Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Pink slip

Don’t worry political gadflies. Planning Board Chairman Lew Benton’s hire to the newly resucitated administrator of parks, open lands and historic preservation was not a political appointment. Just ask the self-proclaimed “peoples’ mayor,” Valerie Keehn. She’ll tell you the straight dope; no political maneuvering, no backroom deals, and certainly no underhanded moves.

Not unless you consider it underhanded to give a pink slip to Denise McDonald, the director of the Heritage Area Program and Visitor Center, in order to get a political crony into a cushy retirement job.

Who cares that Benton, a now-semi retired county planner and former Public Safety Commissioner, has long been a proponent of the incumbent mayor. What difference does it make that his wife works in Keehn’s office? And does it really matter that Benton was on the commission that created the $48,000 position in the first place? It’s all conjecture and conspiracy theory anyway, right?

Well, that’s only if you’ve slept through the bulk of Keehn’s tenure as mayor. Benton, as some may recall, was Keehn’s selection to head the planning board after she came to office. At the time, he replaced Bob Bristol, one-term Republican Mayor Michael Lenz’s choice to oust Benton himself from the chairmanship.

Benton was also a leading member of Saratoga Forward, Keehn’s charter revisionists, who suffered a crushing defeat during November’s referendum. He’s also one of two members of the group that received a dead fish on his doorstep at the apex of the vote last fall.

With Benton in place, Keehn appointed one of her original two picks for the board to the chairmanship. Amy Durland, who has less than two years’ experience on the board and was the mayor’s pick to replace DPW Director William McTygue, was elevated to head the planners. The mayor will also get her third appointment to the board as the formerly retired Benton vacates for his paying job in the Keehn administration.

Benton’s seat carries another two years, which likely means Keehn will get to appoint yet another spot. Most likely, her appointment will only finish out Benton’s term and not the full seven years that most board members serve. In the unlikely chance this isn't the case, it’s more fuel to add to the fire as this being a strictly political move.

Keehn lauded the move as a political feather to place in her cap, boasting that no one had even bothered to fill the position until she came along. Of course, that’s probably because McDonald was more or less filling the bulk of the position. The fact that she was reported on a leave of medical absence for the past four months cast even a further shadow over the move. Can somebody say lawsuit?

In the end, Benton’s candidacy for the job is deserved, but the measures Keehn took to get him appointed look very suspect. Mayoral challenger Gordon Boyd has been and will continue to use Benton’s new job as a rallying point to refute Keehn’s claims of open government and government for the people.

On a trivial side note, Keehn’s cadre of online supporters will have a bit of explaining to do with Benton’s favored appointment. This roving group of ardent supporters is quick to call into question the political contributions of Boyd to Republican candidates. Benton, as some recall, was a member of the GOP during the 90s, when he served on the council.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

It isn't easy being green

Ask Kermit and he’ll tell you. Green is as green does. Just because you plant grass on your roof, weather-seal your windows and buy your energy from a wind plant doesn’t necessarily mean you’re saving the planet.

But green sounds good. Green energy rhymes with clean energy. And when politicians think of clean energy in Saratoga Springs, they think of votes in the 2007 election. This is especially after the city’s first Environmental Expo in April, when droves of conservation-minded commercialists descended upon the city offering a thousand and one ways to sell products that will somehow stead the tide of destruction wrecking havoc on Mother Earth.

Three months later, the two Democrats running for mayor are both hoping to bank some political capital by speaking softly and caring a recycled environmentally friendly woodchip stick. Incumbent Mayor Valerie Keehn rolled out a list of “green initiatives” she intends fire by city council during the final months of her first term. Things like such as efficiency standards for city buildings, retrofitting public offices, renewable energy purchasing and converting the city’s fleet of vehicles to be clean and efficient.

Party-endorsed challenger Gordon Boyd doesn’t intend to be outdone at his own game. His company, EnergyNext, has long advocated the principles of conservation and clean energy sources; Boyd is, so to speak, a power broker. And as such, he intends to boast a so-called city energy plan of the future. He already seems to think the city is on the vanguard of the green wave that is crashing over the east coast.

The city might be at the forefront of the green movement when it comes to “buying” clean energy. But this is a snake oil many power companies have been pawning off for years; buy this energy plan and more than 40 percent of your electricity will be generated from a wind mill and not some dirty coal plant, the sales pitch goes. Of course, you’ll never see or know the difference as a green consumer, you’ll just have to take the trust-worthy altruistic never-seeking-profit power company’s word for it.

