I know what some of our local politicians have been saying, but trying to weed through the facts and actually start to have some confidence that our political climate is seriously changing for the better is difficult for me.
Our recent state budget was on time and that's a plus for those who have to plan their budgets based on the states funding or not funding of various items and programs. I'll give a few points for that, although filing timely budgets is their job, at least for a change it was done.
Our illustrious county executive is happy about the cap on Medicaid, purported to save us billions in the next three years.
Really? What it actually does is to cap the estimated rise in Medicaid expenditures, by capping that rise at 2 percent for next year and 1 percent the year after followed by no rise. All well and good, but it does nothing to reduce the already crushing weight of current Medicaid costs, does absolutely nothing to the unfunded mandated costs that have essentially bankrupted our county. So, since we are reportedly $14 million in the hole for this year, and nothing is in that budget to help us this year, why all the hand clapping? I don't get it.
We're fighting hard to get some commitment on keeping the NRG plant operating, and the state budget doesn't address that at all. The closing of that plant would be an economic disaster for this area, and I mean the entire county, not just Dunkirk and Fredonia where most of the NRG employees live.
I understand the cheering on the sidelines from the Green Energy folks, but they're wearing blinders as to the immediate economic impact of NRG closing, or just don't care as that one issue is overriding of all others for them. So be it, but count on a huge tax rise afterwards and don't complain, please.
We have an agreement on teacher evaluations and again, a lot of hand clapping there too from the anti-teacher, anti-public employee crowd. And after all, how could one not be happy over a process that ensures our children will be taught by the best available?
Well one could if that evaluation process is so flawed as to be meaningless. Much was made over teachers' unions fighting a portion of the evaluation that doesn't allow for attendance to be weighted when scoring student performance, and accusing the teachers of being unreasonable. Really? If a teacher is in a district like Buffalo, where student truancy runs about 25 percent, how can you not give that some weight as to student test scores? Don't students who miss school and assignments get zero for at least some grades and tests? Won't that affect their scores?
I'd be more concerned if missing assignments don't affect their grades. And, in all fairness, is it fair to have the exact same criteria for a teacher evaluation in all school districts without any allowance for the student body contained in it? Is it reasonable to expect a teacher in the Buffalo school system to meet the same standards as say Amherst?
Looking at the population, income and educational levels of the parents in Amherst relative to Buffalo would lead a logical person to say no to that question. But logic has nothing to do with this, and politics has everything to do with this issue. And nothing has been even mentioned as to the curriculum and teaching methods forced on teachers over the last few decades leading to the current crisis in education. There have always been good, bad or average teachers so blaming everything wrong with education on them isn't reasonable or logical. I'm assuming the hand clapping is the result of a perception that a group of public employees lost an argument and due to the demonizing of all public employees that's automatically a good thing. I don't think so.
We have a Tier 6 retirement program now, with changes from Tier 5 that will save us money in the long haul - billions again according to Albany sources. Really? The main thing driving up retirement costs in a system that should be fairly self-sustaining is the inclusion of overtime wages into the salary on which ones retirement is based. This allows people to retire at salaries often triple their base pay. Now, in my estimation, if a person is working 80 hours per week and more, they can well afford to start their own retirement account to pad their retirement income.
Nobody would be hurting if they retired on what their base pay would have brought in, especially if they worked until they were 62. Most of the changes to the retirement system, from what I saw, is not going to address the biggest issues and the worst abusers of the system, which are police and fireman. Why? Because unlike the majority of state workers where overtime is rotated, the police and fireman give all the overtime to the most senior employees, So, for police and fireman, they can double and then some their income in the last year or two they work as nobody else can get any overtime. It makes a much easier process.
This is all legal by the way, I'm merely pointing out the process. I'm not sure about that limit on 15 percent of overtime counting either. What happens now is it's 20 percent per year. How that works is, year one allows for 20 percent over your base pay as your income for retirement. Year two allows for 20 percent over year one, including that 20 percent overtime. Therefore, by year six, you've effectively doubled your base rate of pay for retirement figuring.
If that 15 percent is applied the same way, all it will do is extend the amount of years needed to work to double one's pay. Since most public employees will work for at least 30 years, how much of an issue is that going to be? So, you really want to do some hand clapping? You create Tier 7, you eliminate all overtime for retirement purposes, and that alone would stop the drain that requires local municipalities to send such large amounts to Albany to replenish a fund that ought to be almost self sustaining by now. My point is, the changes may not be what you think they are, and that's what the issue really is here, reality versus perception and "spin".
The downstate versus upstate issue hasn't changed a bit. While NRG in Dunkirk is hanging on, plans are being made to build transmission lines to the New York City area from New Jersey! Why? My understanding is that it's various connected construction companies from New York pushing for it.
I'm not sure why we've also had discussions with Canada for power while we're potentially losing jobs and closing a plant that exists right here, but we have. I might add that coal-fired plants might be an endangered species anyway, but this plant is the cleanest a coal plant can be. For now, it's better and cheaper than any alternatives, unless of course you support gigantic Transformer looking and bird killing windmills that the government guarantees three times the rate per wattage than it costs NRG to produce, just to make them viable.
The bottom-line is nothing happens overnight, but if you look carefully, much of what we're praising are cosmetic changes at best and aren't going to do anything but position certain people for political advancement.
That's not good enough.
Paul Christopher is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org