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Elizabeth Graham
Elizabeth Lyons
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The Lyons Den

Does NYPA really think we’re that stupid?

First published: June 28, 2014 at 6:27 pm
Last modified: June 30, 2014 at 5:14 pm

After roughly 10 meetings over the last three months, the New York Power Authority has walked away from talks with the St. Lawrence Local Government Task Force over a 10-year review of the 2003 relicensing settlement to operate the St. Lawrence-FDR power dam in Massena.

Not that anyone is all that surprised.

NYPA has maintained for the last 10 years that the settlement it reached with communities — which by our math amounts to about $401 million all told including $115 million in cash payments over 50 years, recreational improvements, funding for an eel impact study and a defunct aquarium project — is equitable to the $973 million settlement it reached in 2005 with the city of Buffalo and Erie and Niagara counties to operate the Niagara power project in Lewiston.

Our math comes out to $401 million, and here’s how: $26 million for the defunct St. Lawrence Aquarium and Ecological Center, $115 million in cash payments over 50 years to St. Lawrence County, the towns of Massena, Louisville and Waddington, the villages of Massena and Waddington and the Massena and Madrid-Waddington school districts, $66 million for environmental projects (which includes a $24 million study of the dam’s impact on eels), $23 million for habitat improvement projects, $9.6 million for improvements at the Wilson Hill Wildlife Management Area, $4.5 million for an eel passage through the dam (the eels made out very well in this deal), $3.9 million for future habitat improvement projects, $1 million for research and environmental education in the vicinity of the project, $116 million for recreational improvements and a $36 million community enhancement fund.

NYPA’s math places the value of the St. Lawrence deal at $473.7 million. I had never seen that figure before NYPA spokeswoman Connie M. Cullen tried to set us straight on how much the deal was worth Friday. I scoured our archives for mention of that number. It never appeared. I’m at a loss for how NYPA derived it, so we are requesting a breakdown justifying that number. Stay tuned.

Then again, going into this process we knew the Power Authority was using some creative math to demonstrate how our deal and the nearly $1 billion deal Western New York communities got were somehow comparing apples to apples.

It’s not, unless one of those apples is solid gold and studded with diamonds. Does the Power Authority really think we’re that stupid?

They argue that the two settlements are equitable based on power production at each plant and population density. Well, this deal has nothing to do with population density. It’s a question of impact.

The Power Authority still controls an obscene amount of our waterfront, on which it pays no taxes. NYPA flooded huge swaths of land in the 1950s when the project was built, forcing people and businesses to move and confiscating even more of our land. The dam forever changed the St. Lawrence River, altering its natural flows, controlling its water levels, and having an adverse impact on wildlife. Let’s not forget that recreational use of the river is also affected by the dam’s impact on water levels.

State and federal lawmakers in 2005 made that same argument about impact when demanding that NYPA give some rationale for the disparity between the two settlements.

Back then, former U.S. Rep. John M. McHugh demanded that NYPA return to the bargaining table with St. Lawrence communities to make the situation right. He called the Niagara settlement a betrayal.

“Simply put, this development is a total abandonment of the promise NYPA made that the applications for license renewal between Niagara and St. Lawrence would have a sense of balance and maintain a semblance of equity,” Mr. McHugh said in a news release. “That promise has been broken, and I think it’s an unbelievable situation.”

“Unbelievable” was perhaps the best word to describe the situation then, and it’s the best word to describe the current situation. NYPA can try to say our communities are not entitled to any more money. I beg to differ.

Their take-it-or-leave-it proposal to the task force included the Northern New York Power Proceeds Act — which was intended to follow through on something NYPA had already promised the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency but wrests control of proceeds from the sale of 20 megawatts of low-cost power away from the River Agency and bestows it on some outside board to be appointed by Albany — and the St. Regis Mohawk land claim deal recently reached by the state and the county that really has nothing to do with NYPA. The absurdity is stunning.

NYPA needs to right this wholly inequitable situation immediately and recognize that no, we really aren’t that stupid.

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Happy Father’s Day and other odds and ends

First published: June 16, 2014 at 2:26 pm
Last modified: June 16, 2014 at 2:26 pm

HAPPY FATHER’S DAY

Dads, today is a special day set aside for you.

