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New York Needs Electronic Health Records

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 03/27/2015 - 1:00am

State Sen. Hoylman gets a flu shot (photo: @bradhoylman)

Teenagers aren't the only ones keeping up with the latest technology. Today, nearly three-quarters of Americans over the age of 50 are "plugged in" and regularly using the internet. As we get more connected, however, we're demanding the same of our medical care. Because many patients often have multiple doctors, it's important that all of their providers have access to their medical records.

This year, Governor Cuomo's budget again includes support for the continued development of New York's Statewide Health Information Network (SHIN-NY). This important state investment will enable patients and their doctors to seamlessly exchange electronic health records wherever they are in the state. The network is already gaining momentum: over 50,000 doctors and healthcare providers participate in SHIN-NY, and over 7 million New Yorkers have given consent to have their records shared.

SHIN-NY will be a game-changer for millions of people in New York State, especially those living with chronic conditions. Sixty percent of the American population over the age of 50 may have at least one chronic illness, whether it's heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or arthritis. In fact, many have more than one condition. For these New Yorkers, SHIN-NY will greatly simplify and improve the way medical care is delivered.

For example, it will no longer be necessary to hand-carry blood tests, X-rays, MRI scans or charts between doctors. If you're away from home and have an unexpected emergency, it means the doctor treating you will be able to access your health history, including drug allergies and pre-existing conditions, in order to provide the best possible care.

SHIN-NY will also help doctors share vital care information with other doctors, greatly improving the coordination of your care. This is critical, for example, if you see multiple doctors or have several medical conditions because doctors can make sure that the medication they prescribe doesn't conflict with your other medications or conditions.

Further, SHIN-NY will allow doctors and providers across healthcare settings to work together to address different parts of a person's illness. For example, a woman who recently had open-heart surgery and is a diabetic can be assured that her cardiologist, dietician, and primary care physician are coordinating effectively by accessing information through SHIN-NY to ensure she fully recovers from the surgery and receives proper, post-operative care, even after she's been discharged from the hospital.

Longer-term, increased care coordination will dramatically impact the cost and quality of healthcare in New York by reducing hospital re-admissions and avoiding unnecessary tests. And, this coordination will have the most profound impact on New Yorkers over the age of 50.

With budget negotiations ongoing, I urge the New York State Senate and Assembly to join Governor Cuomo in renewing their efforts to continue the development of the SHIN-NY.

***
by Carol Raphael, a board member of the New York eHealth Collaborative and former CEO, Visiting Nurse Service of New York.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

Potsdam family rescued by rangers after night atop Mt. Marcy

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 03/26/2015 - 7:07am

Albany

A woman and two children stranded atop Mount Marcy overnight Saturday were rescued Sunday morning by state forest rangers.

Ning Cai and her two sons, ages 7 and 11, of Potsdam, had reached the peak's summit and began their descent around 4 p.m. Saturday when they could not find the trail, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office. When Cai called Essex County dispatchers to say she and her boys were lost, rangers began their search, reaching the summit around 9:30 p.m.

By then, contact with Cai was lost, but rangers continued to search until midnight, Cuomo's office said. They resumed their search early Sunday morning, and at about 11 a.m. a State Police helicopter spotted the 39-year-old mother and her sons near the summit.

The three were in fair condition with some cold-related injuries. They were transported to a Lake Placid hospital.

Twenty-six forest rangers, four Department of Environmental Conservation officers, a State Police aviation team, a State Police special operations response team and supervisory staff were involved in the search and rescue.

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

Categories: State/Local

7 die in fire at Brooklyn home

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 03/26/2015 - 1:07am

New York

Seven siblings from an Orthodox Jewish family were killed early Saturday when a fire tore through their Brooklyn home after they had gone to bed, a tragedy that authorities believe was caused by a malfunctioning hot plate left on for the Sabbath.

The blaze took the lives of three girls and three boys — ages 5 to 16 — and left their mother and another child in critical condition. Fire officials said the flames would have prevented the mother, who escaped out a window, from trying to rescue her children.

"This is an unbelievable tragedy," Mayor Bill de Blasio said after touring the charred residence. "Every New Yorker is feeling this pain right now."

Fire investigators believe a hot plate left on a kitchen counter ignited the flames that raced up the stairs, trapping the children in their second-floor rear bedrooms, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

Many religious Jews do not use electricity on the Sabbath, along with refraining from work and observing other prohibitions meant to keep the day holy. As a result, some families may leave them on so they are usable without violating any religious laws or traditions.

Nigro called it the city's worst fatal fire in recent memory.

"It's a tragedy for this family, it's a tragedy for this community, it's a tragedy for the city," he said.

Police officials identified the victims as members of the Sassoon family. Three of the children were girls: Eliane, 16, Rivkah, 11 and Sara, 6. Four were boys: David, 12, Yeshua, 10, Moshe, 8 and Yaakob, 5.

