Thursday, June 19, 2008

Westchester Guardian.

June 19, 2008

Catherine Wilson
Bureau Chief,

Northern Westchester

Meeting With Local State Legislators

Our local New York State Senate and Assembly representatives routinely meet with area residents to discuss their concerns. Assemblyman Adam Bradley, and Senator Vincent Liebell, met with area residents on Saturday, June 6 in Mt. Kisco and Bedford Hills.

The Guardian attended the Town Hall meeting in Bedford Hills to hear area residents’ concerns on a variety of topics. State Budgets/Accountability: Both Bradley and Liebell kicked o the forum by addressing the unique year Albany faced. “Two weeks before the budget was due, the governor resigned,” Liebell noted.

The legislators noted that the final approved budget for the state is $122.7 billion – a decrease of $2.7 billion from the initial budget proposed by Governor Spitzer. Liebell noted that the $122.7 billion, however, does not represent all funds spent by the state.

Leibell: “There are 700 – 800 public authorities that are ‘off-budget’. “It’s hard to figure out who they are. The Legislature does not vote on them. They have an advantage – they can operate more expeditiously”.

Guardian: “How can we find out what the total New York State budget really is?”

Liebell: “The State Comptroller’s office would track this. Our current Comptroller, Tom DiNapoli, is terriffic. He has exposed problems with some authorities upstate Meeting With Local State Legislators and double-dipping by employees of those authorities. The New
York State Comptroller’s Office has required all authorities to have independent audits and also state audits”.

Guardian: “Does New York State have conflict-of-interest laws and ethics guidelines for all government levels?” (Neither legislator had a response). Infrastructure: One area resident brought up the subject of how the current downturn in the economy would affect the state’s infrastructure.

Liebell: “Whenever there’s a downturn in the economy, the first place to cut in the short-term is maintenance for roads, bridges, and tunnels. We’re particularly vulnerable in New York State and New York City because we have a heavily urbanized state. Most people probably don’t know that there are four or five layers underneath the (NYC) streets - everything from electrical to sewer to steam pipes”.

Bradley: “That leads to another issue – manhole security. It’s very easy to knock out large segments of the city. This infrastructure issue is very critical. When you’re talking about building a bridge like the Tappan Zee, you don’t do that out of operating money; you do that out of bonds. And that might require a public-private partnership. We don’t know yet. The other thing on infrastructure that has troubled me is our SUNY (State University of New York) system which has tremendous needs. Our SUNY schools were once considered some of the best in the country but their reputation has been hurt because we have not maintained them as adequately as some of our competitors”.

Liebell: “That’s another one of the tragedies of the Spitzer situation because he came in on the State of the State address with some very great ideas on revitalizing the SUNY/CUNY (City University of New York) system. What Elliott Spitzer talked about was Buffalo, Binghamton, and Stony Brook and making them major research centers. That’s a different type of infrastructure that we have not kept up with”.

Guardian: “The SUNY system is still a phenomenal bargain – it is one of the least expensive state school systems in the country. Is there any view towards increasing the tuition at SUNY? And one of the things that the SUNY system does not have to put itself on the map is
Division 1 teams so they don’t compare with other state schools like Michigan and Florida”.

Bradley: “The SUNY mission and who they serve is actually very different than from when it was first created. The initial mission of the SUNY system was to be a school for low-income people. The SUNY system is now a place to send your middle class children. It’s a fundamentally different system. The lower-income children now, if they do well enough, get a scholarship and they go to private schools. But for middle class families who have a hard time and are less likely to get that scholarship, they still need something affordable. So we need to have a system where tuition is predictable and that might mean an indexing system by year. We don’t want a system where tuition suddenly increases 15% in one year.

As far as Division 1 sports goes, we don’t have any SUNY schools that are Division 1 sports. Syracuse, which is not really a SUNY school, is the only one in the state that has Division 1 draw. The SUNY school in my district, SUNY Purchase, does have a dance team and performers. That’s also a great function for the university”.

Guardian: “It’s just that sports are a phenomenal source of revenue.”