If you are fortunate enough to still have your dad, let him know how loved he is today. Let him lounge in front of the ball game. Mow the lawn for him. Get him a beer. Feed him well. Do something nice for him.

I miss my own father today, but I am lucky to have a father-in-law, Patrick Lyons, who treats me like the daughter he never had.

Don’t take your dad for granted. Someday he will be gone, and you will long for every opportunity you ever missed to let him know how much he meant to you. Make sure you do something special for your dad today.

TULMAR MANUFACTURING WILL STAY

We got terrific news last week that Tulmar Manufacturing, which makes components for the transportation and defense industries, will not only remain in Ogdensburg but will expand to more than double its current workforce of four.

The company had been considering moving to Jefferson County. Rather than sit idle while yet another company left St. Lawrence County, the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority and county Industrial Development Agency were able to work with Tulmar to renegotiate its lease rates for space in OBPA’s Commerce Park. All agreed on a lower rate, and the deal was good enough to keep the company here.

We need more success stories like this. Economic development agencies too often are in a reactive position where they deal with the fallout from a company closing or leaving the area rather than being able to work with a company to keep it operating in the county.

Even for a small manufacturer like Tulmar, the IDA and OBPA recognized that every job counts. I applaud all parties for their successful negotiations and offer best wishes to Tulmar for a bright and long future in Ogdensburg.

BICYCLISTS ABOUND; BE SAFE

Warmer weather is here, so the perennial appearance of children on bicycles has also arrived.

I, like most other motorists, don’t want to run any of them over. Yet some of them make it difficult to adhere to that seemingly simple-sounding wish. The other day I saw a group of three or four kids weaving in and out of traffic, none of them wearing helmets or caring about proper traffic rules. If any of them thought they might be in danger of getting hit by a car, it wasn’t obvious. It’s by far not the first time I’ve seen a similar situation.

I see adults doing the same thing. It’s a miracle that there are not more car-bicyclist accidents than there are.

Bicyclists, I respect your right to operate your mode of transportation. But respect mine, too, please. And respect the fact that my mode of transportation is a 3,000-pound death machine. You need to follow the same rules of the road that I do for your safety and mine. Signal your turns. Keep right. Observe traffic signals and signs. And for the love of Pete, be aware of your surroundings.

Parents, allowing your child to operate a bicycle without a helmet is just plain irresponsible. Don’t let your kid’s brain get scrambled or worse. Make them wear helmets and make sure they know the rules of the road before you let them loose on two wheels.

LEGISLATION NEEDS BIGGER TEETH

Legislation that passed the state Senate last week has the potential to save counties a good chunk of change by forcing the state to send parole violators to prison after 10 business days rather than keeping them in county jails until they can be processed by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. The cost of keeping so-called “state-ready” inmates in county jails has been a problem for some time, with some of them held for months before they can be transferred to a state prison.

The state reimburses counties for a portion of the cost, but we are told the reimbursement falls far short of what it actually costs to house an inmate. It’s yet another state-imposed financial burden for counties.

Unfortunately, the state already is required to transfer state-ready inmates to prison within 10 days of county notification, but state officials seldom adhere to that rule. And what’s the incentive to? The state ends up saving money by leaving state-readies in county jails.

If it is to have the desired effect, the final legislation — which awaits passage in the Assembly — should include a provision forcing the state to make counties whole for the cost of housing any state-ready inmate for more than 10 days. That might encourage DOCCS to adhere to its rules.

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Opportunities for summer fun abound in St. Lawrence County

First published: June 01, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 31, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Summer is almost here, thankfully, after a long, harsh north country winter.

Get outside!

Whenever I hear people grumble about how there’s nothing to do around here, I try to remind them that we are in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Those of us who grew up here take the natural beauty of our area for granted. When I graduated high school, I couldn’t wait to leave Ogdensburg. I told myself I that once was out and was never coming back. The bright lights of the big city beckoned, where there was plenty to do 24 hours a day.

Ogdensburg was boring by the standards of an 18-year-old who was 10 feet tall, bullet-proof, and knew everything. I was somehow better than this place. I belonged where the action was.

I lived in a city for seven years and came back “temporarily” in 2000. Fourteen years later, here I am. And I don’t regret coming back for an instant. It took leaving this place behind to figure out this is where I belong.