Then again, it’s not like Saratoga County residents are flocking to the local coal plant to buy their energy. Still, the air quality is rated the worst in the Capital Region by the American Lung Association. For the umpteenth time in a row, Saratoga County received a failing grade for having 10 “high ozone” days, trumping both the industry-happy counties of Schenectady and Rensselaer.

Where’s all this pollution coming from? Well it ain’t the lights in City Hall. Try the plumes of black smoke that spit from diesel 18-wheelers and the veritable procession of like-fueled busses doing pirouettes South Broadway. Or perhaps the thousands of vehicles idling on the main strip, which during the tourism season, is akin to the largest parking lot in the city proper.

How ironic. The county that once attracted the masses from down south because of its clean and healthy air is now considered the worst place for an asthmatic to seek refuge. And at the center of it all is a city that probably belches large regional cloud of smog each summer but doesn’t thinking up a rational plan to limit vehicle traffic.

The answer from city hall: spend millions to build more parking spaces. Erect large concrete monuments to the waning quality of local air, allowing even more vehicles to pile into the already congested downtown. Then pay National Grid a few extra dollars to buy supposedly clean energy and then double calk the windows at city hall to get the green stamp.

There is no easy solution to solving pollution from vehicle traffic, which crowds through the city at an increasing basis. Not at least for a council loaded with visionless politicians who lack the fortitude to make difficult decisions to improve the quality of life in the future. Eventually, someone will need to throw themselves on the grenade. In the meantime, the public can wheeze through another few ozone alerts while jaundiced politicians argue whose greener.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Media matters

When the going gets tough, the tough get going –through the staff roll to see who they can layoff. At least that was the implication Thursday when the Schenectady Daily Gazette laid of more than a dozen workers. Reports from inside the Capital Region’s only independently owned paper suggest upwards of 18 staffers were axed altogether, with at least five of those cuts coming from the newsroom.

They didn’t even wait until Friday to start swinging the ax. Somewhere in the office world, Bob Slydell is rolling his eyes.

Any way you slice it, the paper decided to focus roughly a third of the cuts in the newsroom, which is in fact what separates the paper from the freely circulated Pennysavers that come in the mail each week. Only in the newspaper industry does a business limit the ability to ply its trade in order to remain fiscally solvent. Put succinctly, the entire notion of producing less of what brings in the money is ludicrous from any sort of business perspective.

And to add insult to injury for the flailing paper, the Times Union reported the cuts just moments after they occurred, an insider claimed, even surprising some of the remaining employees who first learned of the layoffs through the TU website. The Gazette’s leading competitor gleefully recounted how a veteran photographer and two longtime writers –a basketball reporter and the former education reporter –were given four weeks’ severance pay and shown to the door.

“It’s a difficult time in the economy,” quoted Gazette General Manager Dan Beck. “This is unfortunate and difficult. At the same time we're proud of our 100-year history in serving the public.”

So trying are these economic times, the paper is actually planning an aggressive online expansion into the world of electronic media, according to an internal memo leaked from the paper. Yes, while the ax was swinging in the newsroom, the Gazette was actively pursuing a new hire to become the online editor to “develop strategies” for the cyber-launch, which is apparently scheduled for sometime this fall.

The layoffs also came at a time when the Gazette’s circulation has picked up. Nearly 500 additional papers were sold Monday through Friday. These gains, however, are obscured by the TU article, which correctly but misleadingly reported the paper’s 20 percent overall decline in circulation since 1991.

In reality, the Gazette hung an albatross around its neck by producing a Sunday edition, then requiring all of its subscribers to purchase the more expensive publication. Readers balked at the idea and left en masse. It took the Gazette more than a decade to right the ship, so to speak, all the while making cuts throughout the newsroom.

Perhaps a perfect example is the paper’s Albany bureau, which just a few short years ago stood at five reporters. With the most recent cuts, the Gazette will have a paltry two writers in the Capital Region’s most populated city. Gone are bureaus in Troy and Colonie. There are even four fewer reporters covering Schenectady than there were at the turn of the century.

“Everyone in the company will feel the impact of these cuts,” wrote Editor Thomas Woodman in a memo leaked to iSaratoga this week. “But I’m confident that, as we have in the past, the newsroom will work together to maintain our traditions of high-quality journalism.”