Bradley: “I’ve basically led the fight to bring in senior learning communities onto the SUNY Purchase campus. There’s an issue about the use of public land. There have been abuses and sweetheart deals on other campuses. The legislation that I put in would eliminate those issues. Why is this so important? We’ve acknowledged that we have a SUNY system that’s not doing as well – we don’t have the revenues we once had to continue to support them. And here’s a tremendous opportunity to increase their endowments. We’re taking something that we know works at many other campuses and bringing it into the SUNY system. The SUNY system does not have good endowments like other state systems. If we bring in a senior learning center, those seniors are going to be auditing classes, the kids will get audiences for their performances that they are practicing, there would be tremendous opportunity for those seniors to participate and it’s a mutual benefit for everybody”.

Liebell: “Let me just say this on the SUNY faculty. Out there in (SUNY) Stony Brook, we have some of the best scientific minds in the world connected with the Brookhaven Laboratory. We get raided. It’s very tough for us to come close to competing with Harvard and Yale coming in. And that’s where an endowed university can make a big difference”.

Reducing/Monitoring Government: Taxpayer: “Taxes are too high. The New York State tax booklet is now thicker than the Federal book. Why don’t we make one taxing authority? I’m talking about innovation. The Florida legislature meets once a year for two weeks and they get all the work done”. (The Guardian could not confirm Florida’s legislative schedule).

Liebell: “If you have a legislative body that meets for only two weeks, you will be left with only a governor who’s going to make all the decisions. We would have a system with very little oversight. We have a very active role to play which calls for more than two weeks per year”.

Bradley: “All those appointments for all those authorities would be gubernatorial appointments. We don’t want a system where
there’s limited government oversight”.

Liebell: “That’s why we have checks and balances”.

Taxpayer: “Is there any book in New York State that has statistics in it that shows ‘this is the cost of running a town versus how many citizens there are’ or ‘this is the cost of the highway department per the miles of roads in that town’. What guide do we have? How do we know if the town budgets are good, bad, or indifferent?”

Guardian: “We did a two-part series in January on local town budgets. I’m an ex-auditor and even I found it was almost impossible to compare them. Some, like Chappaqua, have tremendous information online, and some towns, like Somers, had nothing so their citizens had to go into the town to review the budgets. Some towns had full five-year schedules for every one of their vehicles for when they needed to be
replaced while other towns had nothing. And although our County Budget is posted online, there are so many items hidden under the Department of Social Services that really don’t belong there so that there is no way to know what the County is really spending. Most of a town’s budget is for union expenses, yet the taxpayers never see the union contracts. Or vote on them. Why doesn’t the state require that all
town and county budgets are prepared the same way with full disclosure and posted online so that taxpayers can compare them? The Federal government already has standards for government reporting. Why don’t we follow their standards?”

Bradley: “Like a mandate?”


Taxpayer: “And use a standard chart of accounts.”

Bradley: “Buffalo gets a lot of snow and the cost of living is different. You need to be very careful comparing. There are regional differences. It would be difficult to compare Rochester or Buffalo to Bedford. You can contact the state Comptroller’s Of-fice. I’m sure they have some sort of guide”. (Note: neither legislator acknowledged that full disclosure and access would allow local residents to compare neighboring towns to see if their own town was spending more or less for similar services in a similar location. Bedford residents would be more
likely to compare their town’s budget to the town of North Castle, rather than Buffalo! But without a state mandate governing the presentation of budgets, and the details to be provided, such comparisons are presently impossible).

Taxpayer: “We have to consider that if there was competition for New York State, and there is, there are 51 others”.

Liebell: “Just remember this, if you ever studied statistics, the first thing you learn is that numbers lie. You really have to get into the numbers. You have to go beyond the numbers”.

Taxpayer: “Fine. But unless you have the numbers, in a relative sense, you have nothing to look at. You can’t compare to anything”.


Energy:

Taxpayer: “Why doesn’t the state pass a law that every new building has to have so much solar space on the roof and hooked into
their own grid? Or, if you’re in a wind designated area, there has to be a wind generator”.


Liebell: “What if we passed a law that said that you have to have solar panels on your roof?”

Taxpayer: “I’d have no problem with that if you’d also give me tax breaks to put them in because ultimately you’d have to pay less money to the power authorities. You can’t look at just today’s costs – you have to look at the net total benefit to everybody”.

Bradley: “I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. I’m a big supporter of net metering. There’s a number of things we could be doing.”

