Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Targeting second-home owners is ill advised

June 1, 2015

Is Great Barrington about to become The People’s Republic of Great Barrington?

All hell is breaking loose in the best small town in America. Michael Wise has come up with a plan that would raise taxes on the rich and specifically, on out-of-towners and second-home owners who have, for their part, become alarmed and are now part of the debate on this issue.

The second-home people insist that they are a crucial part of the economy. They pay for many of the town services while making few demands on the town since, among other issues, their kids don’t use the schools.

There is also a question of fairness. We know that second-home owners in the Berkshires don’t usually vote here and they believe, I suspect correctly, that they are being singled out because they have no say in the way the town works.

What’s more, there is an onerous “personal property tax” that second-homers have to pay. When I was a weekender I hated that and I think it would be hypocritical to think anything has changed. Our restaurants, our businesses and frankly, the very values of our homes have been affected by the presence of these folks. To make pariahs out of them is just plain stupid and unwise. It is time for each of us to practice the golden rule and put ourselves in their place.

This is a very serious issue. It is true that at least one selectman ran and won based on his pledge to implement the Wise plan. If three of the five Selectmen raise their hands and vote for the tax-the-out-of-towners plan, it will be a done deal.

Wait just a minute! Isn’t this a major reallocation of resources? We just had a town meeting in which we discussed ad nauseam whether to buy a piece of equipment. You mean to tell me that this whole unwise Wise plan will be decided at an ill-attended Selectboard meeting?

At the very least, there ought to be a special town meeting on this matter ensuring a robust discussion. This smells a lot like a silly and dangerous idea to ensure personal political popularity. Just sayin’.

Should those who don’t pay their taxes have their property sold at tax lien auctions?

Taxes are high or higher, depending on where you live. Sometimes you really get your money’s worth. Sometimes, when the bureaucracy gets too large, you are treated with indifference. Sometimes the town manager returns your call.

Nevertheless, people should pay their taxes. Sometimes, people don’t pay because they can’t. Sometimes people don’t pay because they won’t.

I am sure that everyone who is on the delinquent list gets notified that they are in arrears. So for the rest of us who do pay taxes, it makes a certain amount of sense that those who do not are held accountable. If someone owns a home and can’t pay the taxes, it might be a good idea to sell the home or the property.

When Pittsfield recently held a tax lien auction, the money from delinquents came pouring in. That makes sense. That’s why taxing authorities often announce tax amnesties. People know that the town or city isn’t kidding.

In some small towns the tax persons are not as active as they could be. Of course, it’s all about the services that are offered. Fire departments are very important. Alford has a terrific volunteer fire department. They contract with the state police for a part-time presence.

Hollenbeck Avenue in Great Barrington apparently doubles as the local speedway. People are so afraid for their kids that they have put up signs advising that children live in the houses that line the street. So how come we don’t see police picking up the speeders? When people receive value for their taxes, it’s easier for them to pay up. Just sayin’.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 5/30/15

Andrew’s troubled

May 26, 2015

There seems to be a long line of political folks whose names are being bandied about as opponents to Andrew Cuomo in a Democratic primary for governor. One can only suspect that “Andrew,” as he is universally known in Albany, has been developing a strategy to do what his father could never do, run for and win the presidency. Coming as he does from New York, in order to be accepted by the rest of the country, he would have to present himself as a fiscal conservative in the manner of Bill Clinton. What’s more, he would need a lot of money to run and Andrew is unrivaled in that department. He raised a fortune just to run for a second term as governor.

Alas, by reaching out to a potential national constituency, Andrew began to burn a lot of bridges in liberal blue state New York. Also, upstate New York, which had always been the more conservative section of the state, has problems with the man. Part of this is because of the SAFE Act (gun control), Cuomo’s best work, which affected conservatives the same way that fracking affected the liberal-environmental portions of his constituency. My bet is that Cuomo never knew how salient that issue was going to be with many upstate voters. With his well known penchant for immediately reacting to events, Cuomo passed the most liberal gun control effort in the nation, dragging upstate legislators along with him kicking and screaming.

