Monday, October 31, 2011

It Seems To Never End

One of the ABG staffers picked up the League of Women Voters of Westchester’s 2011 Voters Guide. It is produced through the generosity of the Generoso Pope Foundation of Tuckahoe, NY. We began to peruse the newsprint booklet to read what this crop of politicians and wannabe politicians were espousing. Like the class that cheats together off of the one smart kid in the room, all the candidates were saying the same thing. They all promised to work diligently/tirelessly, lower/cut taxes, improve efficiency through consolidation/public-private partnerships, work in a bipartisan way, look for new/innovative ways to save money while we maintain our critical services. Or, they have and will continue to serve honestly, fairly, treat everyone with respect/dignity, work hard, are dedicated, bipartisan, kept taxes low, helped/will help businesses/citizens, maintained services, will look for new ways to govern, and bring accountability to their office.

Then we get to our favorite bloviator, The Paul! His brief bio in the Voters Guide reads and we quote, “Reinvent government. Eliminate duplication. Push for more sharing/consolidation. Citizens commission reviewing aspects of budget. Eliminate arbitration panels. Reform civil service laws. Continue open government initiatives. My phone: 478-1219.” We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, “Where do we start?”

Reinvent Government?
ABG will admit, he’s reinvented government, but it’s certainly not good government. Let’s see if we can list a few of the more obvious changes. First, at the beginning of each Town Board meeting, there is typically an hours worth of presentations, acknowledgments, performances and more. Rare is the night that the meeting, chock full of agenda items, starts on time and ends at a reasonable hour. It gives the Board time to weed out the uninitiated who show up on time to most likely protest something he and his Board have or are about to do but must leave for family care reasons, work the next day or simply, exhaustion and seeming death. The futility of government participation ‘by the people’ is easily stifled.

Silence Is Golden
First, the Town Clerk’s position should be to provide the written materials for the meeting, such as agendas, proposals, and to take minutes or to record the proceedings. Second, her role is not to speak. And, unless asked to clarify or acknowledge information pertinent to her office, she should spend the evening silently. Third, she, along with the Town Attorney sits with the Board at these meetings without ever offering a job-related opinion except when they try to shut The Paul down as he begins violating the public’s rights, promising things that are illegal, or just making an ass of himself.

Hide When It Gets Tough
When the vitriol gets too intense at Town Board meetings, even for The Paul, and the people are hampering his own agenda, the Town’s “Stepford” Board will adjourn to “executive session” where they can speed-vote his pet projects through unencumbered by the will or objections of the people. We’ve seen this so many times, we can almost predict when it will happen. This removes the moniker of ‘open government’ that is the Feiner mantra. Unfortunately, the media doesn’t challenge or follow what The Paul does, they only print what he says-and tells them to print. ABG has said it before, you can’t be a reporter by telephone. Get off your butts and attend the meetings to see and maybe report the truth for a change. You’ll see some real deception in play and maybe expose the corruption many have been relentless in fighting. You soon find yourself selling more newspapers.

Without giving too many examples, and they abound in Greenburgh, why not do consolidation within the Town before worrying about other aspects of government that the Supervisor has no involvement, responsibility or purview? Deflection. The Paul, in conjunction with the media concubines such as the Journal News, The Westchester Guardian, The Daily Greenburgh, a cousin to the Journal News also opperated by Gannett, and others, only has to issue a press release about something unrelated to Greenburgh and they will print it. In fact, they will print it repeatedly. He’s said open government so often, they now believe it too. He’s spoken about the Tappan Zee Bridge, eliminating County Government, consolidating fire districts and more. These are all issues he has no involvement in or skin-in-the-game. So why discuss it? Publicity and name recognition.

But how about real consolidation? How about eliminating the two recreation departments and consolidating them into one? How about doing away with the two commissioners for the same departments? How about having the two Town pools purchasing equipment as one? How about one budget instead of two? How about it Paul?

The people think they want consolidation, but don’t really understand what to consolidate. So, when The Paul says consolidate the Town’s three fire districts, he does a disservice to the residents. First, he appointed a puppet committee to investigate it, led by a convicted felon. Second, he doesn’t have the ability to dissolve and create the three fire districts into one. Third, the counter proposal to the committee’s (foregone) recommendation was totally ignored. Why? Fourth, when one member was assaulted by another, why wasn’t the attacker removed from the committee? It was a publicity farce done because ‘study money‘ was available.

