his legislative work and legal work for two private firms.

That has prompted the introduction of ethics proposals from various lawmakers and legislative conferences, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who included ethics in his 30-day budget amendments last week.

Cuomo's outside income disclosure provisions get strict on who lawmakers can make money from (for example, legal clients would have to be named on disclosure forms), but they don't include any income limits for legislators.

If approved, Cuomo's disclosure proposals would make New York's regulations some of the nation's most rigid. A review of other financial disclosure requirements nationwide points to laws ranging from the ultra-strict to on par with New York to nonexistent.

For example, Texas statutes require disclosure of the names of clients who the filer represented before a state agency for a fee (other states have similar requirements), according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Idaho, Michigan and Vermont, which don't require any financial disclosure statements.

In all, 26 of the 47 states that require disclosure of outside income also require some sort of disclosure about income-producing clients, according to the NCSL. But many of those states, including New York, have caveats that exempt lawmakers from naming their clients because of a professional responsibility, such as attorney-client or doctor-patient privilege.

"(Client privilege rules) are always a little dicey, but disclosure does help because the idea is that the public would look and see if there were conflicts of interest," said Peggy Kerns, director of the NCSL's Center for Ethics in Government.

"That is the closest I think states have come to actually addressing prohibitions on outside income. I think it would be difficult to say if you were a legislator you couldn't own some business in the community. I think that's a step too far."

For the majority of lawmakers, income caps, disclosure and prohibitions don't matter. According to the good government groups' analysis, 29 senators earn no outside income, and another six earn $20,000 or less.

In the Assembly, 80 members make no outside money, and 17 make $20,000 or less.

"Most of the people that are here now live under a system that is pretty much like we're describing," Horner said. "(The Legislature is) not filled with billionaires now. In fact, the people that make the most money appear to be the people who don't comply with this system. Ironically, I think the vast majority of the members that are here now don't appear to be millionaires as far as we can tell from looking at their ethics filings."

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

Categories: State/Local

Fairness of bids under review

Albany Times/Union - Sat, 02/28/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Representatives of the state Public Integrity Bureau have interviewed some of the losers in last year's competition for upstate casino licenses.

A spokesman for the state Gaming Commission, however, said it hasn't been contacted by the bureau, a part of the state attorney general's office.

Jeff Gural, operator of the Tioga Downs harness track and racino, confirmed that the attorney general's office had spoken to him. Gural said investigators had reached out earlier to operators of Traditions at the Glen, a Binghamton-area resort.

The interviews were first reported Tuesday by Gannett News Service.

"They said they would meet with all the bidders," Gural said of the investigators. "They wanted to make sure that nobody thought the process was unfair and that there had been no crime committed in the selection process."

Gural, who said he doesn't believe any crime was committed, complained after his bid for a license at Tioga was passed over in favor of the Lago proposal for a gaming hall located between Syracuse and Rochester. He said the so-called Southern Tier zone shouldn't have included Lago's proposed site. He said the site is north of what most people would describe as the state's hard-pressed Southern Tier.

Complaints by Gural as well as Southern Tier boosters and lawmakers have prompted the gaming panel to consider launching a new bid process for what would be a fourth license. Gural has said he would be interested in making a new bid.

Gural said he didn't know what might have prompted the inquiry. Attorney general spokesman Nick Benson declined to comment.

Gannett reported in January that a Chicago-based law firm had done work for five of the 16 entities on the final list of bidders, including the three winners.

The same firm advised the state Gaming Facility Location Board, which in December recommended the three winners to the state Gaming Commission.

Commission spokesman Lee Park released a statement that said, "The casino siting process strictly followed the provisions of the Upstate New York Gaming Economic Development Act, which called for unprecedented transparency. All material regarding the process, including legally required disclosures of potential conflicts of interest, are available on our website for anyone to examine."

Categories: State/Local

The Week Ahead

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 02/27/2015 - 1:07am

Lawmakers got their final weeklong reprieve last week before budget negotiations. This week, they'll be back in the swing of things for the first days of a six-week run up to the state budget deadline.

Here's what's ahead for the last week of February.

MONDAY

• A coalition of good-government groups will hold a news conference at 11 a.m. to urge Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers to agree on strict limits on legislators' outside income and to release a report reviewing lawmakers' financial disclosure forms and their outside incomes on the third floor of the state Capitol outside the Legislative Correspondents Association room near the Senate side.

• The state Gaming Commission meets at noon. A livestream of the proceedings will be available at www.gaming.ny.gov

TUESDAY

• The Joint Commission on Public Ethics meets at 10:30 a.m. at 540 Broadway in Albany.

WEDNESDAY

• The Assembly and state Senate are back in session. Things kick off in the Assembly at 2 p.m.; the Senate is in session at 3 p.m.

• Members of the Assembly and state Senate hold a joint budget hearing on local governments at 9:30 a.m. in Hearing Room B of the Legislative Office Building.