Nigro said authorities believe the father was away at a conference at the time of the fire. Neither his name nor those of the survivors were released.

The fire broke out shortly after midnight while the children were asleep in five bedrooms in the rear of the home in Midwood, a tree-lined section of Brooklyn known for its low crime and close-knit Orthodox Jewish population.

Karen Rosenblatt, who lives nearby, said she called 911 after being awoken by her husband Andrew when he saw flames and smoke billowing from the home. The husband said also he heard "what seemed like a young girl scream, 'Help me! Help me!'"

Firefighters arrived less than four minutes after the 911 call to find the mother, badly burned and distraught, outside and pleading for help. When they broke in the door, firefighters encountered a hopeless situation — a raging fire that had already spread through the kitchen, dining room, common hall, stairway leading upstairs and the rear bedrooms.

"Unfortunately, the outcome may have been determined before they arrived," Nigro said.

After making their way through intense smoke and heat, firefighters found the young victims motionless in three of the four bedrooms in the home, officials said.

"It's difficult to find one child in a room during a search," Nigro said. "To find a houseful of seven children that can't be revived ..."

Karen Rosenblatt described hearing windows breaking before seeing firefighters throwing mattresses out of a back window.

Investigators found a smoke detector in the basement. But none were found elsewhere, Nigro said, adding, "To hear a smoke detector two floors below is asking a lot."

Categories: State/Local

Schenectady, Troy leads state in minority youth in poverty

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 03/26/2015 - 1:07am

Schenectady and Troy have a pair of unenviable distinctions: They have the highest child poverty rates for minorities of any sizable city in New York, according to a group of Latino lawmakers and anti-poverty activists who looked at U.S. Census Bureau data.

Seventy-one percent of Latino children in Schenectady and 74 percent of black children in Troy live below the poverty line — a rate that is far higher than found in other cities, including New York, Buffalo and Rochester.

White youngsters in Schenectady and Troy fare better but still exceed the poverty rates in other cities.

Childhood poverty rates among white children are 40 percent and 37 percent for Schenectady and Troy, respectively, compared to 23 percent in New York City.

The high poverty levels were publicized Friday by Bronx Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, who is this year's chair of the Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force and they come as Hispanic lawmakers and others are kicking off the spring conference of Somos el Futuro (We Are the Future) at the state Capitol.

Crespo and others said tactics to reduce poverty through job opportunities and education would be a focus of the weekend gathering.

The data reflect poverty levels a half-century after the War on Poverty began under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

"Child poverty rates across New York state's major cities have surpassed the 50 percent mark," said Crespo. "This is not just an issue impacting black and Latino children," he added, explaining that poverty rates for white youngsters are above 40 percent in Binghamton.

According to federal guidelines, the poverty line ranges from incomes of $11,770 for one person to $24,250 for a family of four.

The income cutoffs go up as family sizes increase.

While the cutoff has been adjusted over the years, national poverty rates were pegged at around 19 percent when the War on Poverty started in 1964. It was at 15 percent nationally in 2012.

Safety net provisions such as food stamps and Medicaid have eased some of the burden, and the face of the poor is changing, with much of the hardship shifting from the aged to the young, according to a recent report from the Pew Foundation.

The numbers of black and Hispanic children in Schenectady and Troy are relatively modest compared to, say New York City.

Schenectady is home to 4,160 black and 2,607 Hispanic youngsters, compared to 470,865 and 617,707, respectively, in New York City. But the high poverty rates, exceeding those in New York City, touches upon an ongoing challenge — that of reviving the ailing, Rust Belt, highly taxed upstate economy.

Lawmakers like Crespo gave credit to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his efforts on that front but said more could be done. In addition to a proposed minimum wage hike from $8.75 per hour to $10.50 supported by Cuomo and Assembly Democrats, Crespo said other measures could help too.

He cited a targeted effort in the Bronx in conjunction with the state Labor Department, which lowered unemployment rates into the single digits from 13 percent.

He also favors initiatives such as providing specialized training for sectors that need workers such as trucking, an industry that has lately been looking for drivers in some locations.

In addition to unemployment, minorities in poverty can face cultural barriers, too. Dan Irizarry, of the Capital District Latinos nonprofit group, pointed to the lack of bilingual social service workers in the Albany area as a challenge.

"The numbers revealed in this report are staggering," Irizarry said.

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

Categories: State/Local

OGS manager fined $2,000 for ethics violation

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 03/26/2015 - 1:07am

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics has fined a state Office of General Services employee $2,000 for using his position to get a discount on a water filtration system for his home.

Juan Alvarenga, a project manager for OGS since 1993, paid the fine and admitted violating state ethics law as part of a settlement agreement with the commission.

Alvarenga also completed supplemental ethics training as part of the settlement.