The Paul also said Greenburgh should consolidate the Greenburgh Police Department and the Dobbs Ferry Police Department. Why those two in particular? According to then Police Chief John Kapica, it was because a state grant was available to do the study, even though there was never a glimmer that a consolidation of the two would ever happen. DF Police Chief George Longworth was looking for a promotion, having been the youngest police chief in Westchester. When it didn’t come to fruition, he got into bed with the Astorino camp. Now he’s the commissioner of the non-existant Westchester County Public Safety Department. In reality though, it’s just the County Police Parkway Patrol and Bomb squads. That’s another post for another time.

Eliminate and Reform
The Paul has twenty years to ‘reform civil service laws’ but has done nothing! ‘Continue open government initiatives’ is nothing more than politican-speak to say what the constituents will hear, the media will print, but ultimately says nothing. We don’t need more programs, committees, resident advisors or phony promises. We need politicians who will do the right thing. When was the last time Greenburgh saw the right thing? It’s hard to say, but we’re sure the media will print it when The Paul tells them to.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

TZ Bridge Proposal: Pedestrian Walkway & Over-water Park - Get Over It!

The Paul is at it again with his media machine, the Journal News. He’s become the Einstein of ridiculous ideas, vacuous of merit and absent of common sense. This time is no different. He posted on his blog the idea of having the Tappan Zee Bridge converted into a pedestrian walkway. And, since the Journal News hadn’t published his usual blather for October, they felt obliged to allow him to regurgitate the online post into print. Is it any wonder they are failing? 

We’ll concede that while it might be fun to walk onto the bridge every once in a “blue moon”, the cost associated with maintaining this bridge as a three-mile walkway is ludicrous. One of the reasons we’re being forced to get a new bridge are the costs of maintenance to the existing one. Does he believe those cost simply “go away” once it’s now a walkway? Does the Journal News believe this, too? They’ve decried a new bridge is long overdue and the old one should be removed. But because The Paul says to leave it everything changed? How much money would be required to dismantle and renovate/rebuild it into a walkway? Where is the money coming from? This is classic Feiner deflection as he ingratiates himself again into something that has no bearing on the Town while real issues for Greenburgh languish under his mismanagement!

Next up, use the bridge as a suburban version of the NYC High Line over the water as a “park.” Wow! Two High Line creators, Joshua David and Robert Hammond claim to be enthusiastic over this idea. They also claim to have said they found the idea exciting and they'd love to take a walk on it (the TZB). Of course they do. Are they going to pay for it? Of course not! They’re entitled to the opinion but should keep it in NYC. The Paul and the Town are apparently too complex for them to understand. It has nothing to do with a park. 

The bridge is currently slated for demolition; and while construction of a new Tappan Zee Bridge has been fast tracked by the Obama Administration, it seems that politics is way ahead of rational thinking. There have been numerous plans regarding this project with little agreement between the public and the government. Imminent domain, loss of tax-generating businesses, additional traffic, and pie-in-the-sky plans has soured almost everyone on what needs to be done. Simply, it’s a bridge. The bridge is to move cars and trucks from one side to the other. Repair or rebuild the bridge. Make it two levels like the George Washington Bridge to accommodate future traffic. Make it wider, even if it’s space unused until a later time.

We don’t need walkways, bike paths, zip lines, water slides, windmills, and dog parks on the bridge. We don’t need big screen tv’s on the other bridge for those stuck in traffic. This has spiraled out of control. We need a bridge, period! The likes of The Paul and his wild fantasies are part of the reason this has to stop. Stop developing every square inch of land and traffic can be addressed rationally. Put a rail system on the ground before you decide to build it onto the bridge. See that it’s actually viable before proposing pie-in-the-sky plans. See if you can fund one project and come in on budget. ABG believes the cost of the bridge will triple from the projected estimates now given. 

It seems the only people that will be left in Westchester anyway will be rich seniors, politicians, illegal aliens and DSS recipients. It’s doubtful they’ll really need to take the train to the Palisades Mall. But if they want to go, maybe The Paul will drive them.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Consolidation. The Buzzword That Never Quits

The County recently held it’s Shared Services Day (off) at the County Center. The previous post details much of it. It appears County Executive Rob Astorino has finally taken a page from Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, repeatedly holding press conferences as often as possible, usually saying nothing of value. Rather, he continues to beat the drum about how destitute our County is and that he’s the poor whipping boy of the big bad legislature. He’s spoken about consolidation of services throughout the County; a partnership between the Towns and Villages and the County. Actually, he’s only offering police protection through a consolidation with the County Police. Do we even need the County police?