• The state Senate Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs Committee meets at 11:30 a.m. in Room 124 of the state Capitol.

• The state Senate Judiciary Committee meets at 11:30 a.m. in Room 510 of the Legislative Office Building.

• The state Senate Insurance Committee meets at 12:30 p.m. in Room 124 of the state Capitol.

• The state Senate Children and Families Committee meets at 1 p.m. in Room 945 of the Legislative Office Building.

• The state Senate Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Committee meets at 1:30 p.m. in Room 610 of the Legislative Office Building.

THURSDAY

• The Assembly and state Senate wrap for the week.

• The state Senate Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation Committee meets at 9 a.m. in Room 309 of the Legislative Office Building.

• The state Senate Local Government Committee meets at 9:15 a.m. in Room 946A of the Legislative Office Building.

• The state Senate Education Committee meets at 10 a.m. in Room 124 of the state Capitol.

• Members of the Assembly and state Senate hold a joint budget hearing on public protection at 10 a.m. in Hearing Room B of the Legislative Office Building.

• The Assembly Health Committee meets at 10 a.m. in Room 823 of the Legislative Office Building.

• The Assembly Local Governments Committee meets at 10 a.m. in Room 838 of the Legislative Office Building.

• The state Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee meets at 10:15 a.m. in Room 810 of the Legislative Office Building.

• The state Senate Transportation Committee meets at 10:30 a.m. in Room 804 of the Legislative Office Building.

• The Assembly Aging Committee meets at 10:30 a.m. in Room 104A of the Legislative Office Building.

• The Assembly Housing Committee meets at 11 a.m. in Room 942 of the Legislative Office Building.

• The Assembly Transportation Committee meets at 11 a.m. in Room 829 of the Legislative Office Building.

• The state Senate Health Committee meets at noon in Room 124 of the state Capitol.

FRIDAY

• Members of the Assembly and state Senate hold a joint budget hearing on mental hygiene at 9:30 a.m. in Hearing Room B of the Legislative Office Building.

• Members of the Assembly and state Senate hold a joint budget hearing on workforce development and labor at 1 p.m. in Hearing Room B of the Legislative Office Building.

— Matthew Hamiltonand NYSNYS.com

Categories: State/Local

De Blasio to push his NYC agenda

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 02/27/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Rent control. A higher minimum wage. The Dream Act. Greater investments in public education. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will head to Albany this week with a sprawling agenda and no shortage of political challenges.

De Blasio's visit comes at an unusually turbulent time in the Capitol, one that could prove pivotal to the always fractious relationship between City Hall and the Capitol.

Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver — long the city's key advocate — is out as Assembly speaker, consumed by a corruption scandal. New Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx could be a formidable ally for de Blasio, but his leadership is untested.

While they profess their friendship, the mayor and Gov. Andrew Cuomo often don't see eye to eye. De Blasio's relations with Senate Republican leaders are even frostier, with many in the GOP linking de Blasio to an agenda that they see as too liberal, too expensive and too urban.

The tension isn't new. Albany has long been the arena for bruising sparring between mayors, lawmakers and governors contending for power, influence and budget allocations. "It's the largest city in the country, and the state's economic engine, but the city can't do very much without the state's approval," said Darren Dopp, who was an aide to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer. "The mayor has to come through the governor and the world of Albany in order to achieve his goals."

The stakes this year may be especially big — not only for the city but for de Blasio, Cuomo and Heastie. The state laws governing the city's rent stabilization rules are set to expire in June. The rules regulate the rents of 1 million apartments occupied by more than 2 million city residents. Lawmakers could vote to strengthen, weaken, or simply renew the rules — which to progressives like de Blasio represent a key way of ensuring the city remains affordable at all income levels.

De Blasio also supports letting New York City raise its minimum wage to $13. Cuomo has suggested raising the statewide minimum to $10.50 and letting the city raise it to $11.50. Republicans have dismissed de Blasio's proposed increase as too large and a Cuomo spokeswoman called it a "non-starter."

Affordable housing is another top de Blasio priority likely to be featured in his address to lawmakers Wednesday. His vision focuses on Sunnyside Yards, a 200-acre rail yard in Queens where de Blasio wants to put thousands of affordable housing units. The idea got a cold reception from Cuomo.

"The MTA uses Sunnyside Yards as an important facility for our transportation system, and it is not available for any other use in the near term," Cuomo spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa said. De Blasio and Cuomo may also be at odds over Cuomo's proposed educational reforms, which include allowing more charter schools in New York City.

Both men support the Dream Act — which would extend financial aid to students in the country illegally — but Senate Republicans do not.

The frequent roadblocks imposed by the governor have made de Blasio's team resolved to be less conciliatory and deferential in this year's budget process, according to City Hall officials.

De Blasio may have a new ally in Heastie, who was elected Speaker this month. The mayor toured a Brooklyn housing project with Heastie two weeks ago to tout his affordable housing plan and quietly ventured to Albany last weekend to a reception honoring him.

Categories: State/Local
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