High quality? It’s difficult to do “high quality” anything much less journalism when the publication is literally hemorrhaging jobs, just as the now diminutive Post Star has been doing. Though their staff cuts aren’t as visible as the Gazette’s, the Glens Falls paper has certainly taken a turn for the worse, albeit under a different set of circumstances.

The Post-Star’s fate was sealed in 2002, after its parent company –Howard Publications –was gobbled up by Lee Enterprises Inc. of Davenport, Iowa. At first, the acquisition didn’t seem to make much of a difference for the paper, which was often regarded as the best publication north of the tri-city region. But in 2005, the paper’s new overlord decided to buy a Pulitzer, or rather Pulitzer Inc., making Lee the fourth largest newspaper company in the nation.

Large and in charge, however, wasn’t enough for the Lee shareholders. With Lee’s revenue estimated to rise by more than $440 million to $1.14 billion after the acquisition, company officials warned that its public earnings could decline by as much as 10 cents a share. As a result, the Post Star today is a shell of the award-winning paper it was just five short years ago.

Municipal coverage in Saratoga Springs has been gutted thoroughly and is virtually non-exsistent. The bureau that featured no less than two reporters a day now has room for only one. But the most compelling proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Pick up a copy of the paper these days and it feels wafer thin; scanning the local headlines does nothing to allay this notion either.

Today, the numbers at the Post-Star continue to decline steadily as they have ever since the paper was bought by Lee. The circulation that once hovered around 33,000 in 2002 is now flirting with a dip below 31,000. For the math challenged, that’s a 6 percent decline in five short years, which is far greater than the percentage most pundits call the average for print media.

There appears to be no respite for the disease that is spreading through editorial boards across the country. Publishers are demanding more content and more news from less staffer writers and in a shorter period of time. This creates an atmosphere that is a perfect storm to gut the field of newsprint journalism. Pretty soon, the news will be more a factor of who writes a press release than the reporter gathering the facts.

Yes folks, the outlook for the media is grim. Newsrooms across the country already lack the staff to competently cover even the most basic forms of local government. Put bleakly, this guardian bastion of our American Democracy is a wounded eagle plummeting to the earth.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lakefront property

Imagine this scenario: Saratogian editor Barbara Lombardo is putting the last period on her latest treatise on her family’s dirty laundry, when her computer screen flickers for a second and then goes dark. Halfway between angst and frustration, she rushes into the darkened newsroom, only to find a cadre of perplexed writers each staring at their respective black screens. In a blind fury, she picks up the nearest phone and dials the city Public Works commissioner.

“Dammit, Tom,” she screams into the phone. “This is the third outage this week.”

Then there is a lingering silence in the newsroom, as the voice on the other end explains a ‘situation’ has developed involving a Stewart’s double large coffee, a small woodland creature and the main circuit board in the basement of 20 Lake Avenue. But the voice of Tom McTygue coolly reassures the outage will be fixed shortly, adding that he really didn’t like the most recent coverage of the city council meeting.

“What do you mean it could be fixed in several minutes or several days,” she replies. “And didn’t you guys say the bathrooms would be fixed sometime this month? The reporters are getting tired of using spackle buckets.”

In all seriousness –or as seriously as McTygue’s recent comments in the aforementioned publication can be taken –there appears to be a push for the city to purchase the Journal Register Company-owned brick building and 70-something spot lot off Lake Avenue. The acre-large property is assessed at roughly $1.5 million and would probably market for at least $500,000 more than this value, were JRC looking to make a quick buck.

McTygue believes the property would be an ideal place to locate a new parking garage due to its proximity to downtown’s shopping area and its setback into the slope of Caroline Street. In his own words, the lot is “just what the doctor ordered.”

Needless to say, Saratogian Publisher Frank McGivern had no comment for his reporter; such a sale would undoubtedly heap untold hardship on a paper that’s struggling to pull itself from the clutches of waning circulation numbers. And the reporter –who again buried this gem deep in his article –would have done the glib reference justice if he had asked JRC if they would even consider such a sale. After all, if they’re not selling, then McTygue’s bluster is nothing more than the latest warm front to blow through City Hall.

If they are considering a sale, there are some pretty significant changes that could be afoot. First concern would be how the city plans to afford the lot and a project to build a multi-tier parking structure on it, while taking a large commercial parcel off the tax rolls. The second would be what becomes of the Spa City’s “hometown” paper; can they ethically lease from the city? And if they couldn’t, would JRC keep the paper within the city? Could the property be subdivided with the parking lot being sold to the city? Once again the city council has answered their heralded parking riddle with a giant conundrum.

