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Rural aid for N.Y. hospitals is at risk

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

Washington

Buried deep within the "doc fix" legislation now before Congress is language that would maintain a federal life preserver for stretched-thin rural hospitals, 20 of which are in New York state.

Specially targeted Medicare payments are due to expire April 1 for rural hospitals with low patient volumes or a high percentage of senior citizens in need of care.

But members of Congress, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., among them, succeeded in getting in a two-and-a-half year extension for the two Medicare funding streams that prop up far-flung hospitals serving thinly populated regions like New York's North Country.

"Any disruption to our revenue flow is going to have a ripple effect, affecting our mission of providing exceptional care," said Joe Riccio, director of communications, marketing and government affairs for Adirondack Health in Saranac Lake. "We are a critical safety net providing services to the most vulnerable members of our community."

Adirondack Health comprises the Adirondack Medical Center, with 2,389 patient admissions in 2014; two nursing homes with a population of 136; and four walk-in clinics that treated 40,856.

With 850 full-time employees and a budget of $100 million annually, Adirondack Health would lose $923,000 if Congress failed to renew the Medicare funding sources, Riccio said.

Under the measure slowly moving through Congress, New York's rural hospitals would receive a $39 million boost — a lifeline that would be cut off by the end of the month if lawmakers fail to act.

The funding is part of what members of Congress hope is a permanent solution to the "doc fix" — an annual ritual on Capitol Hill in which the House and Senate prevent scheduled cuts in doctor payment rates under Medicare from happening. The legislation also would extend the Children's Health Insurance Program — CHIP — which provides coverage to children in low-income families.

The House on Thursday approved a bipartisan "doc fix" bill by a vote of 392-37 — a rare example of unity between House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Reps. Paul Tonko, D-Albany; Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro; and Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, voted in favor of it.

If signed into law, it would permanently shelve the formula Congress approved in 1997 that linked Medicare reimbursement for doctors to overall economic growth — or shrinkage. With doctors facing cuts, Congress was forced to step in annually to maintain rates or face defections of thousands of doctors from Medicare patient treatment. Absent a move by Congress, doctors face a 21-percent cut.

The House-approved "doc fix" — which would base doctor pay on quality of service, not quantity — and the rural hospital component ran into opposition in the Senate because it would codify existing restrictions on federal funding for abortion. But resistance among Senate Democrats appeared to be melting Thursday in the wake of President Barack Obama saying Wednesday "I've got my pen ready to sign a good bipartisan bill."

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's office said she is reviewing the bill and has not made a decision on it yet.

Schumer has been a staunch supporter of Medicare funding for rural hospitals, recognizing that the health care needs of a state like New York with significant urban, suburban and rural populations cannot be met with a one-size-fits-all approach.

"Strong rural hospitals are essential to quality and they are the lifeblood of rural communities," Schumer said last month when he co-sponsored the legislation with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. "These hospitals serve a vital public need, employ several thousands of people, and they deserve our support."

But Schumer, the Senate's No.3 Democrat, also is a strong abortion-rights supporter. "Senator Schumer is reviewing the proposal," Schumer's spokesman, Max Dworin, said without elaboration.

Dennis Whalen, president of the Albany-based Healthcare Association of New York State, said there are many more rural hospitals in New York than the 20 that receive funding under the two federal funding sources — the Low-Volume Hospital program and the Medicare-Dependent Hospital program.

But hospitals covered by these programs "are endangered without this support," he said. "Some are partnering or consolidating. But you can't get around the fact that these institutions need to be where they are because distances and impediments like weather may prevent individuals in need of services from getting them elsewhere."

Stefanik, who has five of the 20 affected hospitals in her North Country district, called Thursday's House vote a step in the right direction. Hospital CEOs in her district who participated in a recent conference call were very happy about this deal, she added.

Hospitals in the Capital Region that receive Medicare money from one or the other include Cobleskill Regional Hospital, St. Mary's Healthcare in Amsterdam, and Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville.

Hospitals in the Low-Volume Hospital program are those that serve critical needs in small communities but can't achieve economies of scale on par with hospitals in urban and suburban areas. A low-volume hospital is one that is more than 15 miles from another comparable facility and has fewer than 1,600 Medicare discharges a year.

A Medicare-Dependent Hospital is one that is in a rural area, has at least 60 percent of patients covered by Medicare, and is not classified as a "Sole Community Hospital."

Categories: State/Local

Legislators finesse fiscal plans

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

Albany

The majority legislative conferences hunkered down behind closed doors Thursday to discuss details of a fiscal package that will have to be hammered out by Saturday evening to assure on-time passage.

Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans promised to return Friday morning — though for how long, no one could say.

Ethics reforms and changes to the teacher evaluation system continued to be the sticking points in negotiations between the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The governor repeated his need on Thursday to see both included in the budget plan.

There was more discussion of a plan that would place the teacher evaluation overhaul under the control of the state Board of Regents, though the details were lacking.

Cuomo, citing the gap between teachers' excellent evaluation performance and the far lower proficiency scores of their students, wants to make standardized test scores count for 50 percent of a teacher's assessment.

The change is opposed by teachers unions, who tend to be allied with Assembly Democrats. The conference, because of its numeric superiority, is largely responsible for filling Regents seats.

The state's most powerful education union, New York State United Teachers, staged a protest Thursday afternoon that began on the Million Dollar Staircase before moving to lawmakers' offices.