Taxpayer: “Right. I want to run my dishwasher after midnight but I can’t. That’s nuts”.

Bradley: “But you know who the biggest opposition to that is? The energy industry. But I hear what you’re saying”.

Underground Utilities:

Taxpayer: “Why isn’t there a state law that when a street is renovated, the utilities are put underground? You want to keep
the poles there so people can drive into them?”

Liebell: “I can tell you why. The cost of underground utilities is horrific. In this climate here, the corrosive influence on underground
utilities is much more expensive than maintaining above-ground utilities. We get the calls – trees are falling down on the lines, etc. But if we put billions of dollars into that, maybe those are billions of dollars that don’t go into hospitals or education”.

Privatizing Roads:


Taxpayer: “I wonder if the state is looking at privatizing our roads like what Pennsylvania is doing?”

Liebell: “That’s the history of our state. So many of our roads were privately owned, they were toll roads. In addition, the history
of the canal system was private money and government formed corporations. That’s a concept in parts of Asia and Africa”.

Bradley: “There’s a balance. If you have a situation where a private entity takes over, we may get an infusion of bonds. But
over the long term, they’re going to be collecting tolls and raising revenues. And they won’t have the same obligations in many ways that the state has in maintaining those roads – they have a profit motive. I’ve seen how the profit motive works with HMO’s. I get concerned when we deal with these types of things. There’s a balance. We have an obligation to make sure the balance works for the people”.

Liebell: “There are other questions that come up. Who polices it if it’s a private road? What will the authority and liability be? The state can close the Saw Mill for police purposes, emergency purposes, and repair purposes. But if it’s privately owned, you can say, ‘I want to close it today. It’s my road and I’m closing it’”.

Heating Oil/Medicaid:


Taxpayer: “Those of us who live in homes and can’t afford solar and other systems, our heating oil is being taxed in some localities. It’s not being taxed in Putnam and Dutchess. And as the heating oil is going up, up, up our taxes are going up. How can we deal with this situation?”

Liebell: “There is a fundamental difference between heating oil and gasoline. Heating oil is an absolute necessity. There was an opt-in with heating oil statewide but Westchester did not opt in. That’s one of the reasons why you are not seeing this benefit. But we have to do something about this particularly if the costs do not come down as winter approaches.”

Taxpayer: “The County says Medicaid is their big expense so that’s why we have to pay in this fashion”.

Bradley: “I fought very hard for a Medicaid cap. We ended up with a 3% cap. Their Medicaid costs are more balanced than what they were. Yes, it’s a large component of their government. I love the County, but do they really want us to take away the system that allows them to hire more employees than anything else? If we take Medicaid from them, that’s Social Services, the largest department in the County. That’s most of their jobs. Now I don’t hear them saying they want to get rid of their jobs, I hear them saying they just want to get rid of their payments”.

Liebell: “When Medicaid came about in the 1960’s, we gave them a sales tax simultaneously. They were given the right to have a local sales tax to fund it. We’ve done a lot of takeovers for them to cut their costs.”

Bradley: “In fairness, there have been mandates that were placed on the counties by the state that have cost them money and, in fact, we fought several this year that were in the gubernatorial budget.”

Taxpayer: “We still need to look at the oil issue. If the state gets a lot of snow this winter, we have a problem. You need to do something.”

Liebell: “That’s a public policy position. But we’re looking at that short-term. We need to look at it long-term, like the solar panels”.

Bradley: “We need to make sure that the tax credits for energy improvements are valuable enough so that it’s enticing and diversified enough so that everybody has an opportunity to take advantage of it without bankrupting the state. But you have to do it so that one big corporation doesn’t come in and take everything”.

Liebell: “There’s not a house in this area that couldn’t be geo-thermal heated. The cost is dropping dramatically. If you want to
have an effective long-term policy, you don’t have any environmental issues, it doesn’t cost you anything once it’s in. North Salem High
School has this. The improvements in solar panels over the last 36 months are dramatic”.

Gasoline:


Taxpayer: “In Europe, the cost of gasoline is over $8 a gallon. They drive smaller cars and technologically better cars. Should
the state increase taxes over a period of time so that people could adjust accordingly. So in five years, say, the state is getting money
to go towards housing costs?”