They patrol the parkways, operate the bomb squad, and provide guards at county office buildings and county courts. They’re only a partial police department when you get down to it. Plus, last years budget was $38 million for 345 people. The patrol and bomb squad positions could be taken over with consolidation with the state police - saving the County taxpayers more salary and benefits money. The guards at the office buildings could be outsourced to a private agency - eliminating the benefits and medical expenses currently choking our taxpayers. Astorino maintains communities could save money by allowing the County to take on some of the services they already provide, unburdening the locales of costs the County already has. Why wouldn’t we want to do the same thing with the County and New York State? We’d still be paying taxes but would be paying less for it as it’s spread throughout the state populace.

The County government has heard both extremes from the public; they should do more for us or they should be abolished. Most of the “for” argument comes from the County Legislature, their employees and those with “skin in the game”. ABG believes they may be correct to a degree when they say that we need County government due to laws, policies in place and certain services that are currently provided by them. The County runs our penal system here in Westchester; they manage the Department of Social Services and all the “arms” dangling from it; and are involved with our water supply systems. But could the County consolidate what they do with what the state does? It sure seems possible since they both do social services, penal systems, and water.

The people who say do away with County government, Supervisor Feiner being one of them, never offer any real solutions as to how to eliminate County government. In fact, The Paul even suggested reducing the amount of county legislators, as well as offering to have a Supervisor-based representation for the County. Why would he suggest this? Because if we move to a Supervisor-based system, he would be the supervisor representing the largest town and have the most, if not all, of the leadership strength of the group. Are the failed policies we see in Greenburgh, the scads of lawsuits and guilty verdicts against the Supervisor and the Town for discrimination et al, what we want to see at a County level? ABG doesn’t think so.

So, what’s the solution(s)?

First, stop the partisan politics that has existed for years! It’s important for us to elect representatives that will create a balance in the legislature of thinkers, not willing to vote the party line simply to play the Republican or Democrat “game.” We’ve seen what that does and don’t like it. Unfortunately, all the Republican candidates say they will vote with Astorino and break the stranglehold in the legislature. That’s exactly what we’re saying we don’t need. We need legislators with backbone - willing to stand up to the party hacks who demand partisanship decisions and votes.

Second, we need to have real communication with give and take between the Executive and Legislative branches. What we don’t need is this ‘tit-for-tat’ mentality. Its childish and it doesn’t work.

Third, the County needs to stop trying to expand itself. Yes, there are responsibilities the County has to satisfy. But instead of trying to grow itself and create a larger entity, trying to prove their value, they should try to constrain and even reduce themselves. That will save taxpayers money. There may truly be room for consolidation in the Town, County and State, but there needs to be an honest appraisal, serious planning and execution with all the stakeholders, not just one side or another. It’s why Paul Feiner, the king of off-the-cuff comments, starts grasping wildly at consolidation, offering nothing, doing everyone a disservice.

Fourth, there are plans, under the guise of consolidation, to dismantle the Westchester County Richard A. Flynn Fire Training Center in Valhalla and put them under the control of the County Police. The fire training center was the successful culmination of the volunteer fire departments efforts throughout Westchester County to be able to train specifically for fire. They realized the need to be separate from the police. They had been begrudgingly housed in the basement of the County Police headquarters many years ago. They recognized, as did the County Legislators at the time, that both organizations provided different services, even though they are both emergency responders. They need to be separate and they each need their own space for training. Creating a Department of Public Safety and taking the fire units over will only avail more grant monies to the County Police, bloat their organization, and render the firematic-side to the back seat of the police car. You know, where they put the suspects.

Fifth, develop real term-limits for not only the legislators, but others who receive appointments by them. And,  remove their lifetime benefits after they leave office or the position!

Sixth, renegotiate the union contracts when they come up for renewal and put some serious measures in place that won’t overburden the taxpayers again. When you took a job in the public sector years ago, you knew your salary wouldn’t be great but you also knew you had a retirement pension and great medical benefits. Then the teachers unions complained about being underpaid, their song and dance was picked up by the other unions and expanded. We were told we needed to pay more to get good people. ABG thinks you don’t. Nobody is twisting anyone’s arm to work in the public sector, so take it or leave it. We will still get good people.

Seventh, reduce the burdensome rules and regulations, fees and penalties that keep businesses from reinvesting in themselves. We could have a vibrant local economy in Greenburgh and Westchester County that thrives if government would just get out of the way. Unfortunately, the Greenburgh Town Board continuously seeks news ways to impose and raise fees on business. It’s obscene.

Eighth, Astorino always decries that the County should not be in the Amusement Park business. Maybe so. What parks in Westchester County turn a profit? For that matter, should we be in the airport business?