No matter how much I tried to look down on the place of my birth from my new and improved big-city digs, the St. Lawrence River was always on my mind. I missed the smell of the woods and the sound of the birds. I missed the quiet at night. I missed friendly people and the kindness of strangers.

Most of all, I missed all the time I spent outdoors in summer, fishing, hiking, camping or just hanging out in the back yard. I missed the Seaway Festival, the concerts in the park, the parades all around the north country just about every weekend in the summer, the heavenly smell of a community chicken barbecue and watching the ships as they make their way up and down the St. Lawrence Seaway. The sound of a passing ship at night always helps me sleep.

When you are tempted to groan about how we are in the middle of nowhere and there’s nothing to do, I want you to stop and take a look around you.

Where we live is beautiful. Take in the scenery. Go for a walk and take a look at all the beauty around you. Take the kids for a bike ride or just go sit by the water and enjoy the breeze.

And regardless of what your brain has tried to convince you is true, there is plenty to do. When was the last time you checked out one of our local museums? The Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg, the Gateway Museum in Morristown, the Depot Museum in Lisbon and any of the town museums in St. Lawrence County surely have something that will pique your interest. They are jam-packed with local history and artifacts. You might learn something about your home town you didn’t know before.

Museums aren’t your thing? No problem. There are music festivals and concerts galore. The Madrid Bluegrass River Festival is three days of great music June 27-29 in a beautiful setting near the Grasse River. The Gateway Museum in Morristown will offer a concert series starting later this month. The Norwood Village Green Concert Series offers plenty of entertainment all summer long. Seaway Festival concerts in the park are not to be missed.

Concerts not your thing, either? No problem. If there is one thing St. Lawrence County does right, it’s our community festivals. And we have plenty of them all summer. The Dairy Princess Parade and festival in Canton will kick off the festival season next weekend, along with the Massena Heritage Festival. Food, games, vendors and fun for the whole family are on tap.

Later this month is the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Exhibition at the St. Lawrence Power and Equipment Museum in Madrid, where you get to see a full history of heavy equipment, along with wagon rides, and antique tractor pull, food, music and activities for kids. The following month we have the Potsdam Summer Festival, Ogdensburg’s Founders Days and Seaway Festival and firemen’s field days in many communities. There is usually a Civil War Re-enactment weekend that month in Massena.

August is just as jam-packed, with the Gouverneur & St. Lawrence County Fair, Waddington Homecoming, and the Ogdensburg Beer, Wine, Crafts and Food festival.

And I haven’t even gotten close to listing all of the community events we can expect this summer.

Let’s not forget about all the fishing tournaments, chicken barbecues, poker runs, pig roasts and community sports league competitions in between. If that’s too much action for you and you want things to be a little more quiet, take a short drive to the Adirondack Park, find a trail head and see where it takes you. Climb a mountain. Watch some birds. Take some outdoor photos or paint a landscape. Enjoy nature.

Instead of convincing yourself that the grass is greener and better in some other far-away community, take advantage of the myriad opportunities for fun St. Lawrence County has to offer.

Summer is coming. Get outside and enjoy the place we call home.

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Surplus psychiatric center lands should be worth exactly $1

First published: May 25, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 24, 2014 at 2:46 pm

The state is getting its house in order to prepare for the transfer of 45 acres of surplus land at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center to the city of Ogdensburg. The state Office of General Services will be up this week to conduct a survey and document what lies on the property the state approved for transfer.

The state legislation authorizing the transfer, however, stipulated that the land would be transferred for “fair market value.”

Seeing as a portion of the land is St. Lawrence River waterfront and another portion is prime commercial land along Route 37, city officials and state lawmakers representing the north country are anxious to find out what value an appraiser will place on it. If it’s a certified appraiser independent of the state who does not take into consideration that the state twice unsuccessfully tried to sell the land, the value could be outrageously high.

If it’s too high, the deal and its potential to jump-start the Ogdensburg economy could go nowhere.

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, is absolutely right to push the state to transfer the land to the city for $1. The state would be completely within its legal rights to do so. Under the state Constitution, one government can transfer land to another government for less than fair market value.

State officials have said they included the “fair market value” language in the legislation because they didn’t want to set a precedent, but it’s not like this hasn’t been done before. The New York Power Authority transferred surplus project lands to townships for a nominal fee following the 2003 relicensing settlement for the St. Lawrence-FDR power project in Massena.