Were the city council to back such an idea, there’s a darn good chance JRC would move the property for the right price. After all, paying taxes on a million dollar property is no cheap thing these days and Wilton seems to have a bevy of cheap space up for grabs. Alas, it’s all speculation until the deed is signed over. But there are probably some sweaty brows in the corner offices of Lake Avenue anxiously anticipating what their reporter brings out of tonight’s council meeting.

Monday, June 18, 2007

This is your brain on drugs

Given the statements Bruce Levinsky chucked at The Saratogian this weekend, it’s a wonder the Partnership for a Drug-Free America hasn’t solicited him to headline their latest public service announcement campaign. Yes, it appears as though the pugilistic developer has once again aimed his vitriol at the City Council, the Design Review Commission and the Preservation Society; all of which has apparently prevented him from full-filling his obligation to prevent the Rip Van Dam from falling in on itself. In his recent correspondence with city Mayor Valerie Keehn, he even singled out the poor owners of the Adelphi, who are presently reinforcing their courtyard table umbrellas with titanium.

Levinsky claims that the city Department of Public Works provided him with “incorrect information” to locate a water main his workers obviously ruptured somehow. And when he wanted the main shut down, he claims DPW Director Bill McTygue told him to screw off in no specific terms. Meanwhile, he claims, the recalcitrant Adelphi owners are callously serving “cocktails” in their courtyard, despite the looming threat of raining bricks.

Let’s back up here for a minute. First, Levinsky does everything in his power to prevent stabilization efforts at his building, in essence allowing more than seven years of hard weather to take its toll on the dilapidated wing. Then, when the city orders him to stabilize it, he kicks and screams like a little child, claiming there’s no way he’ll be able to do such a project financially. Finally, when the city gives him more than two months two wreck the wing, he drags his feet until nearly three weeks past the deadline without even giving a remotely plausible excuse, like ‘my dog at the blueprints.’

Now, Levinsky has the unabashed hubris to fault the Adelphi for running a business that he’s done nothing but harm with his own reckless stubbornness? But wait, it gets better. Levinsky claims his own frustration is only eclipsed by his “anger as a taxpayer to this total disregard for the safety of innocent bystanders, who are threatened by the foolish agendas of these city officials.”

Agendas? City Officials? Get this man a crack pipe, Maude. In his mounting dementia, Levinsky must have forgotten his own agenda, which is to build a monolithic convention hall around a historic building, leaving intact only the front façade. And he must also forget that is was his own doing –not that of the Adelphi owners –that led to the wing being unsafe in the first place.

True, the city has been cool to any plan or idea that bears Levinsky’s name and rightfully so. There is a certain decorum and candor that most civil people carry if they want to get things done in Saratoga Springs. Kicking open the city council chamber doors and giving them all the middle finger is not the type of decorum and candor that gets things done in any city, much less the Spa City.

So what exactly is Levinsky thinking by appealing to the mayor? Well, he’s thinking he has an ally. As anyone living in the 12866 zip code could attest, there is no love between the Keehniacs and the Brothers’ McTygue. But there is a bit of warm feeling between Keehn’s political ambitions and Levinsky, who was incidentally an ardent supporter of the charter revisionists, of who Keehn was a leading proponet. Yes, there’s more than one feather shared among this pair of birds, especially with Keehn needing every ally she can get after getting the boot from the city Dems.

But the incumbent mayor must tread lightly in these waters. Levinsky is not a liked man in the city, especially after he swooped into Broadway during the mid-90s and single-handedly destroyed two popular local businesses. Some forget that it was Levinsky’s buggering that did away with the immensely popular Madeline’s coffee shop in the Granite Palace on Broadway. It was also Levinsky who forced the owners of Jacksland’s Bistro –the restaurant directly across the street –out of the city to bring Starbucks; a business that undoubtedly influenced his decision to kick Madeline’s to the curb.

No doubt, the city council back then had theses two actions in mind when they told Levinsky to shove off with his plans for the Rip Van Dam. Needless to say, old grudges don’t heal quickly around here, which is something Keehn should take into consideration when dealing with this situation. From the outset, it appears as though she’s contemplating using Levinsky as the proverbial battering ram to knock into the DPW again; after all, Levinsky’s letters to the mayor’s office didn’t appear at The Saratogian’s doorstep on their own.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Super Size Me

In reading today’s paper, it’s easy to chortle with delight at the city’s Board of Assessment Review decision affirming John Breyo’s property value. It’s also easy to imagine the board members giving each other high-fives as they quickly decided the multi-millionaire could take his grievance and shove it where the McMansions don’t shine.