According to the agreement, Alvarenga, who had overseen a 2012-13 renovation and expansion of the State Police barracks in Middletown had asked one of the contractors for a price quote for a water filtration system for his home. The price proposed included a contractor's discount that would not normally have been available to Alvarenga or the general public. Alvarenga purchased the water filtration system through the contractor at the discounted price.

During the renovation project in Middletown, Alvarenga was responsible for overseeing and evaluating the quality of the contractor's work.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Democrats Frustrated by Governor Backing Off Party's Issues

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 03/26/2015 - 1:00am

Cuomo and Heastie agree on ethics reforms (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)

On Tuesday Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters that the DREAM Act and the Education Investment Tax Credit (EITC) he had paired were no longer part of budget negotiations. For many Black and Latino legislators the news was painful - they had pushed Cuomo to include the DREAM Act as part of his budget after he and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul campaigned on the issue across the city this summer. But there was also a sinking sense of deja vu.

"DREAM Act, ETC are very important. Two different reasons, two different constituencies, but both get to the same point, which is access to education," Cuomo told reporters during a visit to the state Senate chambers Tuesday. "We have no agreement. We are nowhere close to an agreement."

A number of city-based legislators, especially from the Senate, say they have been repeatedly burned by a governor who is willing to talk about their issues on the stump to earn votes from their constituents but not willing to actually expend political capital to move their issues when the opportunity presents itself. They are increasingly concerned that Cuomo is willing to cede any number of policy points in budget talks, including further raising the minimum wage, in an effort to win the support of Senate Republicans on other issues.

Sen. Jose Peralta, who has worn a "Pass the DREAM Act!" t-shirt under his jacket during session, has been very active in supporting the act as part of the budget. The $27 million program Cuomo had included would provide tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants. Peralta said he was let down by Cuomo's decision to drop the bill and will work with advocates to push Cuomo and Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on the issue. The DREAM Act has more than enough support in the overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly.

Senate Republicans believe their opposition to the DREAM Act actually bolstered them in a number of races across the state this past fall.

In a new op-ed on Thursday, Cuomo explains that he wants to see votes on both the DREAM Act and EITC, and that while they may not be in the budget deal, he will continue to push each of them in the legislative session to follow, which lasts into mid June.

However, legislators are frustrated more generally. What is particularly irksome to Democrats this year is that Cuomo appears to be jettisoning contentious issues to get an on-time budget when he claimed earlier in the year that he would sacrifice budget timeliness for ethics reform (which the governor and Assembly Democrats have come to an agreement on).

"The governor should be equally committed to items in appropriations as he is on ethics," said Sen. Martin Dilan. "If DREAM comes out it should all come out. The budget is where we have leverage. Outside of the budget [The DREAM Act] is dead. This was a campaign promise of the governor, and I believe he and the lieutenant governor ran very hard on it."

Sen. Kevin Parker said he still has hope for the DREAM Act despite what Cuomo might have said. "There is still time for anything to happen," he said of ongoing budget negotiations. The budget is due by Wednesday, April 1.

Another item Democratic legislators point out Cuomo ran on was women's equality. And while Cuomo was supposed to help elect a Democratic Senate, he appeared to put little effort into doing so. Now the two converge as a Republican Senate blocks several key pieces of Democratic legislation, such as the DREAM Act and the abortion plank of the Women's Equality Act, and Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a woman, is left out of budget negotiations.

Meanwhile, Cuomo has allowed his ally Jeff Klein, who heads the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, to join in leadership meetings around the budget. Mainline Democrats have cried foul over Klein being included and not Stewart-Cousins. At the first meeting of the budget conference committees, nicknamed "the mothership," Stewart-Cousins used her brief opportunity to speak to protest her exclusion. "Apparently the mothership is the only place this mother will appear negotiating the budget," she said.

Democrats appear to now have most of their eggs in the debate over increasing the minimum wage but a number of them fear Cuomo has already caved to Senate Republicans on the issue - something Skelos said was the case on Thursday, declaring an increase out of budget negotiations.

"This guy should be with us on $15," said one legislator who requested to remain anonymous of Cuomo, "but instead we have to beg and scrape to get him to push for $11.50 [for New York City]."

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh called the minimum wage increase "the Assembly's top priority" when speaking with Gotham Gazette, but added that negotiations were centered around Cuomo's proposal for an eventual $10.50 for the state and $11.50 for the city. Parker said that the minimum wage needed to be done in this budget. "We don't want this to be another thing that comes up each year."

There has been underlying concern among Democrats that Cuomo would dump minimum wage in an effort to appease Skelos, who appears to back him on a number of education and financial issues. Skelos has pushed to remove a number of issues from budget discussions including how to use the State's massive bank settlement windfall and the renewal of mayoral control of schools. "I would guess that the independent monitor [for grand juries] is not going to be there," Skelos said after meeting with Cuomo on Tuesday. "Raising the age is not going to be there. DREAM Act is not going to be there. Other than that things are up for negotiation," he said, seemingly taking a victory lap for having nixed these items, which he and his conference oppose, from the budget.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters on Wednesday that a minimum wage increase is his top priority. "It absolutely has to be on the table as far as we're concerned in this conference," Heastie said.