Either the city or Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority — or both — have been asking the state to turn over surplus lands on the campus since, no kidding, 1991.

In 1992, a city task force formally requested three parcels, two of which were for OBPA. A fair market value of $990,000 was placed on the two OBPA parcels, which totaled 60 acres. OBPA challenged that appraisal.

Two years later, OMH set an asking price of $124,000 for one 39-acre parcel that had been requested. After some back and forth, OBPA agreed to purchase the land, with the price offset by giving the Office of Mental health free rent in one of its buildings for three years and seven months.

The sale of the land was authorized in 1994 through legislation sponsored by former Sen. James W. Wright of Watertown. It carried a sunset clause voiding the authorization if negotiations did not wrap up by 1996. At that point, it looked like the land transfer might actually happen.

The following year, in 1995, OMH formed the Interagency Council on Mental Hygiene Property Utilized, whose approval was required to officially sell the property to OBPA.

The council undertook a preliminary environmental site assessment to determine whether there was any contamination on the property. The report was received in December 1995, and three months later the council determined another environmental assessment was needed.

The state, meanwhile, hired an outside consultant to conduct a best-use analysis for the property. That consultant, Texas-based The Weitzman Group, determined that the land held absolutely no value.

At that point, OBPA again requested that the state Office of Mental Health transfer the property.

The OMH council asked if it could start occupying the building under the free lease agreement pending the transfer of the deed, which they acknowledged might never take place. The transfer of the deed, after all, was contingent upon further environmental analysis and the cleanup of any contamination on the property. I could not find any evidence that more environmental investigation ever even began.

OMH moved in and starting paying rent. At the end of 1996, the authorization to sell the land expired.

The following year, in 1997, former Governor George E. Pataki announced that surplus land at the psychiatric center would be offered for sale to private bidders, including the parcel that nearly was sold to OBPA and the other parcel it requested but never got. The Weitzman Group again that year concluded that there was no value to the property, and the city asked to take control of the waterfront portions of the campus.

In 1998, the state’s Empire State Development Corp. offered 263 acres up to bid. There were no bidders.

In 2000, Empire State Development put 260 acres up for bid. No takers.

It took 10 years for the state, city and OBPA to end up right back where they started.

The state has put up a lot of roadblocks over the years to maintain control of land it hasn’t used in decades, that no private bidders wanted and that its consultants determined was worthless.

If officials are serious about wanting to divest the state of its idle properties so more property can get back on the tax roll, they will do everything they can to allow the city to take over the property at a reasonable, nominal fee. It would be tragic if history were allowed to repeat itself.

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Anonymous sources are the height of journalistic irresponsibility

First published: May 18, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 17, 2014 at 11:21 am

A couple of weeks ago in this column I complained about anonymous Internet posters. There few things that annoy me more than people who post anonymously online, but this is one of them: news outlets who routinely attribute information to anonymous sources.

There is one local news outlet who we see routinely attributing information to anonymous sources. Sometimes the information they provide without attaching anyone’s name to it is correct. Sometimes it’s not.

Sure, there is a time and a place for anonymous sources. We occasionally have a need to protect a whistle blower who provides sensitive information that could result in dire consequences for them if their name was attached to it. And by occasionally, I mean almost never. I can’t remember the last time it happened. Even in those instances, we only go with that information if we can independently verify it.

Fairly often we get calls from people who tell us things but don’t want their names reported. We look into every tip we get, and do not report anything until we have thoroughly investigated and can verify what we were told. People have a hard time understanding sometimes why we can’t just immediately post what they tell us online, but our job is not to feed the rumor mill; it’s to report facts.

There’s a really good reason why anonymous sourcing happens so rarely in our pages. It’s not exactly ethical.

Without attributing information to a specific person, we can offer no guarantee to our readers that we didn’t just make up what we’re reporting.

News sources who not only run with anonymous sources but immediately report a tip without thoroughly investigating it aren’t news sources. They are gossips. The practice is about as far from real journalism as you can get.

You might remember a New York Times reporter named Jayson Blair who suddenly resigned in 2003 after senior editors found many instances where he either plagiarized or outright fabricated material.

He made up quotes he attributed to people he never interviewed. He stole information from other news outlets and passed it off as his own reporting. Worst of all, he attributed information to anonymous sources that he had fabricated. He was able to get away with his shenanigans for about six months before the truth about what he was doing came to light.