Bradley: “In New York, our taxes are relatively higher compared to other states. So we have to balance this against what’s happening next to us – New Jersey and Pennsylvania are substantially less than ours. Which is why I separate the issue of home heating oil from gasoline. So hen people want me to cut taxes on gasoline, I’m much less sympathetic”.

Liebell: “In my conference in the Senate, we’ve talked about all new public construction to be geo-thermal, solar-paneled. The government is such a large user that, to make that shift, is huge”.

Taxpayer: “Has the state considered a strategic petroleum reserve of home heating oil?”

Liebell: “Not to my knowledge. But the utilities have supplies we can access in a state of emergency”.

Health Benefits/HMO’s:


Taxpayer: “The state has put protections on medical insurance to protect taxpayers. But there are some protections that are expensive.
Why can’t we have an A policy and a B policy that loosens up on some of the things you don’t really need and the protection?”

Bradley: “New York is actually one of the least regulated as far as health insurance goes. And we are not big advocates of allowing underinsured plans as some other states do. It’s hard enough when you pay for a full policy to get them to pay for what they’re supposed to. Imagine if you have a lesser policy? The HMO’s are currently making record profits in our state – we’re the greatest state for them. We’re regulating auto insurance premiums in this state but we don’t regulate health insurance premiums. The HMO’s are allowed to change what they cover. Your doctor, in a regular exam, does an ear exam, and eye exam, etc. Now the HMO bundles those procedures into one to pay the doctors and they’re allowed to do that unilaterally without any two-way negotiations”.

Taxpayer: “Is there a huge HMO lobby and are the laws ever going to change in Albany”?

Bradley: “I drafted having uniformity in coding and the HMO’s fought that because they make a lot more money by having complete chaos. Every insurance company wants to have a different code for a sprained knee. Why does Medicare have a system that works? So yes, we’re doing things. Are you right to ask if the HMO lobby is huge? Yes. This has been an issue of mine that I’ve been fighting because there’s just so many issues here of unfairness. I think that we need to have HMO’s that operate as partners. And yes they need to make a profit. But not to the point where they are basically taking away from health care.”

Guardian: “People who are union members are getting their health benefits tax free while those of us who are freelancers, independent
contractors, and part-time workers are paying thousands of dollars for their medical benefits that they can’t even deduct”.

Bradley: “Unfortunately, that stems from how the system has evolved”.

Guardian: “But that’s no longer reality”.


Bradley: “Correct. The corporate world is recognizing this. We in the public sector need to accept that reality also. One of the things the Senator and I have talked about is exactly this issue, recognizing that we have to deal with these issues”.

Fraud/Courts:


Guardian: “The current benefits system affects people in other ways such as divorce cases where the judges don’t understand even basic accounting and you have someone who has to finance their own benefits up against someone whose benefits are completely financed and all the judge knows to look at are salary levels. Part of what’s getting subsidized in these union plans are the employees spouses and children.
So someone who has to pay for their own medical insurance now has to pay tax dollars to subsidize up to 90% of the cost for somebody else’s kids”.

Liebell: “Do you know what’s really a concern? The single dipping. We have people in this county making more than the governor of the state”.

Bradley: “We have pensions for people who work for the Thruway Authority who collect over $200,000”. After Roslyn, Long Island, happened we did have an audit requirement after that”

Liebell: “I hope everybody knows how important a state Comptroller’s office is. We took a beating in the press (spoken with emphasis, looking directly at this Guardian writer) when we did not let the Governor appoint his own Comptroller”.

Bradley: “We got beaten up on that, by the press (same as Liebell, spoken with emphasis and while looking at this Guardian writer)”.

Guardian: “So you are, in effect, agreeing with me that the fox should not be guarding the hen house?”

Bradley/Liebell: “Absolutely”.


Guardian: “Therefore, given the level of corruption in our court system, where the US District court in Lopez-Torres vs the
State of New York said that the NYS judicial selection was ‘the most corrupt in the nation’ and the Supreme Court had no authority to
authority to overturn the state laws…..”.

Bradley: “No, no, no, the Supreme Court overturned the trial courts”.