But the truth of the matter is the grievance process isn’t equipped to handle an assessment of more than $24 million; one Breyo believes to be $6.1 million or roughly $2.1 million more than he paid in materials alone to build the Winding Brook Road residence. Assistant City Assessor Anthony Popolizio sheepishly admitted this spring he wasn’t equipped to value such a behemoth.

“It's a very unique challenge,” he told the Daily Gazette in May. “We don't have a lot of examples to look at.”

Simply put, there is no precedent for valuing a dwelling larger than the standard Wal-Mart Supercenter, or reaffirming that value when it is contested. This means Breyo’s contesting of his assessment and the board’s subsequent denial of his grievance are nothing more than a formality preceding a state Supreme Court law suit. Just watch. It will happen this year, then again next year, and in every year that follows that mansion’s existence on the tax rolls.

See, as vogue as Saratoga Springs has become to the uber-wealthy, there are still sparsely few billionaires flocking to the metropolis. This means there really isn’t much of a market for mansions boasting something to the tune of 61,000 square-feet. If Breyo’s supercenter were ever to go on the market for the $24 million it’s assessed at, the property would probably stay empty until it’s donated to some not-for-profit artists’ cult as a tax write-off.

Likewise with large commercial properties, such as the Quad Graphics plant off Geyser Road. Were the plant to be vacated for whatever reason, it’s highly doubtful that a new tenant would pay the $32.1 million price tag the city placed on the property in 2004. True, the machinery inside the building, the building itself and the acres upon acres of developable land make this price realistic. But finding another gargantuan printing company to jump in to Quad’s shoes if they left is very unrealistic.

Try scanning through the court wrangling between the city and Quad and you’re likely to find the printer making a similar argument. Three years ago, Quad asked the city to dip it’s assessment down to an eye-popping $19.4 million, which is a dip of more than $13 million. This is commonplace for Quad, so much so that grieving their assessment is a mere formality to move on toward a courtroom showdown; the board rubber stamps their affirmation and moves the case on for the lawyers to wrangle out.

Unlike Quad, however, Breyo’s mansion doesn’t employ hundreds of Spa City residents at good paying jobs. While he’s certain to have a staff manning the mansion, it’s doubtful the residence could be considered a large regional employer. So the only beneficial reason to have a mansion of such grandeur is to pump a cash infusion into the city’s tax coffers.

Surely, part of the impetus of the city’s decision to allow such an atrocity of upper class sloth was the level of taxes the owner would eventually pay. Accounts Commissioner John Franck estimated $98,000 in city taxes, $56,000 in county taxes and a whopping $282,000 in school taxes. All this from a property that was valued at $286,000 prior to construction.

Here’s the problem: Breyo will pay his $436,000-per-year share of taxes over the next several years as his case drips through the court system like molasses in January. Then in five years or so, he’ll work out a settlement with the city or receive a court ruling, which is likely to find a middle ground, say at $18 million.

When the ruling or settlement comes down, Breyo will then be owed what is bound to be a multi-million dollar refund. For the city and county, it won’t be a big deal, aside from the tens of thousands of dollars worth of legal bills. But for the school district, it will be a budget landmine years down the road; just ask the district administrators about their recent settlement with Quad.

Hopefully the district budgets for such a calamity as the glacier of Breyo’s opulence creeps ominously onto the tax rolls. And hopefully, members of the various boards that allowed this boondoggle will think hard before approving another one to be built.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Eminent threat

When it comes to forcing Bruce Levinsky into action, the only easy solution involves a blow torch, a pair of pliers and several unspeakable acts not condoned under the Geneva Convention. Threats don’t work and neither do fines. Simply put, he marches to the smell of his own flatulence and not to the demands of the law.

Still, the circus sideshow between the butthead developer and the City Council over the aging Rip Van Dam continues at infinitum; so much that even recounting the history between the two has grown beyond tiresome. First, the preservationist tangled with him to save a historic wing of the structure, which was perfectly salvageable at the time. Levinsky scoffed at the idea and merely waited the preservationists out.

Then, nearly seven years later, it was the owner of the Adelphi who tangled with him, upset over the fact that his dilapidated building was spitting bricks onto their courtyard. More recently, it was the council that went after Levinsky, first demanding that he fix the structure, only to capitulate to his demands several months later. In all, they gave him more than two months to wreck a structure that arguably could be toppled by someone leaning on the wrong wall.