When he left the Times, the newspaper published an extensive front-page story reporting all of his misdeeds. Blair’s lack of ethics will remain an indelible stain on the reputation of a newspaper many consider among the most respected and trusted in the country.

News outlets need to maintain a level of trust with their readers. Every mistake we make affects our credibility, so we need to make sure we check our facts carefully. When we report those facts, we need to demonstrate very clearly where we got them so there is no question about the integrity of the source. When we make a mistake — because we are human and it happens — we correct it and in doing so state whether we made an error or a source gave us wrong information.

Every time I see information attributed to anonymous sources, I think of Jayson Blair and wonder where that information really came from.

The next time you see a report that cites anonymous or unnamed sources, ask yourself where that information originated. Did it come from a real person or the imagination of a reporter trying to get ahead? In the absence of a name, those two possibilities are equally valid.

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A this-and-that of local happenings

First published: May 11, 2014 at 2:40 am
Last modified: May 11, 2014 at 2:39 am

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY

Today we celebrate our mothers. Some might dismiss Mother’s Day as a holiday started by greeting card companies to make a few extra bucks, and maybe they’re right. But I don’t think setting aside a day out of the year to make your mother feel special — or remember her if she’s no longer with you — is a bad thing. I am fortunate to have two women in my life who I count as mothers: the woman who gave birth to me and raised me, Barbara Graham, and my mother-in-law, Sandy Lyons. I love them both beyond measure. If you are lucky enough to have your mom still with you, do something special for her today and tell her how much she means to you.

LEGISLATURE RACES

St. Lawrence County political committees have been searching high and low to come up with enough candidates to ensure contested races for all 15 seats on the county Board of Legislators in November. There are still seven seats for which there are either no announced candidates or no challengers to incumbents.

Holding elected office at any level of government is probably the most thankless job anyone could have. You can’t make everyone happy. Ever. But elected positions, especially at the county level, are vitally important to ensure that citizens get the services they need, whether its roads that need fixing or a resident’s tax issue that needs to be resolved. County lawmakers can and do make a difference in their constituents’ lives.

Our political process only works when there are people willing to hold those elected jobs, and it works best when people have a choice of candidates. Anyone interested in running for a Legislature seat should contact their political party’s local committee or their county committee chairman as soon as possible. Petitions will be circulated starting next month.

COMMON CORE TESTS

More than 100 students last week opted out of taking Common Core mathematics assessment tests in their school districts.

There has been understandable concern about the curriculum, which teaches mathematics using a philosophy that is dramatically different than past math instruction. It’s difficult for parents to wrap their heads around it. It’s easy for those of us educated the traditional way to think that the methodology is bizarre or wrong because we just were not taught to think that way. I personally think that the traditional mathematics teaching methods were fine because they somehow managed to propel me to college-level calculus, but I’m not in the education business.

Even if you despise the Common Core way of doing things, having your child not take the test does little to solve its problems. In the absence of a standardized test, children are unable to concretely demonstrate what’s wrong with the new curriculum. Without test results that show a uniformity to incorrect answers, school officials need to look at a host of classroom factors that might not give them an accurate view of how the curriculum needs to be changed.

I understand why some parents kept their children home on test day, but I don’t think it was the best approach to fixing what many parents and educators view as a flawed methodology for teaching fundamental math skills.

MASSENA MEMORIAL’S FUTURE

Massena Memorial Hospital officials have been told they should come up with a plan to save $8 million over the next three years before the Massena Town Council will consider switching the hospital’s status from a municipally owned facility to a nonprofit institution. Meanwhile, hospital CEO Charles Fahd is continuing to make the rounds to community groups making the case for changing to a nonprofit structure. His continued push toward nonprofit status is understandable.

The hospital is in a sticky situation. Even if hospital officials can manage to save $8 million over the next three years in an attempt to keep its municipal status and stay solvent, state pension costs will remain an unpredictable factor in years to come. As long as the state’s pension system is tied to the free market, its costs are only so predictable. If the market tanks again, pension contributions for publicly funded employees will skyrocket.

It’s understandable that many in the community would like to keep the hospital the way it is. But the odds that the facility can find $8 million in sustainable cuts within three years are slim. Even then, for how long will that keep the hospital solvent, since the cost of everything keeps going up?