This has proven disastrous not only for the Republicans who went along with it but for Andrew himself. It’s clear that he did so poorly against Zephyr Teachout in portions of the state because of the discontent of the upstate liberal voters and the pro-gun folks. The stench of corruption in Albany, which Andrew promised to clean up, has only gotten worse. It sure didn’t help Andrew when U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara took over the fight against corrupt public officials after Cuomo closed down the now infamous Moreland Act Commission. Despite the fact that many people seem to like him, the polls all seem to suggest that they think he’s doing a lousy job as governor because he is not doing what he said he would do.

As a result, we have seen some not so veiled “Maybe I’ll run” hints from others who think that Andrew may be failing. One of them is Eric Schneiderman, the state’s attorney general. You may have noticed that the modern route to the governorship seems to be via the AG’s office. Hence, Schneiderman would be next up. There are all kinds of signs that Andrew doesn’t really care for Schneiderman. The two have locked horns several times since Andrew took the top spot. There were those who thought that Andrew was trying to bring some of the AG’s powers with him to the second floor where the governor sits.

Then there’s U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, often thought to be tied to the hip with his mentor, Senator Charles Schumer. Where Andrew failed to clean things up in Albany, Bharara seems to be making real headway. In a head-to-head, my bet is that Bharara could beat out Andrew, but his problem is that you can’t be a politician and a prosecutor at the same time without losing credibility as the prosecutor. So, if he’s going to do it, it’ll be some time before he shows the slightest bit of public interest.

Finally, the State Comptroller, Tom DiNapoli, is extraordinarily well liked by statewide Democrats. He has done a tremendous job restoring confidence in the Comptroller’s Office and he has the guts to call out the governor when he is doing something questionable. For his part, Cuomo has bullied DiNapoli and people don’t like it. All of a sudden, people are talking about DiNapoli.

If I’m Andrew right about now, I’m taking some serious ibuprofen.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 5/25/15

Answers to questions no one asked me

May 26, 2015

Why would a guy who runs for office every year, writes really ignorant Letters to the Editor and offers long-winded screeds at town meetings continue to keep at it?

It is a democracy, it is his right, and people have often been proven right after years of everyone thinking they are off the wall. On the other hand, this is just the kind of person who dissuades good people from running for public office. Often, instead of having a productive hobby this IS the hobby.

I can only imagine the internal groans of our elected and popular public servants when they see him getting up to speak one more time. Sometimes when difficult people run for public office they get quite a few votes. In our town, Great Barrington, a very smart man who, according to the tastes of some, may appear disheveled, may run for the position of town moderator.

He might get quite a few votes because there is a great tradition in America for voting for an unlikely candidate to make a point about the incumbent. You would think that the incumbent, who is very good at his job, might consider adjusting his demeanor as moderator.

Why are politicians in New York thinking about changing state law to allow people to bring their dogs to the outside patios of restaurants?

In France, people can bring their dogs with them into restaurants. The chairman of the health committee in the New York Legislature doesn’t want to allow it. He bases his objections on the spurious reasoning that some large dogs might want to eat someone’s food off the table.

I suppose he is technically right. The way it works now, the dogs have to stay on the outside of the railing. Of course, some people are allergic to pet hair and I suspect that’s why the people offering the bill make the pups stay on the outside. Some dogs may be allergic to humans and I worry about that. Let’s face it — dogs have rights, too. If you want to share your meal with your dog, why not?

Why is it important for us to know what books were on Osama Bin Laden’s bookshelf? Let me put it this way — it might be worth thousands of dollars to any author to have his or her book on that particular list.

My bet is that any agent whose client’s book was on the shelf now has the job of letting people know about its placement. One guy I’ve interviewed several times on the radio is the iconoclast Greg Palast. His book, “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy,” was on the shelf. “Obama’s Wars” by Bob Woodward did very well when it was first published but my bet is that bookstores everywhere will be reordering it right about now.