During last year's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus Weekend, Cuomo, joined by Mayor Bill de Blasio, made a grand announcement that he would support a program to provide prison inmates with access to college degrees. A great majority of the lawmakers there would rather have heard Cuomo pledge to deliver the DREAM Act, but they praised and supported his plan. However, Republicans mocked and derided the idea as a waste of taxpayer money that rewarded criminals and Cuomo quietly let the initiative die.

It appears the governor may be having a similar moment this year - except that the program at stake faces criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. Cuomo's "Raise the Age" initiative that would raise the age youths can be tried as adults to 18 from 16 was initially greeted warmly by Democratic legislators. But after analyzing the complex program, which is spread out in different sections of the budget, a majority of Democrats now think Cuomo's proposal is deeply flawed. The Assembly presented a reworked version in their budget and Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, wrote to Cuomo on Tuesday saying they favor the Assembly version because they believe some of the provisions in Cuomo's plan will actually lead to juvenile offenders spending more time in jail.

"Raise the Age is not likely to be done in the budget," Cuomo told reporters outside of the Senate Republican conference room on Tuesday. "It's very complex. It connects with other issues..."

Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo's spokesperson, quickly contradicted her boss, on Twitter and in a statement, saying, "Raise the age is still part of budget negotiations; we believe we will successfully secure the necessary funding to implement the program."

It appears, though, that the policy will be decided outside of the budget while funding to implement it will be included in anticipation of legislation.

Cuomo defended his decision to remove issues from the negotiating table after he met with Senate Republicans on Tuesday: "The budget is my statement of saying, these are the priority issues, right? And now, people will say, 'If he didn't put it in the budget, he doesn't really care about it. That's what's happened over the years, and if it's not in the budget, then he doesn't mean it.' So the budget has become expansive from that point of view."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Categories: State/Local

The 'Either/Or' of an Assembly Member's Stand on Education

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 03/26/2015 - 1:00am

 
Rally outside AM Rodriguez's office (photo: Alliance for Quality Education)

Last Friday, and despite a snowstorm, dozens of parents, students, and education advocates picketed in front of Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez's East Harlem office demanding that he stand up for all public school children. Many in his district are frustrated by the fact that he has turned a deaf ear to their concerns, as reflected in his wrong stands on education.

While many of the public schools in his district can no longer support co-locations, Mr. Rodríguez has pledged his support for raising the charter school cap, which will lead to additional co-locations.

In a recent column printed in this publication, Assembly Member Rodriguez tried to paint himself as fair, but his arguments proved his charter bias. While he mentions the 143,000 students attending struggling district schools, he makes no reference to the troubling disparities in student population at charter schools and the suspension rates that are ten times those in public schools. Like the Assembly Member wrote, "education isn't either/or."

In his district, for example, public district schools serve 30 percent special education students compared to only 17 percent in charters. The disparity in the children taught in self-contained special education classes is not any better – 9 percent in district schools versus only 1 percent in charters, according to data from Alliance for Quality Education.

During the picket, parents delivered an over-sized copy of a letter that the assembly member refused to sign, which not only highlights all those staggering facts about charters but that also has been signed by two dozen Democrats in the Assembly. Parents are still waiting for an answer.

In his column, he does ask for an increase in funding for children with special needs who can be in mainstream classrooms, but rather than a call for inclusion, his argument sounds more like an excuse for why charters exclude high-need student populations.

More privately-run charter schools will divert funds from our local public schools desperately in need of those resources.

Raising the charter cap will only benefit the pockets of hedge fund billionaires who are now driving Governor Andrew Cuomo's education policy - and clearly now Assembly Member Rodriguez's too. He is responding to the $20,700 he has received in campaign donations from the same group of donors who have contributed so heavily to the governor's campaigns. That's why parents and advocates have urged him to return it.

We need our elected officials to stand up for a government that works for all of our children and not the interests of the wealthy. That's a position that Assembly Member Rodriguez has yet to prove.

***
by Carlos Ruiz, East Harlem resident, public school parent, and member of New York Communities for Change

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

Hurting Homeowners Say Bank Settlement Funds Belong with Them

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 03/26/2015 - 1:00am

A home rebuilt after Sandy (photo: @NYCBuilditBack)

More than two years on and David Velez's battle with Hurricane Sandy is far from over. But, thanks to some help from the Attorney General's office, Velez's fight with his mortgage lender may soon be coming to an end.

The first floor of the retired NYPD officer's home in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn was destroyed by flooding during the hurricane, and without help from insurance he and his wife used their savings to rebuild.