In a statement released just before the demonstration, Cuomo insisted he wasn't backing away from his budget demands, including withholding a large chunk of school aid if the Legislature fails to approve his reforms.

"To repeat, I will not sign a budget without real ethics reform or agree to a dramatic increase in education aid without education reform that provides accountability, performance and standards," he said.

Cuomo also rejected what he called the "red herring" argument that policy shouldn't be included in the budget — on both education and ethics.

"Saying ethics reforms should be done outside the budget is another way of saying one doesn't want to do ethics reform," he said.

Absent messages of necessity from the governor, budget bills will have to hit lawmakers' desks on Saturday evening in order to be voted on by Tuesday, the final day of the fiscal year.

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

Judge rejects a challenge to Oneida Nation's tax-exempt land

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

Albany

A federal judge on Thursday rejected a challenge to the U.S. Interior Department's decision to put more than 13,000 acres in trust for the Oneida Indian Nation and exempt the property from state and local taxes.

The decision in 2008 to put in trust most of roughly 17,000 acres proposed by the Oneida Indian Nation in Madison and Oneida counties didn't exceed the department's authority under the federal law intended to enable tribes to adapt to modern society, Senior Judge Lawrence Kahn wrote. He noted that the land around the Oneidas' Turning Stone Casino, including gas stations and golf courses, were re-acquired by the tribe two centuries after they last possessed it.

Upstate Citizens for Equality, which filed the lawsuit, didn't immediately reply to requests for comment Thursday. Among its claims were that the Oneidas had ceased to exist as a tribe by 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act was passed.

"Judgments regarding a tribe's existence is a matter that is squarely in the (department's) Bureau of Indian Affairs' expertise," Kahn wrote.

Citing previous court rulings, the judge also rejected the argument that there is "no legitimate link" between the historic Oneida Nation and the group officially recognized by the federal government "as a successor in interest."

A department spokesman said the agency was pleased.

"The federal court's dismissal of the challenges to Oneida Nation lands put the disputes behind us," the tribe said. "The Oneida Nation remains committed to continuing its efforts to strengthen this region's economy and working toward a new era of shared prosperity."

On its website, Upstate Citizens for Equality says that it was formed to give the landowners facing the Oneida land claim a voice and that it believes federal Indian policy is "fatally flawed" and discriminatory.

Categories: State/Local

Blast, blaze level apartment building

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

New York

An apparent gas explosion leveled an apartment building, partially destroyed another and launched rubble and shards of glass across streets in the heart of Manhattan's East Village on Thursday afternoon, injuring at least a dozen people.

Passers-by were hit by debris and flying glass, and bloodied victims were aided as they sat on sidewalks and lay on the ground. Orange flames billowed from the site, in an area of old buildings home to students and longtime residents in an area near New York University and Washington Square Park.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said preliminary evidence suggested a gas explosion amid plumbing and gas work inside the building that collapsed was to blame.

The building's gas service was being upgraded, and inspectors from utility Con Edison had been there to check on a planned gas meter installation about an hour before the fire, company President Craig Ivey said. But the inspectors decided the building wasn't ready for gas to be introduced, he said.

About 250 firefighters converged to fight the flames, and the fire commissioner said a second building was "in danger of possible collapse" and four buildings were affected in all.

Firefighters said at least 12 people were hurt, four critically, some with burns to their airways. De Blasio said it didn't appear that anyone was missing.

"We are praying that no other individuals are injured and that there are no fatalities," he said.

The fire happened a little over a year after a gas explosion in a building in East Harlem killed eight people and injured about 50. De Blasio noted that no one had reported a gas leak to authorities before Thursday's blast.

The area was evacuated, and the city's health department advised residents to keep their windows closed because of the smoke that could be seen and smelled for miles.

Adil Choudhury, who lives a block away, ran outside when he heard "a huge boom."

"Already there was smoke everywhere" when he saw the building, he said. "The flames were coming out from the roof. The fire was coming out of every window."

Items from a ground-floor sushi restaurant were blown into a street, and the explosion was so forceful that it blew the door off a cafe across the avenue. Debris littered sidewalks.

Con Ed crews planned to start investigating after firefighters got the blaze under control. The state Department of Public Service was monitoring Con Ed's response, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

Area resident Paul Schoengold said he was walking about two blocks away when he heard an "incredibly loud" roar.

"Then the fire started. I could see the flames on the roof, and they kept getting higher," shooting perhaps 50 feet into the air, he said.

As freelance photographer Michael Seto ran up to the buildings after hearing the explosion in his apartment a block and a half away, flames were spreading and engulfing one building's first floor.

Meanwhile, a man was climbing up the fire escape, not down. "People were calling to him that the building's on fire — he needs to get down," and he did, Seto said.

Categories: State/Local

Colonie man shot by police to sue for $10M

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

The family of a 19-year-old Colonie man who was shot by State Police when he brandished a sword after a December car chase is suing the state for $10 million.

The action contends police were told he was mentally ill and should have had better protocols for dealing with such incidents.

Michael Messina remains hospitalized under guard following the chase from Halfmoon to Rotterdam during which, police said, he robbed a liquor store using a sword.

According to the complaint, Messina has suffered from mental illnesses and disabilities including bipolar disorder, learning disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The legal action claims police and State Troopers pursued Messina, who was driving his Volkswagen Jetta, through Bethlehem but halted the chase at the Albany city line.

Messina was later stopped by police in Colonie, where he allegedly threw an energy drink at an officer and sped off.