There are more things that can be done. In fact, this post generated some heated discussions in our office about what can, should and will be done. But the underlying agreement was that government at the County level should not be expanding. Rather, it should be shrinking. Will it? We can dream, can’t we?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

County Shared Services: A Paid Half Day Off

The County sponsored their annual paid half-a-day-off for many of their employees - mostly the commissioners and their direct staff, where they all convened at the Westchester County Center in a mock trade show-like setup. They do this twice a year, although the other one, held on June 10th, 2011, was the other poorly veiled event entitled Westchester Educational Safety Training. This time the spin-doctors for the County hosted the annual Fleet and Equipment Demo Day, typically referred to by County employees as their Fleet Day off. How many years has this waste of our County employees time been going on? What purpose do either of them serve and what is the ROI for the County?

Simply, there isn't any ROI. The County Center was set up like a trade show venue. ABG spoke with several booth attendants. Most were the respective Commissioner's staff from all the County departments. They all expressed a level of boredom as they had few if any outside visitors. There seemed to be a lot of back-slapping and “how you doing’s”, but no real work. Everyone that came by to visit seemed to be from other departments just “checking things out”. There is no ROI. If County Executive Astorino is looking to save money or cut something, here’s a great place to start!

The Westchester County Garage had a double booth. On display was a truck muffler, seemingly the size of the new Fiat 500; there were several oil filters and other mechanical components also on display. Does anyone in this day and age not know what a muffler or filter look like? ABG thinks not. Does anyone in the County’s employ not know they have a garage for automotive repairs? ABG doubts it. So why do they need to bring repair components to this event? Why even be at this event? Obviously, they need more business. They currently “charge-back” about double and up to triple on most repairs to county vehicles compared to what a private garage might charge. It’s one of two County departments operating in the black. The County’s Taxi and Limousine Commission is the other department also operating in the black.

Outside the entrance to the County Center on the sidewalk in the front were four County vehicles. One looked like a tanker that frankly we didn’t bother with. The largest was a County Police Communication vehicle. We went inside and listened as the officer was explaining what it could be used for to several other visitors. Very impressive. ABG wonders when a monstrosity like this would be needed anywhere in Westchester? The group was told it was acquired by Homeland Defense money, not costing the local taxpayers any money (because we all know that we locals don’t pay taxes that are use for Homeland Defense). Sounds like political doublespeak might be taught at the police academy.

Next outside the building were two trucks from what’s called the County’s Special Operations Team. We learned that this a team of all volunteer rescue technicians who provide the manpower for the County’s Technical Rescue and Hazardous Materials Response Teams. ABG was a bit surprised when we were told that the Team members here for this fleet day event, as well as the rest of the Team members not there, were all volunteer. We questioned how it compares to the County Police’s Special Operations, as we had seen several vehicles inside with Special Operations plastered all over them. One fellow joked that they are basically the bomb squad and parkway patrol, but if they have the Special Operations name, they can get more grant money. Based on the landing craft on the sidewalk, it must be working. Wouldn't more volunteers in County government save everyone more money? In fact, why not utilize more volunteers throughout all our governments uniformed services? 

The County’s all volunteer Special Operations teams have been around for some time now and always staffed by volunteers. The Hazardous Materials Response Team has been around for about 25 or so years, handling roughly 50-60 calls a year. It was started by chemical expert and instructor Steve Maslanski of White Plains. He has since moved to the Phoenix, AZ., area. The current Chief of Special Operations is Peter Pitocco, from Port Chester. He has a chemical and safety background from what we were told by one of the members. His last job was running IBM’s Safety Division out of their Yorktown facility. ABG learned of the qualifications of many of its members, which is truly impressive.

The Technical Rescue Team was formed just prior to the 9-11 attacks back in 2001 by Richard Benkwitt and Tim Fisher. They are currently the Teams Leaders for this Team, with Chief Pitocco overseeing it. Another all volunteer team, these are professional rescue technicians who have been responding to more and more calls in Westchester and Putnam Counties (via mutual aid). Mutual aid is when one department asks for help from another. ABG was told that Technical Rescue is to the fire service what a SWAT team is to the police. They are a highly skilled, highly motivated group of individuals with specialized equipment. One of them explained that since the County has this cache of specialized equipment, individual departments, Towns and Villages don't need to purchase it themselves. They can simply call for this team at no charge whenever needed. It is a very impressive, cost-efective and efficient arrangement. 

Inside the County Center saw a veritable wasteland of employees millinging around. Most booths had been set up early in the morning and gave the attendants little to do. There was a presentation from the County Planning Department about how they are utilizing free software such as Google Earth to map the county. Finally, someone in the County found a way to save some money. Well, almost. It seems the Special Operations teams were all over saving the County money years ago.