In fact, it took quite a while to get the feds to release the information about what they found in Osama’s lair to the general public. Now we hear that the man loved porno but even that raises questions. If true, it does point to a certain moral hypocrisy for a man who espoused Islamist-Jihadist positions. No question about it — there are situations where government has not always told the truth. As a result, some of this newly released and previously classified material has to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

Does power really corrupt as Lord Acton once opined?

It can, but it is rare that people cross the line. However, the squeaky wheel gets noticed. When a police chief is put on trial for crossing that line his alleged actions tend to demean others in law enforcement who must have public support in order to do their jobs. That’s why it is important to hold them accountable.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 5/23/15

What the Republicans need to do

May 19, 2015

What would you do if you were the Republican Party in New York state?

Right now, they appear to be doing everything in their power to make sure that they lose control of the Senate. They are perceived as a corrupt group of thugs because of the way in which they tried like crazy to support their now ousted Majority Leader, Dean Skelos. Skelos, you will certainly recall, lost his job because U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara accused him of unethical, to say nothing of illegal, actions. So what did the Republicans do to replace their leader? They seem to have allowed Skelos to choose his own replacement. The new man is John Flanagan who, like Skelos, is a Long Islander and who will ensure that the downstaters will continue to control the upper house. Upon receiving this honor, Flanagan immediately quit his law firm where he was making somewhere around an extra $150,000 a year.

Bharara has been working hard to de-stink the legislature. Like the rest of us, he knows that the reason one goes to the law firm of a senator is to get a little extra heft in your legal affairs. Bharara arrested and indicted Speaker Sheldon Silver for using his influence to bring business to his law firm. Now there are a lot of knees knocking in Albany, from the very top of the gubernatorial administration on the famous “Second Floor” where the governor sits, through the rank and file in both houses. Ever since Bharara told everyone to “stay tuned” for the next indictments, the members of the Legislature have been worried about who would be next. Some are trying to clean up their acts by quitting their law practices. Others are blindly going down the same path that got their leaders into such trouble. You might think that with the wolf knocking at their door, the solons would clean up their acts and pass true ethics reform; this is probably the only thing that will save them and their soiled reputations. For his part, Flanagan courts disaster by suggesting that this is not the year to pass real ethics reform. He and his Republican conference are sticking their heads in the sand, just like their ostrich cousins. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Of course, we have a presidential election coming up. Democrats will turn out in large numbers and the possibility of a Democratic controlled Senate is very real. For his part, Andrew Cuomo, who is largely responsible for keeping the Republicans in power, is in a tough spot. In fact, the game may well be up for him. Not only has Republican Skelos been arrested, so has his deputy leader, Thomas Libous. The Republicans are kept in office due to the efforts of Simcha Felder, a Democrat who works with them, and four other so-called Democrats who seem to ally with the highest bidder.

When it looks like it’s time to jump ship these characters will.

So what should the Republicans do to stay in office? First, they should pass the strongest, most airtight ethics bill that has ever seen the light of day in New York. Second, they should kick Libous and Skelos out of their party and the Senate. Even if they have to go into the minority for a while, they would demonstrate to the people of New York state that they are better equipped to serve than the Democrats who are also ethically challenged and doing precious little about it. This is indeed the time to make historic changes. Let’s face it; there are members of the Republican Senate conference who are quite elderly. They can’t hang on forever. As I said many times, even if the state doesn’t have term limits, God does. It’s just so obvious that they are in “check” and almost check mate. If they don’t move now they are cooked. My bet is that they won’t take my advice.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 5/19/15

Pondering questions on the death penalty, local politics

May 18, 2015

What do you think about the death penalty?

Look, I don’t like the death penalty for one reason and one reason only: We have been known to execute people who were later proven innocent. I know many people who believe that state-sanctioned execution brings us down to the level of murderers. I just think that when someone ruthlessly kills a cop or a senior or a child, that person is a menace to society and should be removed from it, one way or the other.