Guardian: “But as two attorneys, you are both very familiar with the backroom deals in the courts. The last administrative
judge of this district took kickback appointments from the judges while collecting his pension. And the current administrative
judge is named in a lawsuit on a RICO charge. And who’s guarding the hen house? The grievance committees who are all lawyers. It’s so incestuous”.

Bradley: “The judicial oversight is far different than attorney oversight”.

Guardian: “The judicial oversight committee is now receiving more complaints than ever before while the legislature is reducing its budget so they have no power any more”.

Liebell: “Let me say this to you. You’re talking about federal judges and US attorneys. Do you think they get them from monasteries?”

Guardian: “One of the reasons I know about the court kickbacks is because my ex-husband is a court employee and there was a kickback list kept on our home computer. I took it to OCA and Albany and the auditors and no one did anything”.

Liebell: “I’ve never seen them”.


Guardian: “I’d be more than happy to show it to you”.

Bradley: “My experience is the judges are no different from legislators, and doctors, and anybody else”

Liebell: “And auditors”

Bradley: “There’s a 10% bad apple rule”

Liebell: “Look at Enron”.

Bradley: “I think it’s no different for judges. The system that you’re talking about is one that I don’t think adds to that ratio. There’s no doubt that it’s a political system. But it’s so arbitrary if someone turns out to be a good judge or not. The whole system is out of whack”.

Guardian: “Given the fact that judges are now clamoring for a raise and have now filed a lawsuit for that raise and are now doing a slowdown – 80 judges took off work last month to hold a Law Day at Brooklyn courts to hold a protest, what are we doing to clean up the corrupt judges and get rid of them before any raise goes into effect?”

Liebell: “Corrupt is a criminal term.”

Guardian: “And some definitely are. Our local administrative judge is facing RICO charges”.

Bradley: “This is so unfair. Civil RICO is not criminal RICO. You can’t just toss those terms around. Just because someone is named in a lawsuit doesn’t mean they are guilty of RICO. But that’s what we have federal prosecutors for and District Attorneys for. I think it’s only fair to say that there is a litigation”.

Guardian: “I have tons of cases of individuals who were on the wrong side of the political issue and the other party had more clout so they got shafted. When they file complaints, they get whitewashed unless you have a wiretap, which was the Judge Garson case”.

Bradley: “I honestly do not believe that there is rampant corruption. I think we need to be careful to not cast a broad brush. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few judges like Garson. But I don’t have a problem with saying that there’s way too much incompetence”.

Guardian: “What about the conflicts of interest? Why are the judges’ ethics filings not posted online so the public can see what businesses they are involved in? When was the last time the court system was even audited?”

Liebell: “OCA (Office of Court Administration) audits them”.

Guardian: “That’s the fox guarding the hen house again”.

Liebell: “I’ve been doing this a long time. 90% (*) of the people I’ve been dealing with are beyond reproach. Whether it’s the public sector, the clergy, educators, the press, accountants – no place is a collection of saints”. (* - Liebell offered no evidence to support his statistic. Liebell also noted early on in this meeting to a taxpayer who was quoting statistics that ‘statistics lie’).

Liebell: “Some of the most horrific things I’ve seen are in the press. When I see somebody say ‘an unnamed source’, give me a break. Have the guts to say it or don’t print it. That’s my position with the press.”

Guardian: “But shouldn’t the courts who are the ones who enforce our laws be the ones who are above reproach?”

Liebell: “By the way, if you have a problem at a trial level, that’s why we have appellate courts”.

Bradley: “I’ve even had to go to the courts of appeals”.

Guardian: “May I meet with each of you on this…?”

Liebell: “We’re going to refer you to prosecutors, the Attorney General.”

Guardian: “…in terms of changing some of the laws like the conflict of interest laws”

Bradley: “I don’t think it’s a conflict”.

Guardian: “One of the appointments was a sitting state senator who took kickbacks.”

Liebell: “That’s not a conflict.”

Bradley: “The conflict is from the inter-relationship, not by who is appointing you”.

This forum was extremely informative to discover what issues were of importance to local taxpayers. It provided local residents an opportunity to learn what their neighbors had to say on these issues and what the legislature is, or is not, doing about their concerns. All of our state representatives distribute information in advance about upcoming forums to their constituents. Interested residents may also obtain this information on the New York State Senate and Assembly web sites for each of their representatives.

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