Unfortunately, after the construction was complete an architect from the City's Build it Back program deemed the residence structurally unsafe. Velez and his family moved out of the home this past October and were told that demolition would begin in November. Now March, Velez is still waiting for Department of Housing Preservation and Development contractors to begin construction of his home. While the program has gotten a shot in the arm under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the pace is still too slow for many.

Even living out of his home there is another reminder of the damage Sandy has done: Velez gets regular calls from Citibank representatives asking when he will catch up on his mortgage. "They even called me the day I had cancer surgery to remove a tumor," said Velez who was advised like other Sandy victims that he could stop mortgage payments while his home was being rebuilt, only for his lender to demand missed payments immediately after the forbearance was over.

It is a call increasingly familiar to homeowners across the state who are behind on their mortgages, whether from unexpected disasters like Hurricane Sandy or thanks to the economic downturn of 2008 and subsequent recession. Even in 2014, New York City saw a 33 percent increase in first-time foreclosures compared to the year before, according to one recent study.

Many homeowners have watched as Attorney General Eric Schniederman won the state multi-million dollar settlements from major lenders like Bank of America, Citibank, and JPMorgan. Like Velez, many struggling homeowners expected that those settlements would go directly to help New Yorkers who are underwater with their mortgage.

In Velez's case the AG's office did offer help, through an initiative called the Mortgage Assistance Program, which makes up to a $40,000 loan for homeowners who face foreclosure to pay off mortgage debt, second or third mortgages, or tax liens. Eligible families must be able to keep up with their mortgage to qualify for the program. Thousands of New Yorkers face foreclosure and don't qualify for the AG's program - some New Yorkers are simply far too behind on their mortgages to qualify.

Groups like The Fair Share for Housing Coalition and New York Communities for Change say the State needs to commit all of the funds from settlements with major lenders over mortgage fraud to go to helping homeowners.

In 2013 Schneiderman won a $615 million settlement for "mortgage misconduct" and according to the settlement 85 percent of that money had to go to programs to help homeowners. Schneiderman announced he was going to parse the cash out to nonprofits across the state that help homeowners avoid foreclosures, but Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature cut a deal in the 2014 budget that swept the cash into their coffers. According to Crain's New York, Schneiderman only ended up with $85 million of settlement funds.

Many advocates say they expected a number of "innovative" programs from Schneiderman's office given his national prominence on the issue. They feel those programs were kneecapped by Cuomo, who has a searing rivalry with the attorney general.

The AG's office currently works with nonprofits around the state to help homeowners avoid mortgage fraud through a program called the Homeowner Protection Program. A network of over 85 groups gets about $60 million in funding from the AG's office. Homeowners are directed through that program to the Mortgage Assistance Program (MAP). The AG's office expects to be able to give out "several hundred" loans through MAP. The program began last October and has given out 100 loans of up to $40,000.

The Fair Share for Housing Coalition lists a total of $492 million in settlements with Bank of America, Ocwen Financial Corporation, and Citigroup as directly related to mortgage fraud and it advocates that the State utilize, at the minimum, those funds to help homeowners. But the State actually has over $5 billion in settlements with banks and corporations that advocates would also like to go to homeowners' cause.

Charles Pollydore, a homeowner from Long Island and member of New York Communities for Change, has been circulating a petition demanding Cuomo use settlement funds to help homeowners who are underwater or face foreclosure.

Pollydore lost his consultant job on Wall Street in 2008 and, while on unemployment, began trying to negotiate a loan modification with Bank of America. He said he was repeatedly rebuffed or ignored. He reached out to a slew of state and federal representatives only to be directed to a different office each time. Also in 2008, Pollydore became disabled due to a diabetes-related amputation and he fears he will never be able to come to terms with his bank for an affordable mortgage payment.

"It is great the State is getting all this money back from the banks, but I feel like they need to give the money back to the homeowners - especially the money that came from these predatory lenders," Pollydore said.

He adds that his Long Island neighborhood has been ravaged by foreclosures. "You drive through the neighborhood and the houses are boarded up, there are squatters, we have increased crime, school taxes have increased." Pollydore says he is now surviving on government assistance and still owes back taxes.

"The money the attorney general is using for his program is a drop in the bucket compared to the settlements they have reached," said Pollydore. "We need the money back to stop so many people walking away from their homes."

Cuomo's budget proposal combines the State's pot into $5.8 billion in settlement cash and proposes to put it largely toward one-time expenditures. The plan would use $1.5 billion for upstate revitalization, $3 billion for infrastructure including the Tappan Zee bridge, $500 million to increase broadband infrastructure across the state, and $850 million for a rainy-day fund.

The Assembly budget is largely in line with Cuomo's proposal, but adds $200 million in increased spending on housing issues, including $100 million for homeowners "at risk of foreclosure or who are underwater on their mortgage." The Assembly budget plan only offers this about the program: "The Assembly provides $100 million for a mortgage modification program." Calls to the Assembly for more details were not returned.