When the Boston Marathon bomber suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was on trial, I hardly cared about the disposition. Tsarnaev killed people who were loved and who had done nothing wrong. Because of this young man and his older brother, unrelenting pain was heaped upon the families and friends of the dead and injured. There really was no question of guilt or innocence in this case.

We all know about the plethora of protections we offer those accused of capital murder. Maybe we should just throw the guy in a super-maximum security cell and let him rot there until he dies. None of this means all that much to me. If my child was killed by a vicious terrorist attack, I would certainly want the perpetrator dead but that is hardly the point. I suppose I buy into the idea that we should incarcerate him until death does he and his prison cell part.

Mario Cuomo believed that life in prison without parole might actually be worse than the death penalty. Except that while the guy is still breathing, he still has hope of freedom and, in fact, there are people reading this column now who will write to this paper and make the case for rehabilitation. They will certainly write and maintain that the man who has sat in a prison cell for 30 years is not the same man who went along with his older brother and killed or injured all those people. They will argue that as a society we have to recognize that he may actually be rehabilitated and he should be given another chance.

Yoko Ono shows up every time John Lennon’s murderer comes up for parole and opposes his chance to go free. I applaud that. After all, Lennon is dead and will always be dead. The child that Lewis Lent was convicted of killing is dead and will always be dead. The dead victims never had a chance. I’m against the death penalty but I sure do understand why people are for it.

What surprised you about your town election?

Several months back, a group of people in Great Barrington got together and voted down the Monument Mountain High School renovation project. Then this small group of organizers became emboldened by their success and ran one of their chief organizers, Karen Christenson, for selectman.

They did everything in their power to win. They had signs everywhere I looked. In fact, if you added up the Karen signs, it looked like a shoo-in.

But it turns out the candidate who has the most signs doesn’t necessarily win. In fact, the candidate with the most votes, Sean Stanton, seemed to have only one sign and that was in front of his house. He won big and he deserved to. He told me before the election that if people wanted him to continue to serve they would vote for him.

They did and maybe HE should be the political science professor. Relatively few people vote in these local elections so each vote can mean a great deal. However, I think that the people who do vote are for the most part pretty conversant with the issues. Well, Karen lost.

The high school may have gone down but any hopes of that crowd ruling the town went down with this election. Isn’t democracy grand?

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 5/18/15

Can things get any worse?

May 12, 2015

We expect that our politicians will behave ethically, morally and legally and we are inevitably disappointed when they do not. Now it’s Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ turn to face the firing squad. Ready, aim, fired! U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara says that Skelos used his authority to get favored treatment for his son, Adam. We all know that our kids are first on our list of priorities, but there are lines that are not to be crossed and if Skelos did cross the line — and Bharara says that he did — he is in big trouble; trouble as in jail time. If he did it, why did he do it? Because he thought that he could.

Once the father and son were arrested, there were immediate demands that Skelos step aside until the legal issues were resolved. I have not been a huge Skelos fan but there is an interesting issue here. Do we as a nation really believe in “innocent until proven guilty” or are we a bunch of witch hunters who call for the scalp of anyone who has simply been accused? Let us remember that Joe Bruno, once the powerful Senate Majority Leader, was forced to step aside to be eventually replaced by Skelos. Many years and millions of dollars later, Bruno was found not guilty of his transgressions by a jury of his peers. We should think about that.

You can’t begin to count the number of newspapers that made that exact rush to judgment, calling for Skelos to “step aside” on their editorial pages. Since Speaker Silver was forced to step down, it was inevitable that Skelos would also be asked to walk the plank. The problem for the Republicans is that they only control the Senate by the scantiest of majorities. The Democrats are having a field day demanding the head of Skelos and you can’t blame them for doing so. In New York, politics is a contact sport and the participants always play with a deflated ball. In other words, they cheat — either honestly or dishonestly.