Messina eluded capture at the southern end of the Northway where it meets Western Avenue.

A few minutes later, Colonie police began pursuing Messina because his car matched the description of one used in a liquor store robbery in which the alleged robber carried a sword.

The chase ended about 10 miles later, near I-890 in Rotterdam, when State Police stopped Messina's car by using tire spikes. He then fled on foot, but was shot when he allegedly threatened police with the sword.

"They knew or they should have known that he was mentally ill," said Brad Gerstman, a Long Island lawyer who is representing Messina and his family.

The notice of claim, which comes at the start of a legal action, alleges that, "During the chase Michael's mother Renee Chandler spoke with Police and informed them that Michael had severe mental health issues."

He also previously attempted suicide several times and had been hospitalized more than a half-dozen times.

Spokesman Beau Duffy said State Police do not comment on pending litigation.

Also named are Bethlehem and Colonie police, Albany County Department of Mental Health, state Office of People with Developmental Disabilities and state Education Department.

The legal action comes as lawmakers, who are working to complete the 2015-16 state budget, are considering expanding a program to fund local crisis teams of trained police and mental health workers who have special skills for dealing with mentally ill people who have become agitated.

rkarlin@timesunion.com

Categories: State/Local

Thruway Authority axes 2 internal investigators

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

Albany

Two internal investigators with the state Thruway Authority were "separated" from their jobs in the past week following a state Inspector General's office probe that prompted the abrupt resignations of two authority leaders in December.

Neither of the investigators was accused of wrongdoing or told why they were being terminated, according to three people briefed on the matter.

Kevin M. Tuffey, a former State Police senior investigator who was chief of the Albany Police Department in the late 1990s, and Stanley C. Sardinia, a former NYPD detective, worked at the authority for years and were involved in the investigation of whether a former top authority official's government cellphone had been used to contact a suspected prostitute, according to the people familiar with the case. All asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to comment publicly.

Sardinia, of Rensselaer County, was called in Friday and told that he no longer worked for the authority. Tuffey, of East Greenbush, was told Monday that he had lost his job. Both men were "at-will" employees and not part of a labor union.

Tuffey, 66, and Sardinia, 58, worked at the authority's Albany headquarters for the Office of Asset and Management Services, which is similar to an internal affairs unit. The office investigates allegations of employee misconduct, including theft, misuse of vehicles and time-and-attendance abuse.

Tuffey declined comment on Wednesday; Sardinia could not be reached.

"The separation of these two individuals had nothing to do with the Inspector General's investigation," said Dan Weiller, a spokesman for the Thruway Authority. "It's a personnel matter, so I really cannot say anything more."

Three people familiar with the firings said that Tuffey and Sardinia were among several Thruway Authority officials who were interviewed last year by Inspector General Catherine Leahy-Scott, whose office was probing allegations that a high-ranking authority official may have used a government-issued cellphone to place calls to a suspected prostitute. The allegations were first reported by the Daily News in December, at a time when the authority's former executive director, Thomas J. Madison, and its chief financial officer, John M. Bryan, abruptly resigned.

Bryan, 49, is a Columbia County resident who was recently hired as a staff member by state Sen. Kathleen A. Marchione, R-Halfmoon. He did not respond to a message left Wednesday at Marchione's Albany office. Madison, 49, who lives in Saratoga County, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

A spokesman for Leahy-Scott declined to say whether their investigation is ongoing. The inspector general routinely issues public reports at the conclusion of its investigations, but has not done so in the Thruway Authority probe. A person familiar with the case said Leahy-Scott's office has not referred the case to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who prosecutes criminal wrongdoing involving state government employees.

A person familiar with the inspector general's investigation said that Tuffey and Sardinia were personally interviewed by Leahy-Scott, who questioned whether they should have notified the inspector general's office after an internal investigation discovered that a top Thruway Authority's cellphone may have been used for inappropriate conduct. However, the person said, Sardinia reported the information to a supervisor. It's unclear under state regulations whether the investigators were also required to notify the inspector general's office.

The alleged misuse of the cellphone was discovered when the call history of Madison's phone was the subject of a Freedom of Information Law request. It's unclear what prompted the FOIL request.

blyons@timesunion.com518-454-5547

Categories: State/Local

De Blasio says schools on the mend

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

New York

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday visited his third struggling high school this month to promote his Renewal Schools program to boost school performance with extra support such as after-school programs and Saturday classes.

De Blasio said Brooklyn's Automotive High School had become one of the city's most dangerous campuses but that suspensions are down 47 percent compared with last year and the two most serious classifications of violent incidents are down 33 percent.

As he did at earlier visits to Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn and Richmond Hill High School in Queens, he touted his plan to help the 94 renewal schools improve instead of closing them.

"We are working every single day to deepen the progress happening on the ground at schools like Automotive," de Blasio said. "We're ensuring they have the right leadership and the support they need to turn around and deliver the education these students deserve."

De Blasio, a first-term Democrat, spoke as the city awaited action from state legislators in Albany on issues including school funding, raising the cap on charter schools and continued mayoral control of city schools.

"Mayoral control works. The jury came back a long time ago," de Blasio said. "There's no debate here. It's time for Albany to renew mayoral control."

Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz, who has fought with de Blasio over the role of charter schools in the city, said earlier Wednesday that she agrees with him about mayoral control.