While The Fair Share for Housing Coalition praises Cuomo for including more funding for affordable housng and has tried to avoid ruffling feathers in its push for more help for homeowners, New York Communities for Change (NYCC) has used a more confrontational style. It issued a report earlier this year called "Wall St. On The 2nd Floor" that details the connections between Cuomo's new chief of staff, William Mulrow, and his former employer, Blackstone. Blackstone is the largest private equity company in the world and NYCC worries Murrow, and by extension Cuomo, has a conflict of interest.

The NYCC report reads: "Private equity companies "snapped up properties after prices fell as much as 35 percent from the 2006 peak and rental demand rose from the almost 5 million owners who went through foreclosure since 2008." The company that bought the most foreclosed properties during this time was Blackstone."

NYCC members plan to deliver Pollydore's petition to the governor soon.

"I think the governor has made his priorities pretty clear," said Peter Nagy of NYCC. " Helping people hurt by the banking crisis doesn't seem to be as important as helping those who caused the banking crisis. I think the governor's friends believe it is in their best interest not to help homeowners."

As they do during budget season, deals will materialize and implode, and it appears that the use of settlement funds may be decided in negotiations between the Legislature and Cuomo outside of the budget, which is due by April 1. Legislative session continues through mid June.

"The windfall money is something that I believe should be settled outside of the budget and done in a very deliberate way rather than rushing it in the next three days," Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said after meeting with Cuomo on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Cuomo administration was pushing back.

Velez said he is happy with the AG's program but wished there was more help out their for other homeowners, "This was a hurricane, no one asked for this," he said.

Pollydore, meanwhile, plans to keep advocating for Cuomo and the Legislature to dedicate all of the mortgage-related settlement funds to helping homeowners who are facing foreclosure. "This is why I'm appealing to the governor to help us. The banks got a bailout from the government and we didn't - so the State got that money from us. They got it from us."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Categories: State/Local

Sky’s the Limit for Solar in New York

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 03/26/2015 - 1:00am

The author, far left, & others at a solar panel event

Fifteen years ago, flat-screen televisions were a rare luxury item, a smart phone was one with an address book, we kept our music on plastic discs, and video chats were a feature in Star Trek episodes. Now there's widespread use of handheld devices that enable us to listen to music, watch videos, talk, text or video-chat with friends or colleagues, while also providing immediate access to a world of information.

Times have changed, and solar power is a case in point. Fifteen years ago, solar was used by a small number of true believers. Now, because of advances in technology and growing economies of scale, solar costs 25 percent of what it cost in 2000.

Solar panels are popping up all over: on homes, businesses, places of worship, and government buildings. Just over two months ago, in his State of the Union address, President Obama summed it up when he said, "Every three weeks, we bring as much solar online as we did in all of 2008."

Here in New York, solar energy grew 63 percent per year between 2010 and 2013. That's fast enough to reach a goal of 20 percent solar in New York by 2025– a goal once thought ambitious, if not impossible, but now readily achievable.

"Star Power: the Growing Role of Solar Energy in New York," a recent report by Environment New York Research & Policy Center, shows that growth could actually slow down to 47 percent and solar energy would still provide 20 percent of our power in the next decade.

This is a critical finding at a time when state regulators are trying to transform the New York's energy efficiency and renewable energy programs through Governor Cuomo's "Reforming the Energy Vision" (REV) initiative.

Boosting solar energy power production is more urgent than ever. Scientists have never been clearer that global warming is real, happening now, and will only get worse without meaningful action. In New York, we're already feeling consequences like Hurricane Sandy and other more extreme weather.

Achieving 20 percent solar energy would cut as much carbon pollution as 3 million cars emit in a year, and put New York more than halfway to the benchmark set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which requires cuts in power plant carbon pollution of 44 percent.

More solar isn't just good for the environment. It's also good for our economy. Solar is currently the fastest-growing industry in the country, adding 143,000 jobs nationwide in 2013. According to the latest solar jobs census from the Solar Foundation, the solar industry employed more than 7,000 people in New York last year.

Of course, 20 percent solar is just a sliver of the possible. The state is home to more than 1.9 million residential and commercial rooftops that could host solar panels, and it has enough technical potential to meet the state's energy needs 11 times over.

We've made progress. But we can't take that progress for granted. Powerful interests, including the fossil fuel industry and electric utilities are working hard to slow gains. To take solar to the next level, we'll need a strong commitment from our local, state, and national leaders. By adopting a goal of getting 20 percent of our power from the sun by 2025 and working together, we can begin to move New York and the nation toward a future where we get all of our power from pollution-free energy sources. Our quality of life and our children's future depend on it.