But the capitulation wasn’t enough for Levinsky, who waited and waited and waited until two months passed. Not one iota worth of work has been done at the Rip and the owners of the Adelphi –who are also trying to market their historic business –are faced again with providing their courtyard customers with some ominous advice: beware of falling bricks.

How does Public Safety Commissioner Ron Kim respond to this morass? With more threats, more hot air, and more inactivity. Kim told The Saratogian Wednesday that he’s considering a shutdown of the whole building to force the developer’s hand. And he’s giving Levinsky another 14 days to comply before he does it.

Well, Mr. Kim. Talk is cheap, real cheap. This is especially the case if the aforementioned talk is coming from the suck-hole some in this city call the government. Why wait two weeks to shut the building down? Just shut the damn thing down now. After all, if everything Levinsky has preached about the wing is true, then it is an imminent threat to public safety.

Better yet, just seize the property through eminent domain. The property is a threat to the public and could be used for the public good, if the city is looking for some more parking. The razed wing and adjacent parking lot could provide the city with an additional 100-something prime spots off Broadway. The existing portion of the Rip could be subdivided and sold at auction to the highest bidder to help recoup some of the cost of giving Levinsky full market value for the property. Eventually, the city could use the parking lot for another one of their garages or even the public safety facility they've pined for recently.

Granted, eminent domain is a frightening lump for citizens to swallow, especially after what happened a few years back along Connecticut’s waterfront. But in this case, Levinsky has consistently thumbed his nose at government and is deserving of more than a slap on the wrists. Losing the Rip would teach him a valuable lesson in humility and would at last put to rest his dickering when it comes to a historic property that is in dire need of renovation.

Monday, June 11, 2007

T.V. Nation

When a fictional gangster can leap from the television screen to the B-section of newspaper, there’s something dreadfully wrong in the world of media. Never was the failing and flailing plight of news journalism more evident than when the last episode of “The Sopranos” spurred news articles in several area papers.

Both The Saratogian and the more reputable Times Union wasted ink on summing up the eight-years-running HBO-series, just in case there was a scattered introvert out there that didn’t have an operant synopsis it to begin with. Yes, Sopranomania struck the nation almost a decade ago and, like many shows of its ilk, never really relinquished its chokehold on viewers.

Droves of television addicts followed the flotsam and jetsam of Tony Soprano’s life more closely than their own. But this does not make it news. Regardless of what sort of kooky punch line the writers at HBO sleazed into this snuff drama, the lives of John and Jane Q. Public didn’t change one iota with the series finale. And that’s generally a good barometer for whether an event is newsworthy.

Even the standard “man or the street” articles chronicaling random responses to national news events hold more merit than this drivel, no matter how light-hearted it is. Even the prototypical parade wrap-up at least serves to take a snap-shot of time as it exists in reality. Articles about watching someone else’s reaction to watching television are a waste of valuable ink.

Circulation numbers are down across the board for print news. Even though most newspapers make a profit margin that most industries would consider healthy, publishers continue to make cuts. Nine out of ten times, those cuts come in the newsroom. Fewer reporters, less beats and more news seems to be the mantra of today’s newspapers, hence the precipitous decline in bona-fide content.

So when it comes to filling pages, the editors turn to nonsense like how the Union College students or Uncommon Grounds patrons react to the season finale of “The Sopranos;” or better yet, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The TU wall-to-wall coverage of the “makeover” in Colonie was nothing short of horrendous.

True, there’s at least a grain of local news there, in the sense that the region was struck by a sort of fever for what was happening around the Oatman residence. But the over-obsessive coverage only served to promote the event, prompting thousands of people to tune in and tune out to the lulling tune of ABC’s faux reality.

Meanwhile, there are dozens of towns and growing that have literally fallen so far off the radar screen of the media that it’s curious if they even exist anymore. Seldom if ever is there a date-line reading Edinburg, Northumberland, Providence, or even Galway, taking from a few examples in Saratoga County alone. Publishers seem to insist there’s no money in such coverage. Then again, when a starting reporter working in the sticks of rural America costs a whopping $350-per-week with no benefits, this argument doesn’t seem to hold much water.

These are the questions the public should be asking as the print news industry struggles to reinvent itself online. The standard reader is quick to fire off wordy letters to the editor about anything and everything under the sun; Bush sucks, Bush-haters suck, too much use of the word ‘suck’ in letters to the editor.