Whether it keeps its municipal status or is forced to become a nonprofit institution, hospital and town officials need to keep the preservation of medical services as their number-one priority. Those deciding the hospital’s future must not gamble on quality of medical care for those who rely on Massena Memorial.

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Don’t feed the Internet trolls

First published: May 04, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 03, 2014 at 1:29 pm

I remember a time before the Internet where if you wanted to share your views with someone, you either wrote them a letter, called them on the phone, or told them face to face what was on your mind.

In any of those scenarios, most of the time people knew who was talking to them. You could disagree and shake hands or exchange punches afterward. You were forced to stick to or ignore at your peril your mother’s advice: If you don’t have something nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything.

That’s not the way of the Internet.

The Internet, while allowing for discourse to flow more freely than it ever has in the history of mankind, is also a pretty inhospitable place. The free flow of discourse it affords is a double-edged sword — not only giving people some modicum of protection for saying what is really on their minds by hiding their real-life identities, but removing all accountability for making inaccurate or even downright defamatory statements for all the world to see. Anyone can post something on the Internet under a made-up screen name, or even under the name “anonymous” when it comes to blogs and other websites that allow readers to post something without giving your actual identity. And the people supposedly moderating these sites don’t tend to fact-check what others post or give a hoot about whether a particular post could be damaging in real life to someone else.

Being someone who remembers a time when you were held accountable for the things you say, if ever I do post a comment on a website, I post under my real name — first and last. I feel a moral obligation to own what I say publicly, even if people don’t like it, disagree with it or don’t want to hear it.

That being said, I rarely comment on anything online, mostly because I don’t want to feed the trolls.

For those who don’t know what a troll is, Wikipedia provides an illustrative definition: “In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, [1] by posting inflammatory, [2] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response [3] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion. [4]”

Example: Poster 1 commenting on an article about flowers: I love flowers!

Poster 2: SHUT YOUR STUPID PIE HOLE, IDIOT!!!!!

In this example, Poster 2 is a troll.

The other day I found myself in a position where I felt a need to correct an inaccurate statement about our newspapers made by an anonymous poster on Watertown Mayor Jeff Graham’s blog.

I should have known better. I fed the trolls.

The statement to which I was responding was accusing us of giving unbalanced coverage to candidates in the 21st Congressional District race, specifically showing bias against Republican Elise Stefanik of Willsboro. I was outraged that such a ridiculous statement had been made because we have in our archives four solid months’ worth of coverage on Ms. Stefanik’s campaign, so I foolishly tried to set the record straight.

Within moments there was a barrage of comments attacking me personally. None of these posts had anything to do with whether people thought we were being unfair to Ms. Stefanik, and everything to do with how dumb and incompetent I am.

Of course, the authors of all these comments were “anonymous,” so it’s not like I can call them up and ask them why they felt the need to insult me in a public forum even though odds are none of them would know who I am if they met me on the street.

These anonymous posters are most likely campaign operatives whose job it is to post inflammatory comments on such sites, or basement dwellers with nothing better to do than pick fights with people sight unseen. And they can do that because they are “anonymous” and therefore cannot held accountable for anything they say.

I am by no means picking on Mayor Graham’s blog. Even our newspapers allow people to comment using a screen name. Pay attention to the comments on our stories sometimes — posters start out making a comment relevant to a particular story, but it pretty quickly turns into vicious comments about other posters that have nothing to do with the story that started the conversation.

It is unfortunately what the nature of Internet discourse has always been. I might think it’s wrong and that people by and large should show a little integrity by putting their names on what they have to say in a public forum, but my view, alas, does not reflect the reality of the Web.

I have pretty thick skin, so what was said doesn’t bother me. It’s the cowardice of posting anonymously that gets my goat.

Those who post anonymously should grow a set and start owning what they say to the world rather than hiding under bridges. If you feel the need to say something, take responsibility for it and take your praise or lumps accordingly, or keep it to yourself. Heed your mother’s advice.

As for everyone else, take care not to feed the trolls. You never know under what bridge in a dark corner of the World Wide Web they might be lurking.

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The 21st Congressional District race shapes up to be a good cure for insomnia

First published: April 27, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: April 26, 2014 at 3:34 pm

A couple of months ago I wrote in this column that the 21st Congressional District race was shaping up to be an interesting one.