***
Heather Leibowitz, Esq. is the Director of Environment New York, a statewide environmental advocacy organization.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

Around NY

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 03/25/2015 - 12:07am

Maple syrup, Adirondack barn focus of 'New York Now'

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

Highlights include a story on a one-of-a-kind maple syrup producer in the Hudson Valley and a feature on the slow death of the most photographed barn in the Adirondacks.

Guests at the reporters roundtable will discuss the week's events in the state Capitol.

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

Judge rejects request to release grand jury testimony

NEW YORK — A judge on Thursday refused to release testimony heard by a grand jury that declined to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, finding he hadn't heard a valid reason to make the secret information public.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and others had asked the court to order Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan to release the grand jury transcript, including the testimony of the officer involved, Daniel Pantaleo, and dozens of witnesses and other documentation.

A similar step was voluntarily taken by the prosecutor in Ferguson, Mo., when a grand jury there refused to indict an officer in the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Both Garner and Brown were black; the officers involved are white. The deaths sparked nationwide protests about the treatment of communities of color by law enforcement. The effort to make the Garner grand jury record public had been considered a longshot given that New York laws explicitly bar disclosure absent a court order.

— Associated Press

De Blasio backs extra aid to help struggling schools

NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio promoted his plan to boost the performance of struggling schools by providing extra support during a visit to a Queens high school Thursday.

De Blasio said Richmond Hill High School is improving since it was added to a list of 94 "renewal schools" receiving funds for services such as weekend tutoring and expanded after-school programs.

"The students, the faculty, everyone can tell that things are getting better," he said.

De Blasio said his administration "came along with a different philosophy" of helping struggling schools improve instead of closing them. The mayor's philosophy has clashed with the education priorities of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is proposing a state takeover of failing schools.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

Mystery items in proposed budget

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 03/25/2015 - 12:07am

Despite the elimination five years ago of a type of spending known as the member item, the proposed 2015-16 budget has $2.6 billion in "lump sums," according to a study by Citizens Union, a nonpartisan good-government group. The report says it's almost impossible to learn where much of that money is going or which lawmakers are responsible.

"There are at least $2.6 billion of these funds," said Rachael Fauss, the report's co-author.

She said the budget process has become a bit less opaque since member items, a category of lawmaker-driven grants, were eliminated.

But many of those grants were for projects or programs that are funded over several years, so they persist, even five years later.

"They are getting slowly spent down," said Fauss.

In lieu of member items, lawmakers appear to be devising new grants that they can control, and there are few details about the purposes of some of them, aside from some broad headings such as criminal justice or health initiatives.

The Republican-controlled Senate, for instance, is proposing $10.6 million in new "pots," or spending items, Fauss found,

Rape-prevention programs will get $3 million, but the breakdown won't be clear without a Senate resolution. Another $950,000 has been allocated to fight Lyme disease, which comes as Senate Republicans have several newly elected members in the Hudson Valley, which is one of the state's Lyme hot spots.

While there's no indication of who would distribute that money, the opaque nature of the allocations is what's troubling, said Fauss.

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is under federal indictment, accused of directing grants from a health care fund to a doctor who in return referred cancer patients to Silver's law firm. And former Senate Democratic Leader Malcolm Smith was convicted in a corruption case involving transportation funds he steered to a Rockland County developer.

Dick Dadey, Citizens Union's director, said he believes these funds should include precise details about what they are paying for as well as the legislators sponsoring them. That disclosure requirement should also apply to the governor's office, he said.

The issue of transparency in government also ran through budget negotiations as Senate Republicans questioned why tougher financial disclosure rules proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo don't apply to domestic partners, such as Cuomo's girlfriend, TV host Sandra Lee, with whom he lives.

On Wednesday, Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie reached an agreement on an ethics overhaul that includes tougher financial disclosure requirements for items such as outside income. But Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said the Republicans who control the Senate had been out of the loop and haven't agreed to the deal. He also repeated his belief that a deal should include more disclosure of executive branch spending, including the costs of taking aides to gubernatorial news conferences around the state.

"The governor, staff, when they move their minions of 40, 50 for a press conference — other than for security purposes — they don't have to disclose that," Skelos said. "There are a lot of things that we believe should apply to the executive branch just as it applies to the legislative branch."

In a tweet, Cuomo spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa said, "Ladies and gentleman, behold: the art of misdirection in action."

Skelos in a prepared statement later added, "While there is more work to be done, we remain on track to pass the state's fifth consecutive on-time budget.''

The budget is due April 1.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

SUNY union asks, where are the test scores?

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 03/25/2015 - 12:07am

The union representing State University of New York professors on Thursday said the state Education Department has failed to issue the passing or "cut" scores required for nearly half of their new tests, which aspiring K-12 teachers must take before they can become certified.

Even though students had to begin taking the certification tests last September, pass grades for 17 of the 40 Content Specialty Test have yet to be established, according to United University Professions.

"This is creating an extreme hardship for recent graduates from teacher education programs seeking employment as teachers, as well as certified teachers seeking additional certificates," UUP President Frederick Kowal said in a prepared statement.