Yet when a bureau is cut or a staff position not filled, the public remains silent. And as long as this remains the status quo, editors will continue to play a shell game with coverage, foisting bull shit stories about television dramas as news instead of relying on hard reporting from the field.

But maybe this is what the public wants. Maybe if the news coverage is winnowed down to quick-hit reactions to Paris Hilton’s latest jail sentence or the second coming of William Hung, the American public can finally relinquish its frighteningly weak grip on its slipping democracy.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Bank Robbing 101

There are certain things that are a given when one decides to rob a bank. First, that the bank is located far enough from the police station to allow enough time for a getaway. And second, that the aforementioned bank isn’t located directly across the street from one’s residence. Lastly, prospective robbers should have a good plan in place for making an escape; primarily one that doesn’t involve relying on Capitaland Taxi as the getaway car.

Mike Suprenant obviously didn’t think these basic steps through before entering Saratoga National on South Broadway Thursday afternoon with a “poorly spelled note” demanding money from the teller, according to The Saratogian. Despite what sounds like a half-assed attempt at a robbery, the 49-year-old man made off with more than $12,000 and managed to escape from the bank before police –located less than a mile away –could arrive on the scene.

Update: For all his genius bank robbing skill, the 50-year-old Suprenant was handed a 10-year prison sentence and five years on probation, meaning he’ll be collecting social security the next time he’s free to roam the globe unabated by the law. And to think, he didn’t even get a good rollick with the crack whores Schenectady is renowned for.

But Suprenant didn’t stop his bungling there. Instead of fleeing town like most sensible robbers would, he sauntered back over to his trailer –located directly behind the shopping plaza across the street from the bank –changed out of his clothes, and then walked back toward the vicinity of the bank to catch a cab to Schenectady. In his trailer, he left his robbery clothes, roughly a two-thirds of the stolen cash AND the hastily written sign he used to commit the heist in the first place.

Let’s pause from the story for some analysis. Even with all this bungling, Suprenant managed to escape the bank, the confines of his surrounded apartment and the dragnet of cops that were rapidly clamping down on every exit of the city. Not bad for the fellow, all things considered, especially seeing as though the cops were on scene in less than two minutes.

So how did they finally spot him? Well, here’s a word-from-the-wise for any prospective half-baked bank robber: it’s pretty conspicuous to be walking by the scene of a bank robbery with more than $3,000 wadded up in your front pockets. It’s especially conspicuous if the cash still has the wrappers from the bank that was just robbed. In short, it’s a dead giveaway.

Still, Spa City Police Chief Ed Moore felt the need to pat his boys on the back in the case, even though the robber quite literally stumbled into them, leaving a trail of evidence that even one of the middle school’s junior detectives could have tracked.

“It was good police work,” he told The Saratogian.

Good police work? Heaven forbid the city is every shown an example of bad police work. Of course, some would argue there’s already been a glaring case of that nearly five years ago just blocks north of the robbery. While the trail for Kevin Arkenau’s killer has long since grown cold, there are some out there who seem to have a fairly good idea of what happened that December day in 2002.

Yet the city police don’t and never did have a firm idea of what happened that evening. Or at least not one that has lead to a conviction in the Spa City’s only unsolved murder in the past decade. One year after the shooting, Moore seemed convinced there would be an arrest, which would indeed be deserving of the “good police work” statement he tossed out to the press Thursday.

Well, it’s almost four years after he made that statement and still, no arrests. Then again, it’s a lot easier to give high-fives for arresting a seemingly insane robber than it is to track down an interstate drug cartel that deftly murdered a man in cold blood just a block away from the police station.

Don't rain on our parade

In the cherished words of The Saratogian, “the annual Elks Flag Day Parade has featured everything from veterans to Boy Scouts. There is only one thing it has never had.”


That was until last year, when the Saratoga Peace Alliance apparently invited themselves to the Elks’ 38th march down Broadway. Eugene Cole, chairman of the Elks’ Board of Trustees, claims peace alliance members merely showed up at last year’s parade and in the confusion, were allowed to march alongside the mélange of brass bands and aging vets as they made their way toward Congress Park.

“It’s by invitation only and always has been,” he told the Daily Gazette Thursday, explaining that some members feel the peace alliance doesn’t “honor and have the same beliefs the Elks have.”