Whatever interest it was building between then and now has decidedly taken a nosedive. I have not seen any of the candidates captivating north country voters. None of them have deviated from their respective national political parties’ talking points or offered any substantial information about how they are going to make the north country a better place to live, work and do business.

Sure, when we have asked them specific questions they answer with a little detail about how they want to jumpstart the north country economy or protect Fort Drum or whatever. But even those details have not lent a lot of substance to where they stand on specific issues.

They are all in favor of jobs. They all want lower taxes. They all want Fort Drum to stay where it is. I am sure they all also like Mom and America and apple pie.

None of them has outlined exactly what their goals are or how they could accomplish them. It’s all well and good to say you want to lower taxes, but how are you going to do that? How are you going to create jobs? How are you going to jumpstart the north country economy? How?

As I was pondering this column, I wondered if maybe I was being unfair. So I went to each of their campaign websites, hoping to uncover information that maybe I hadn’t yet seen.

The campaign sites for Republican Matt Doheny of Watertown and Democrat Aaron Woolf of Elizabethtown give a good amount of biographical information about the candidates but do not offer much information, if any, about where they stand on the issues. Republican Elise Stefanik of Wilsboro, in addition to offering comprehensive biographical information, has multiple bullet points on her website that offer two-paragraph blurbs about her feelings about the economy, finance, the environment and a bunch of other issues. But alas, only a few of the pages about specific topics seemed to be working Friday. Even those that did work didn’t really didn’t say much about anything she could do to support her beliefs if elected. I looked for a website for Republican Joseph Gilbert of DeKalb Junction, who says he is still in the running, possibly as an independent candidate, but could not find one. His Facebook page contains a lot of information about his feelings about various topics, which I am sure some voters would find helpful, but no information about specific goals or how he would accomplish them.

The only way a voter would get anything close to substantial information about these candidates is to read the profiles our newspapers and other media outlets have written about them. Even then, those profiles only offer a glance into their views and goals. And no one has a specific plan to accomplish whatever goals they have outlined.

To make matters worse, the campaign rhetoric has already devoled into sniping, with the Doheny campaign painting Ms. Stefanik as a “D.C. insider” and Mr. Woolf as a carpetbagger. Mr. Woolf’s campaign has been attempting to tie Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal to Mr. Doheny and Ms. Stefanik. The Stefanik campaign so far has kept its blows above the belt, but seems to mostly want to talk about repealing Obamacare.

I wonder if any of them has actually met the people of the north country. The average north country voter doesn’t pay enough attention to the House of Representatives’ inner workings to know what’s in Paul Ryan’s budget or why they might be inclined to care about it. They might not particularly care that Ms. Stefanik while in her early 20s was a White House aide under President George W. Bush. Since when does taking aim at an opposing candidate’s college internship lead to campaign victory? And how can a freshman lawmaker set repealing a newly enacted federal law as a realistic goal? Good luck with that.

At least they all say they aren’t fond of the state’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act. That’s nice, but the mathematical calculations associated with the probability a federal representative will be able to do anything to do away with a state law work out to exactly zero.

North country voters need and deserve substance from their congressional candidates, and so far none of them has delivered. Until any of the candidates can outline some realistic, attainable goals to make the north country a better place, the only conclusion any of us can draw is that whoever gets our vote will just be a mouthpiece for whatever national political committee is supporting his or her congressional bid. North country voters deserve better than that.

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The state’s two-handed approach to outpatient mental health care is failing

First published: April 20, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: April 19, 2014 at 3:43 pm

Those being treated for mental illness who need assistance to get to day habilitation programs will be out of luck after June if the state doesn’t reverse a decision to no longer pay for transportation.

The St. Lawrence County Community Development Program has for decades been overseeing transportation to day programs for those who are prescribed them as part of their treatment, and has continued to pay for it on its own dime in the absence of state funding. But CDP is running out of money, and cannot and should not be expected to turn to the county’s property taxpayers to foot the bill.

The state Health Department for some reason does not recognize these programs as medically necessary, and has decided to no longer pay for transportation to them. We don’t know the reason because the state Health Department hasn’t responded to our multiple requests for comment on the matter.

The state Health Department is flat-out wrong to make this policy change, especially since there has been a shift in policy by the state Office of Mental Health to better coordinate medical care with mental health care. Doctors have prescribed day hab programs because they will aid with socialization and life skills. They help with recovery so that people can get their lives back.