"Certification applications are being held up and SED has not provided a date as to when the passing scores will actually be available."

UUP, which represents professors in a number of SUNY schools of education, has been critical of the new certification exams, which are aligned with the new Common Core learning standards and administered by Pearson Inc.

They have complained that education professors at colleges and universities weren't given enough time to prepare their students for the new regimen of exams. The state Education Department, though, maintains the colleges had plenty of advance notice that the tests were changing.

The subjects covered in Content Specialty Tests range from math to English to physical education.

Patricia Recchio, of Buffalo State College and a member of a UUP's task force on teacher training, said students were earlier told the scores would be delayed until January but "that date has come and gone."

Earlier in March, UUP called on the state Legislature and the state Board of Regents to investigate the new teacher certification process.

Education Department spokesman Dennis Tompkins said the department has followed standard protocols to review test questions and to make recommendations for appropriate passing scores. "A review of these findings will be completed shortly, and passing scores will be released as soon as possible," he said in a statement.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

$9B bus terminal rejected

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 03/25/2015 - 12:07am

Jersey City, N.J.

A plan to transform the nation's busiest bus terminal from a crumbling eyesore in the heart of New York City into a gleaming new facility stalled Thursday as transit officials rejected the approximately $9 billion price tag and demanded cheaper options.

Commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs area transit hubs, revolted against the Manhattan bus terminal proposal presented by agency officials, saying they need to consider other options, including building the new terminal in New Jersey and creating a rail link to Manhattan or finding a cheaper place in the city for construction.

The Port Authority Bus Terminal, long considered an embarrassing stain on the city's mass transit system, is located in Times Square near some of the city's most famous attractions, including Broadway and Madison Square Garden. It suffers from cracked floors, crumbling ceiling tiles and severe overcrowding during rush hour.

Commissioners acknowledged for years the terminal needs to be replaced, but the project never took off amid the bistate agency's political scandals and increasing financial burdens. "Either we are going to build a 21st-century bus terminal or abandon our bus passengers to a Fourth World commuting experience," Commissioner Kenneth Lipper said.

The cost estimates, ranging from about $8 billion to nearly $10 billion, are more than twice as expensive as the $4 billion World Trade Center transportation hub, which was criticized for running over budget. Commissioners suggested selling off Port Authority property, including the World Trade Center, could help pay for the new bus terminal.

The 65-year-old bus terminal handles 220,000 riders a day.

The internal study, which began more than a year and a half ago, produced five possibilities. All would build the new terminal on Manhattan's far west side near Times Square and would take 12 to 15 years to complete.

Categories: State/Local

New York state school property tax reduction gets support from left, right

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 03/24/2015 - 8:07pm

Senate Republicans are talking about a revived STAR (School Tax Relief) rebate check and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is calling for a school-tax circuit breaker that would be based on income.

Property tax reform advocates supported an income-based plan on Wednesday as the best way to ease the state's enormous middle-class tax burden.

A circuit breaker, said Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger, "is the kind of smart targeted policy that provides a break to those who need it most."

Under the circuit breaker proposed by Cuomo, homeowners would get an income tax credit if their property taxes exceeded a certain proportion of their annual income. While that proposal could cost the state more than $1 billion, supporters say it's the fairest way to even out New York's tops-in-the-nation property and school taxes, which pose a burden on many residents.

They note some $50 billion in property taxes are collected each year, which dwarfs the cost of a circuit breaker.

The circuit breaker idea has support from an array of groups.

"We applaud the governor and the Assembly for putting forward rational property tax proposals," said Ron Deutsch, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a labor-backed group that has been critical of state budget cutbacks.

"Circuit breaker programs are the best way to provide relief to those New Yorkers most burdened by property taxes because benefits are condition on income," said Elizabeth Lynam of the Citizens Budget Commission, a spending watchdog group.

Also supporting the circuit breaker during a news conference on Wednesday was the League of Women Voters; New York State Property Tax Reform Coalition, TREND and New Paltz Supervisor Susan Zimet.

Under Cuomo's proposal, homeowners with incomes up to $250,000 would get an income tax break if their property taxes exceed 6 percent of their annual earnings. But to qualify, the school districts or municipalities taxing the property would have to adhere to the state's 2 percent cap on increases.

Homeowners would get a maximum credit of $2,000.

Some, including the Fiscal Policy Institute, don't like the tax cap connection. But they say a circuit breaker, which could yield thousands of dollars of relief for middle income families in highly taxed areas, is preferable to a revived STAR rebate.

Until 2009, homeowners received modest rebates — an enhanced tax break — on school taxes. That was cut in the lean times after the 2008 Great Recession but Senate Republicans want to restore it.

The STAR rebate would apply to households with incomes of up to $500,000. Republicans said the higher income widens the pool of taxpayers who would benefit.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local
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