Categories: State/Local

Abortion bill in Assembly eases other women's rights bills

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

Albany

The state Assembly passed a bill Wednesday that would codify reproductive rights as defined in the Roe v. Wade decision.

While the outcome of the vote in the overwhelmingly Democratic chamber wasn't in doubt, the form of the bill marked a change: It was the first time this controversial element of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Women's Equality Act was taken up as a stand-alone bill.

The inclusion of the abortion plank in Cuomo's 2013 legislation led to an impasse over the other nine elements of the plan due to the Senate Republicans' opposition to legislative language that they warned could lead to "abortion expansion."

The Assembly would not pass the separate elements of the package.

The stalemate broke in recent weeks following the November election, where Republicans took full control of the Senate. New Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said another part of the WEA, a bill dealing with human trafficking, would come to the floor on its own. The package of bills passed.

On Wednesday, Heastie insisted that breaking up the package didn't mean the conference wasn't passionate about every plank.

"We're going to continue to push the issues that were in the 10-point plan and the others, particularly that the women in this conference want to see happen," he said. "So we don't feel we've lost any leverage."

Categories: State/Local

Minimum wage a top issue, Heastie says

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

Albany

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie insisted on Wednesday that raising the minimum wage is a top budget priority for his chamber's Democratic majority.

"It absolutely has to be on the table as far as we're concerned," he said, later adding that the conference has "had every indication so far in discussions of the budget that minimum wage will be considered."

Heastie's comments came a day after Senate Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos said there haven't been serious discussions on raising the wage, a move business groups and the GOP have consistently opposed. Gov. Andrew Cuomo's communications director said Monday that a boost in the wage is a top priority.

The administration has remained firm on the budget's inclusion of teacher evaluation overhaul and policies to address "the epidemic of failing schools" in exchange for a $1.1 billion increase in education aid.

Heastie, whose conference is allied with teachers unions, has expressed concerns about linking policy to appropriations.

Karen Magee, president of the New York State United Teachers union, said the union would be in favor of some kind of commission that could vet Cuomo's proposed changes to the teacher evaluation system — or alternatives that the union might view as less draconian. The creation of such a panel was floated earlier in the week.

"We'd be in favor of a panel ... of stakeholders," Magee said, adding that the panel couldn't have power over the allocation of funding or the authority to put any changes to the evaluation system into effect without the Legislature's consent.

The commission, she said, could include "superintendents, teachers, board of (education) members, I would say Regents."

NYSUT plans to stage a protest at the Capitol on Thursday afternoon.

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said of a commission, in an email: "There are multiple proposals out there and there has been no agreement on any of them. Also, as the governor has said repeatedly, he will support a significant funding increase only if they come with the reforms he has proposed."

Heastie said plenty of time remains to hammer out an on-time budget.

"We still have until Saturday night," he said, referring to the deadline for bills going on lawmakers' desks in time to be properly "aged" for a vote by Tuesday, the final day of the current fiscal year. "Today's only Wednesday. That's an eternity."

Casey Seiler contributed.

Categories: State/Local

Pre-emptive strike aims to save base

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

Washington, D.C.

Even though downsizing or closing Fort Drum is far from certain, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, is putting the North Country Army post's preservation on her A-list of issues.

"Fort Drum is unlike any other military installation in the country," said Stefanik, who was sworn into office in January and won a seat on the House Armed Services Committee largely to defend the post from being closed under "sequestration," or the Army's program of downsizing.

"Fort Drum is the biggest single-site employer in New York state," Stefanik said. "It's far broader than just the (U.S. congressional) 21st District.''

Last week, Stefanik attended a reception, pep rally and listening session in the Watertown area near Fort Drum aimed at showing the Defense Department that the surrounding community wants the base to stay.

She got the signatures of the entire New York congressional delegation — House and Senate — on a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter saying they are "dedicated to sustaining Fort Drum, its service members and their families."

Fort Drum occupies 168 square miles and is home to some 16,697 regular Army soldiers. It employs 3,827 civilians, and supports an overall community of 41,000 that includes family members and military retirees. Its economic impact on the surrounding community amounted to $1.3 billion in 2014.

Fort Drum is the home of the storied 10th Mountain Division, which first was deployed at the end of World War II to the snowy summits of the North Apennine Mountains and the Po Valley in Italy. Its specialty is cold weather training, something Stefanik said she grew to appreciate on her first trip to Afghanistan in February as part of a House Armed Services Committee delegation. She met with soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division and said "It was cold there."

In a videotaped message, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand cited an Army study which concluded that "if there were a significant reduction in the military force stationed at Fort Drum, there would be a direct effect on the economic conditions of the surrounding community.''

Sen. Chuck Schumer also delivered a video message in which he said: "Fort Drum is part of the very soul of the North Country, and as long as Chuck Schumer is in the Senate, it will remain so.''

The rush to defend Fort Drum is taking place in the midst of possible cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and its sequestration — across-the-board cuts that kick in if Congress can't agree to deficit reduction. The cuts don't affect military operations or entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.

Also, the Army is in the midst of downsizing from a high of 570,000 at the height of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq to 490,000 by the end of this fiscal year. The Army will shrink again to 475,000 by the end of fiscal 2016.

These two are a double whammy, with Pentagon officials asking Fort Drum to study the impact of losing 16,000 soldiers — virtually the entire regular Army force at the post.

In testimony last week before the House Armed Services Committee, Army Secretary John McHugh — who represented Stefanik's district in Congress between 1993 and 2009 — and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno warned that drastic funding cuts could harm the Army's ability to meet its most basic combat goals.