The real story here is the state of the Republican Party in New York. We are entering into a competitive election cycle. In presidential election years, the Democrats come out in large numbers and the Senate, which the Republicans control by just a few votes, will likely fall into Democratic hands. Skelos’ troubles will drag on and only make things worse. His own number two, Thomas Libous, is already under indictment.

Interestingly, Governor Andrew Cuomo was loath to enter the fight over Skelos. As Attorney General, Cuomo was proud of his indictments of politicians. Now as governor, he invokes the Legislature as a separate branch of government and covers himself by saying that if the accusations against Skelos prove true, he would find them disturbing. We all know that Cuomo has been largely responsible for keeping the Republicans in control of the Senate even if he is a Democrat himself. He did it in part, after promising not to, by allowing Republicans to continue gerrymandering their own districts in their favor. That’s interesting if one considers the increasing parade of Republicans who are putting lots of distance between themselves and Skelos. For example, popular Columbia County Congressman Chris Gibson made it quite clear that he thought Skelos should step down.

Control of the Senate in New York state is a huge thing. Issues such as New York City rent control laws and an increased minimum wage separate Republicans and Democrats. You can bet that the business interests that back the Republicans are not pleased by the Skelos mess. Since they’re the people who write the campaign checks, they have a lot of influence. Can things get worse in the legislative zoo? You bet they can. We keep hearing that Bharara has a long list of people who he is looking at.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 5/12/15

Our schools are our most important investment

May 11, 2015

Town meetings really are great institutions — same people, same lines, different year. It’s sort of like watching reruns of Law and Order over and over again until you can practically recite the dialogue yourself.

It’s like a sing along. There’s always some wealthy guy (who else?) who gets up and complains once more about how the taxes are killing the poor people in town. What’s he against? Why, the school taxes, of course. They are forcing the good young people out of town.

He neglects to mention the fact that the schools of Great Barrington are the single best way that our young people have of achieving success later in life. He also not-so-subtly suggests that school budgets keep passing because parents (can you imagine that?) keep loading the meetings and voting for the budget.

That’s the whole point. There are two ways of voting, also known as “voting with your feet.” One is to vote and the other is to stay home. Hey, if you don’t show up you don’t get a vote. Similarly, if you don’t like the taxes in town you can move to Alford and vote for the school budget there. Then you won’t have to bitch about the school taxes.

While the cost of running our schools will surely increase a little as salaries and expenses go up, our schools are surely the most important function in town — more important even than any of our other valuable services.

Our schools represent a commitment on the part of the town to do what’s right. Even if your kids are grown or you send them to a private school, understanding the needs of schools is fundamental to the American experience.

I know people who have put a huge brood of kids through school but now that their kids are done, they say they just can’t afford to pay for increases to their budgets. I know a slew of people whose kids went to private schools (their prerogative). They want to know why they should pay. But I also know a lot of people who send their kids to parochial or private schools who know how important it is to provide great public schools.

Of course, most of those who would do damage to our kids know better than to get up and yell about educating the kids. They always frame the issue as, “I would be for it if the other districts paid more or if the school districts combine.” I have espoused such a move for years in this very space but it isn’t going to happen. Our choice is to pay for what we have or don’t pay. I don’t like it when my taxes go up any more than anyone else but this is terribly important.

There was a wonderful man at the meeting who was my favorite speaker of the night. He warned us to never forget that “These are all our kids.” We pay for libraries and firehouses and police stations and to pave the roads but this new crowd is all for curtailing costs at our schools.

So we have to find the right people who get it; we have to trust our public officials to do the right thing. Every town has people who rise above personal and petty politics. That’s why I am going to vote in our town for the two candidates who understand what it’s all about. I’m voting for Bill Cooke and Sean Stanton. These guys know what value is. They are no pushovers. They are sure to question every expenditure but they are overall responsible people.

You may think that this column is about Great Barrington but of course, it’s not. It’s about every town and village and city. We just have to put a stop to those who would harm our kids.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 5/9/15


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