If that is not a medically necessary course of treatment, I don’t know what is. It should be viewed as just as important as getting somebody with a heart problem to a hospital for an electrocardiogram. This is a clear case of one hand not knowing, or caring, what the other is doing.

Many of the people this policy affects live in group homes, and the people with whom they live simply cannot handle taking the five or six or more people living with them to doctor’s appointments and other places they need to go unless they have a fleet of vehicles and an army of people to drive them.

I could understand this policy change if we were talking about an urban area that encompassed multiple agencies that offer opportunities for socialization, occupational and life skills training and also provide medical services. It would make sense to not pay for transportation to some programs to ensure that there is no redundancy in payment for services that could be provided by another agency that also provides medical care.

But in rural areas like ours, those agencies don’t exist. We by and large have day habilitation programs that have been severely underfunded for as long as they have been in existence and offer what services they can based on the limited dollars they have. Most urban areas also have a substantial public transportation system. We don’t.

What really takes the cake, though, is that some of the programs that are not Medicaid approved — which is what they have to be for the state to pay for transportation to them — are located at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.

The north country’s state elected officials have been asked to intervene, and I hope they can talk some sense into the state Health Department before funding runs out at the end of June.

CDP Executive Director Norma S. Cary said last week that if the transportation program is discontinued, people will in all likelihood be wandering the streets. She is absolutely correct.

Even worse, without being able to get to a day habilitation program, more people will regress in their treatment and need to be hospitalized.

The state needs to do the right thing by its most vulnerable residents and make sure they are able to get the care they need to recover. In the absence of adequate outpatient care — which includes day habilitation programs — the need for inpatient care will increase exponentially. A state Health Department decision to save a few bucks will undo the good progress the state Office of Mental Health has done to provide better community supports for people with mental illness so they can avoid hospitalization. One hand will be not only not care what the other is doing, but will undermine it.

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Funding for community mental health services is a good first step, but more is needed

First published: April 13, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: April 12, 2014 at 3:38 pm

The recently passed state budget for 2014-2015 contains $44 million more for community-based mental health services, $3.85 million of which is earmarked for the north country.

That is good news, and the state is moving in the right direction. At the very least, state officials are making good on their promise to use the money saved from the closure of inpatient mental health beds to provide more and better community supports for people with mental illness.

But that funding is a drop in the bucket in terms of what is needed to get rid of waiting lists, provide housing and employment support and ensure people are getting the treatment they need to function in society.

Outpatient treatment is far less costly than inpatient treatment, but it is still expensive. State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie’s office, in announcing the funding, said the north country’s share will provide treatment for 270 more people. The news release did not specify over how large of a geographic area that funding will be spread.

The officials we spoke with Friday did not have very many details about how the money will be spent, and I am anxious to see how much funding is dedicated for existing services and how much will create new ones.

First and foremost, the state needs to hire more people to meet the demand for services. Case workers, social workers, counselors and doctors have case loads that are bursting at the seams, and need to divide their time among offices in different communities.

Those seeking treatment in some cases, when they can get in to see somebody, do not have a consistent person working with them. That can only disrupt the continuum of care to the frustration of the person seeking help.

Over the last two years the state Office of Mental Health has expanded services to include family and marriage counseling and other types of therapies, but has not adequately increased its workforce to provide those services. Case loads have grown, and employees are strained. That needs to change immediately.

Housing assistance and employment aid will also require a great deal more funding, especially for people who were recently discharged from inpatient treatment and need help getting their lives in order. More people will have to be hired to provide those services, and housing will need to be built.

There is no question that the state’s direction is a positive one, but funding for outpatient and community supports has been so woefully lacking up to this point that the state needs to make a tremendous investment in those services to get them where they should be.

As they look to create new services, state officials need to get a handle on the needs of existing service providers and arm them with the funding and personnel they need to fulfill their missions.

It is all well and good to expand services, but the state must have enough personnel to provide them. The state cannot expect that its existing workforce, which is already stretched far too thinly, can take on the burden of expanded services. Without increasing its workforce, the state will be setting up a system that provides poorer quality of care, simply because their employees cannot keep up with the demand. People with mental illness who are just trying to live their lives will be worse off than they are now.

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