"Although we are already expecting a decline in the overall readiness of our forces (this year), it pales in comparison to the decrease of readiness under expected sequester levels (next year),'' the two said in written testimony. "Sequestration measures will not only dissipate the modest gains we achieved, but will leave the Army in a hollow and precarious state.''

If staffing goes below a total force of 980,000 — 450,000 in the regular Army and the rest in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve — "we will not be able to meet the multiple challenges to U.S. national interests without incurring an imprudent level of risk to our nation's security,'' the two said.

Asked about the chances of cuts impacting Fort Drum, an Army spokesman, Dov Schwartz, said "no decisions have been made. Fort Drum could be affected just like any of the Army's other 29 installations.'' He said winter training also takes place at Army posts in Alaska.

But closure or even reduction is far from certain as Congress weighs its options in meeting deficit-reduction targets. "The only reason to shiver up there is because it's cold, not because someone is going to close the post,'' said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and a former Office of Management and Budget official in the Clinton administration.

Sequestration cuts kick in only if Congress fails to adhere to spending caps, Adams said. "If the budget falls within the caps, the sequester is not going to happen,'' he said.

And military installations can only be closed if Congress decides to empanel a base-closing commission — known by the acronym BRAC. Congress has been unwilling to go that route since 2005.

"Whatever fears are being expressed about Fort Drum strike me as phantom fears,'' said Adams. "They are the willies without a cause.''

Still, Stefanik is taking no chances.

"All members (of Congress) understand how devastating sequester is,'' she said. "Sequester's across-the-board cuts have a tremendously negative impact on readiness and deployment. There are savings to be had, but these kinds of cuts do not represent good policymaking.''

Categories: State/Local

Mount Marcy rescue provokes discussion on responsibility for rescue costs

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

Albany

A hike up Mount Marcy that turned into an overnight ordeal for a woman and her two young children last Saturday did not end tragically — but it took more than 30 forest rangers, Environmental Conservation officers and State Police pilots to save the day.

The story of the overnight search and rescue of Ningyun Cai and her two sons lit up the comment sections of outdoor websites across the state with opinions on whether young children should be taken into the High Peaks in winter, and whether New York state should look to a system of fines or charges to recoup the considerable cost of such rescues.

Cai and her boys, ages 7 and 11, became lost and disoriented in a white-out on the way down from Mount Marcy's 5,344-foot summit. Cai, separated from some of their gear that they left at the tree line, called 911 on her cellphone, triggering a large-scale search.

As she and the youngsters huddled in a snow trench and did exercises to try and stay warm in what turned out to be subzero wind chills, rescue workers and searchers scoured the area through the night. They spotted them Sunday morning from a helicopter.

Some have questioned whether a 7-year-old should be taken up the mountain, which is New York state's highest.

Blog commenters on sites including Adirondack Almanack and the Times Union's Capitol Confidential offered harsh judgment on the idea of bringing a youngster to the top of the peak.

"What are these people thinking?" asked one commenter. "This has got to be a severe case of summit fever," added another.

But some authorities on backcountry travel stress that it's hard to say when a child is too young to venture into the mountains.

"Only the parent in this case would know what stamina they have and whether or not you've got proper equipment," said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club.

Tony Goodwin, executive director of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council, recounted how years ago he took his 7-year-old son on a daylong ski tour through the High Peaks on a zero-degree day — and they came through it fine.

Both Goodwin and Woodworth stressed the need to be properly equipped with adequate outdoor clothing and food and water, as well as gear such as snowshoes for moving through deep snow or "microspikes," small crampon-like devices for traction on icy trails.

According to earlier reports, the 39-year-old Cai said she expected her sons, who were taken to Adirondack Medical Center in Lake Placid, to be released by the end of the week.

Neither she nor her husband could be reached Tuesday. Both teach at SUNY Potsdam: Cai is an adjunct professor teaching Chinese and biology; her website bears a photo of her wearing a backpack. The site notes that she and her husband have explored the mountains of Southwest China.

While they may not have been ill-equipped, the trio may have fallen into a trap that has hit many Mount Marcy climbers.

Woodworth, who stressed that he wasn't commenting on the family or their excursion in particular, noted that Marcy poses unique hazards. While it requires no technical climbing skills, the winds and weather at that elevation can turn on a dime. And because the summit's cone is treeless, a white-out or fog can easily throw hikers off on the way down — especially in winter, when blowing snow may obscure any trail or tracks.

"Marcy can go from an open peak and 40 minutes later there is a white-out," Woodworth said.

Given those factors, he said it's important for hikers to bring a map and compass, and to pre-set a heading or bearing for making their way back to the trail at the treeline.

Cellphone GPS apps aren't 100 percent reliable, and using that function can quickly drain their batteries. Cai reportedly had an older-generation foreign cellphone without that capability.

Like questions about the age at which a youngster could go up Marcy in winter, suggestions of fines or charging people for rescues is an open debate. Rescues eat up a lot of staff hours and resources, but the state does not charge for them.

Consequently, some have wondered if the prospect of a bill for rescue costs would instill an extra measure of caution among high-country travelers. "That's been debated for a long time," said John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council, which has no position on that issue.

New Hampshire set up a fine system in the late 1990s for rescues where "negligence" such as inadequate equipment or poor timing is a factor.

Most of the rescues that take place in the Granite State are not found to result from negligence, and the agency collects 64 percent of what they bill, said Maj. Kevin Jordan of New Hampshire's Fish and Game Department.

"It comes down to ability to pay," he said, adding that mountain rescues can easily run $14,000 based on the staff time and costs involved.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758

Categories: State/Local

Legislators seek more HIV, AIDS program funding

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

Albany

In a letter to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, more than 30 members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Latino and Asian Legislative Caucus — and other lawmakers — urge legislative leaders to increase funding for HIV and AIDS programs.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has allotted $10 million in his budget for his End the Epidemic initiative. He also has earmarked a small amount of nearly $440 million in JP Morgan mortgage settlement funds for rental assistance for HIV and AIDS patients.

But legislators say more is needed to address the deadly disease statewide and to stop its spread in minority communities.

"Arguably, nowhere is the impact more pervasive than in communities of color," the lawmakers wrote. They said that they want "more substantial resources," but don't ask for a specific dollar amount. "Every statistical measure has shown that race is a significant factor in calculating risk for contracting HIV, and the disparity has only widened over time," the letter says.

A state Department of Health study released last year showed that there were 55,546 members of the black community statewide living with HIV or AIDS as of December 2012. The number for the Hispanic community was 42,287. The white community had 27,497 cases.

A majority of New Yorkers living with HIV or AIDS reside in New York City. In Albany County, there were 1,020 HIV and AIDS cases, excluding the prison population. Rensselaer County had 240 cases, Schenectady County had 380 cases and Saratoga County had 169 cases, bringing the four-county total to 1,809.

Newly diagnosed HIV cases statewide fell to 3,316 in 2012 from 5,666 in 2000, the earliest recorded date in the study. New AIDS cases across New York decreased from a high of 14,636 in 1993 to 2,370 in 2012.

The decline was highlighted by Cuomo last year when he announced plans for his End the Epidemic initiative, which included assisting undiagnosed HIV patients find health care, getting patients on anti-HIV therapy and providing high-risk people with HIV prevention drugs.

"Thirty years ago, New York was the epicenter of the AIDS crisis," Cuomo said at the time. "Today I am proud to announce that we are in a position to be the first state in the nation committed to ending this epidemic."

The governor set a goal of limiting new HIV infections to no more than 750 by 2020.

Cuomo's End the Epidemic Task Force is waiting for him to accept a series of recommendations that include providing housing assistance for some HIV and AIDS patients and the passage of a bill that would prohibit discrimination against transgender New Yorkers.

The lawmakers' letter said that fully implementing the task force's plan would lead to averting 10,851 new HIV infections and save the state nearly $4 billion in public health spending.

"Other states, and we've gotten inquiries from other parts of the world, are looking to us to say, 'Can you share this plan?'" said Perry Junjulas, executive director of the Albany Damien Center and a task force member. "It's really where New York has an opportunity, as the state that is most impacted by HIV in the United States, to really be a leader in ending this epidemic."

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

Categories: State/Local

DREAM Act, juvenile justice shift, grand jury monitor off budget table

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

Sen. Dean Skelos wields GOP clout on New York state budget

Categories: State/Local

Former state DOCCS official indicted

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

Albany

A former director of operations for the state department of corrections was arraigned on an indictment Tuesday that charges him with sexually harassing and forcibly touching a male employee at the agency.

James A. Ferro, 55, of Clifton Park, was arrested on Jan. 12 on the charges. The state Attorney General's office, which is prosecuting the case, presented the case to an Albany County grand jury that handed up an indictment last week.

Ferro is charged with misdemeanors of forcible touching, official misconduct and coercion.

He also is charged with harassment, a violation.

Ferro, who headed the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision's inspector general's office until his retirement two months ago, was accused by a male investigator of harassment over a period of years, including grabbing his genitals, hugging and kissing him, and inviting the investigator to his hotel room during work-related trips when Ferro was allegedly wearing only his underwear.

In one encounter, the investigator, whose name was withheld from court records, said he filed a complaint with Ferro's supervisor, Vernon Fonda, who was chief of operations for the DOCCS inspector general's office.

Fonda, 59, abruptly retired last April after the state inspector general's office launched the investigation that led to Ferro's arrest.

Ferro had worked for the agency since 1981 but retired Jan. 1 after spending nine months on paid leave.

Brian W. Devane, Ferro's attorney, declined comment.

blyons@timesunion.com518-454-5547@blyonswriter

Categories: State/Local

Photos: Minimum wage advocates rally at the Captiol

Albany Times/Union - 55 min 29 sec ago

Advocates gathered rallied at the Capitol in support of increasing the state minimum wage to $15 per hour Monday in Albany.

Categories: State/Local

State OKs fourth upstate casino bidding, revenues 'weakening' nationally

Albany Times/Union - 13 hours 55 min ago

New York's state Gaming Commission on Monday signed off on a plan to seek bids on what would be a fourth upstate casino, the same day that a new study indicated that tax revenues nationwide from such facilities are slowing.

Members of the Gaming Commission, with no comment or debate, agreed to an earlier recommendation by their special Location Board to seek bids for a casino that would be located in the Southern Tier. That came after politicians and others from the region had loudly complained that they were being passed over — since the recommendation for their region went to a proposal between Rochester and Syracuse.

While the planned Lago casino in Tyre, Seneca County, was in the Southern Tier zone that lawmakers created when they carved out upstate regions for the purpose of licensed gaming, many noted that it was closer to the Finger Lakes than the true Southern Tier, which runs along the Pennsylvania border.

Also Monday, the State University of New York's Rockefeller Institute issued a report showing that gaming revenue nationwide has slowed during the past several years as more states moved to allow casinos following the recession.

"In fiscal year 2014, gambling revenue has weakened," concludes the survey which found that, adjusted for inflation, revenues dropped nearly 1 percent between 2013 and 2014. Without inflation factored in, total nationwide gambling revenue went from $27.1 billion to $27.3 billion.

In New York, it was from $3.1 billion to $3.2 billion.

Because New York doesn't yet have non-Indian casinos, that was a factor in the state's gambling take. New York racino tax revenues, though, rose from $871 million to $938 million, but revenues from horse betting fell from $23 million to $22 million. Nationally, some gaming components were up while others, such as horse racing, were down.

Lottery revenue grew nationally and in New York, while racino revenue, with video lottery terminals, rose as well.

Final numbers for this fiscal year, which ends in April, aren't in yet, but one notable gaming industry consultant said revenues in New York racinos slowed in the second half of calendar year 2014.

"New York hit a wall in the second half of 2014," said Alan Woinski, president of Gaming USA, a firm that tracks the gambling industry.

Based on calendar year data, revenues for racinos in New York went from $878 million in 2013 to $864 million in 2014 for a drop of almost 2 percent.

In that period, only two racinos, at Batavia and Resorts World in Queens, increased racino revenue, with others falling.

Resorts World also dwarfs the other facilities, posting more than $355 million in 2014. Vernon Downs, by contrast, took in almost $15 million with Saratoga Gaming earning $76 million in 2014.

For more details, see timesunion.com's Capitol Confidential.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Judge tosses tax cap suit

Albany Times/Union - 13 hours 55 min ago

Albany

A state Supreme Court justice has dismissed a lawsuit brought by a state teachers union in an attempt to force the state to scrap its property tax cap and tax freeze.

In his ruling, Supreme Court Judge Patrick McGrath rejected each of New York State United Teachers' claims, including that the tax mechanisms violate First Amendment rights by incentivizing compliance.

"In the present matter, there is little doubt that the credit is designed to influence voters to stay within the cap," McGrath wrote. "However, this does not render the law unconstitutional."

The cap and freeze are designed to keep spending closer to the rate of inflation unless a supermajority of 60 percent votes for a greater increase. Certain cost increases are exempted from the overall calculation.

The ruling is the second time McGrath has denied a NYSUT lawsuit against the cap. In September, he tossed the suit but allowed the union to amend its claim to add its objections to the tax freeze, which was approved last year and rewarded residents in municipalities that constrained spending.

In a statement, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was among those named in the suit, declared victory for taxpayers.

"Taxpayers prevailed today as yet another meritless special interest lawsuit that sought to undo the progress made under Gov. Cuomo failed in the courts," Rich Azzopardi said. "The fact remains that the tax cap has successfully reined in out-of-control property tax increases — something that has only been strengthened by the tax freeze. It is our hope that the Legislature joins with us to not only continue the cap in New York, but also to make it permanent."

NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn shot back in a statement that it was "shocking the governor's office would label the plaintiffs, who are parents and teachers of public school students, 'special interests.'" He said the lower court was constrained by precedents that will get closer scrutiny in the appellate courts.

"The tax cap and tax freeze directly impair ... local control, worsening New York's already gross – and growing – inequality in public school funding," Korn said. "New York's poorest and most vulnerable students continue to be provided the fewest educational resources, and under this governor the gap has widened to an historic high. The tax cap and tax freeze exacerbate this gap by locking in those funding inequalities and, in the case of the freeze, directing the most state money to taxpayers in the wealthiest districts."

On another front, Albany County State Supreme Court Justice Roger McDonough heard arguments in a lawsuit against the state regarding the student test score component of New York's teacher evaluation system.

Long Island fourth-grade teacher Sheri Lederer, represented by her husband Bruce Lederer, is battling those tests, which currently make up 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation; Cuomo wants them to count for 50 percent.

Lederer maintained an "effective" overall rating in her evaluation, but her student test scores year to year fell from 14 to 1, based on a scale of 1 to 20.

Colleen Galligan, the attorney representing the state Education Department, had moved to dismiss the suit, contending that Lederer has no standing since the low test score doesn't affect her salary or job security.

Lederer, an 18-year veteran, believes that test scores could play a larger role going forward if the governor succeeds in forcing his changes.

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

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo aide hints at flexibility on budget linkage

Albany Times/Union - 13 hours 55 min ago

Albany

In what was cast as a rumor-control effort, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office signaled Monday what pieces of his executive budget proposal he's willing to pull off the negotiating table as the start of the new fiscal year looms.

In a late-afternoon statement, Cuomo Communications Director Melissa DeRosa dropped hints that the governor would sign a budget that lacked pieces like the DREAM Act and the Education Investment Tax Credit, proposals that continue to divide the two majority legislative conferences.

"The governor believes at this point that either both will pass or neither," DeRosa said. "The governor supports passage of both and included them in his budget. If they don't pass in the budget, they could still pass in regular session."

She was equally philosophical about raising the state's charter school cap and extending mayoral control for New York City schools.

Both "can be addressed in the budget, or more likely in the remainder of the session," she said. "Regardless, both should be addressed before the conclusion of the session."

The statement came just more than a week before the budget is due.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said earlier Monday that "it's not looking good" for getting the DREAM Act, which would provide college tuition assistance to the children of undocumented immigrants, and the tax credit, which would incentivize donations to groups that boost public and private education, in the final budget. Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos did not emerge from conference with his members to offer his own status report.

The governor is not backing away from ethics reform, which he set as his top priority and handcuffed to passage of an on-time budget. Cuomo and Heastie struck a two-way deal on ethics last week, but Skelos has not yet signed on. One of the sticking points: The Cuomo-Heastie deal includes stricter outside income disclosure requirements for lawmakers; the GOP is holding out for disclosure of domestic partners' income.

"The governor said he would not sign off on a budget that doesn't include the ethics reforms he outlined," DeRosa said, "and he meant it."

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo funds fight unpopular

Albany Times/Union - 13 hours 55 min ago

Albany

As college basketball madness continues, here's one competition voters don't want to watch this March: The upstate "Hunger Games."

A new Siena College poll out Monday shows that 77 percent of voters don't think Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed upstate revitalization competition is a good idea, saying the $1.5 billion proposed for that contest should instead be divided evenly among the seven upstate regions that would be eligible for it. Only 16 percent agree that Cuomo's plan for three winners of $500 million a piece is the best idea.

Looking at upstate specifically, 81 percent of voters oppose the competition plan, while 15 percent agree with it.

The new Siena poll comes on the heels of a Quinnipiac University poll that showed Cuomo's ratings have dropped as he battles with teachers unions over education policy. The Siena poll has the governor's favorable-unfavorable numbers at 57-39, higher than Quinnipiac's.

Voters still side with the unions' views on how to improve education, 50-41, while 40 percent of voters say they think Cuomo has a great deal of influence over education policy.

On a two-way ethics deal reached between Cuomo and the Assembly last week, 54 percent of voters say reforms should be addressed outside of the budget.

Even if reforms are passed in the budget, 47 percent of voters say they won't have an effect on state government corruption, even though 51 percent say Cuomo's plan would reduce corruption.

As for the state's 90-day email retention policy, which has been scrutinized as all state agencies have adopted it recently, few outside the Capitol bubble have heard much about it. Seventy-one percent said they hadn't heard much, if anything, about the controversial policy. Still 80 percent of voters say emails should be saved for a significantly longer amount of time (some advocates and lawmakers have suggested saving them for as long as seven years). Only 16 percent support the 90-day policy.

The poll surveyed 800 registered voters. The margin of error is +/- 3.5 percent.

A Quinnipiac poll also released Monday shows Hillary Rodham Clinton leads Democratic presidential picks with 51 percent support. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has 7 percent support. Former Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, is at 6 percent support.

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449

Categories: State/Local

State prison guards seek more funding as lawmakers weigh Cuomo budget

Albany Times/Union - 13 hours 55 min ago

Albany

Amid calls for more state funding as cases of prison violence rise, the union that represents the state's correction officers is beginning a six-figure advertising campaign aimed at increasing public concern about officers' well-being in prisons.

The new 60-second radio spot, which is set to start running Monday, is a plea for the state to provide additional funding for officer safety at the state's 54 correctional facilities. It is set to air statewide, beginning in the Albany, Rochester and Buffalo markets.

"Now, as the drug trade and violent gang activity in our prisons reach record highs, our officers are facing new dangers," the ad states. "And they must be given the proper tools to combat the increasingly violent environments they are operating in."

The buy is worth between $100,000 and $200,000 and is paid for by the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, which represents some 26,000 employees and retirees, according to its website.

"We are going to have some really dangerous situations unfold in our prisons if we don't get serious about investing in staffing and the technological resources our officers need to take on the modern day challenges of incarceration," NYSCOPBA President Mike Powers said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Powers penned an open letter that called for more investment in the state's prisons.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's executive budget proposal includes roughly $3 billion in funding for the Department of Corrections and Community Service, a 1.4 percent increase over the last budget attributed to an additional institutional pay period in 2015-16.

Cuomo has touted a reduction in the inmate population since taking office in 2011. In his State of the State speech this year, he said he's proud of various justice reforms, including closing more prisons than at any time in state history.

Since Cuomo took office, 13 correctional facilities have been shuttered, including four last year, leading to a reduction of 5,500 beds, something Acting Corrections Commissioner Anthony Annucci cited in his budget testimony before legislators in February. Among the closures was Mount McGregor Correctional Facility in Saratoga County.

But NYSCOPBA counters that while the inmate population has dropped by 4,000 since 2010, assaults on staff are up 30 percent. The union says inmate-on-inmate assaults also have risen.

Cuomo's major criminal justice reform proposal this year is to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years old, something that would likely reduce the number of teens who are part of the state's correctional system.

The state Department of Corrections and NYSCOPBA, as well as their New York City counterparts, have been tested as of late. Last month, a sergeant and two officers pleaded guilty to misdemeanor misconduct and resigned as they faced trial in the 2011 beating of an inmate at Attica Correctional Facility in Wyoming County. A federal civil rights lawsuit brought by the former inmate, George Williams of New Jersey, is pending in a Buffalo court.

While the Attica case, which occurred at the same prison as the infamous 1971 riot, brought public outcry, the New York City Department of Corrections has come under an intense spotlight for squalid conditions at the city's Rikers Island jail. Officers there are represented by the New York City Correction Officers' Benevolent Association.

mhamilton@timesunion.com 518-454-5449

Categories: State/Local
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