But in a letter to the Elks, peace alliance member Joe Seeman claims it’s a parade commemorating Flag Day and that everyone who sits beneath Old Glory should have a chance to celebrate during the parade. The peace alliance has been Saratoga Springs’ most vocal and longstanding opponent of the war in Iraq, as well as hostilities in Afghanistan. For more than four years now, they’ve been a veritable fixture at the post office each Saturday at noon. This weekend, they’ll be gathering a half-hour earlier to greet the Elks’ parade as it winds through the city proper.

Certainly, there should be some tension as the geriatric flag bearers of yesteryear are greeted by gaggle of placard-waving pacifists chanting “it’s our flag too.” Obviously, the war-veteran laden Elks’ membership is about the direct antithesis of a bunch of bongo-playing peaceniks. So alas, there’s appears to be yet another small thunder cloud hovering over the Lake Avenue intersection with Broadway.

By snubbing the peace alliance, the Elks have opened the doorway for the type of atmosphere any peacenik loves: lots of people, lots of cameras and lots of visibility. On the other end, the peace protesters will certainly look like a bunch of nitwits if they decide to harass the 89-year-old World War II veteran the Elks plan to wheel down Broadway in an army jeep.

In reality, both sides should capitulate a bit. While the Elks certainly should have some discretion as to who marches, they do close up a public thoroughfare and should therefore be open to any group willing to march behind the stars and bars, provided they’re not blustering some political message. Conversely, the peace alliance members could easily assure the Elks they have no intention to bust out anti-war banners or chants out from their “hey-hey ho-ho” playbook.

Still, it’s strange how the American populace remains deeply divided in their sentiment and utterly unwilling to hear the other side more than four years after the hostilities touched off. And it’s odd how the symbolism of a supposed icon of liberty can be frivolously disputed on an occasion that has little to do with war.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Citizen Bonacio

When Sonny Bonacio’s first-grade art teacher gave him finger paints and told him to make a picture of his house, imagine, the future developer probably came back with a detailed engineering schematic of his entire neighborhood. Good work, but not quite the work that was asked to be done.

Such is the case today, when Bonacio pitched plans for a 500-unit lot and a public safety facility instead of just a plan to add a parking structure to the municipal lot on Woodlawn Avenue. True, the city cops have been pining for a new building. But the disparity between the plan Bonacio and his cabal of developers pitched and what the city council asked for is so vast that it’s curious that the even looked at the initial request for proposal.

Basically, Bonacio wants to develop a multi-story parking and public safety facility on the 1.6 acre parcel. Bonacio would “give” the city a one-time contribution of $200,000 to establish a parking authority to maintain the lot. Here’s the kicker: he’d also “lease” the public safety complex back to the city to the tune of $1.5 million per year.

Succinctly put, this is not only thinking outside the box; it’s thinking completely off the grid and in another dimension not deeply rooted in reality. Under Bonacio’s proposal, the city would pay more than $45 million just to inhabit the facility. Meanwhile, the city would also need to maintain the parking facility, which according to The Saratogian, would become municipal property once it is completed.

So the towering garage structure –and the one most prone to malfunction as demonstrated by the Phila Street garage –would be city property to maintain with a slush-fund that barely covers façade work these days. Meanwhile, the new public safety facility –the same one that’s been estimated to cost roughly $22 million if built by the city –would cost twice as much and be owned by a private developer who would make bank on the taxpayers. What a bargain.

On a side note: neither The Saratogian nor The Daily Gazette reporters bothered to ask what it costs the city to maintain the present public safety building, which would have helped readers flesh out Bonacio’s seemingly ridiculous rent-rate. Then again, both papers lead with the fact that there will be fireworks on the Fourth of July that don’t involve a spitting match between Mayor Valerie Keehn and Public Works Commissioner Tom McTygue.

The Saratogian reporter even mentioned Bonacio’s proposal was “the most intriguing topic of the night,” only to bury it seven graphs down in the story. Good work, guys. Way to single out the important news of the day. Of course, The Post Star apparently didn’t even bother with a story and appears to have given up on reporting hard news in Saratoga altogether.

But back to the issue at hand, which is Bonacio’s plan. It would put the property back on the tax rolls and absolve the city from having to bond the cost of a new station. However, these taxes would undoubtedly be a fraction of what the developer is proposing for the annual lease.

This would also put the city in the precarious legal situation of assessing the value a building in which they are the only lease holder. And does anyone honestly believe the new public safety building will be honestly assessed each year? Let’s also not ignore the fact that Bonacio would also become the city police and justice system’s landlord.

Finance Commissioner Matt McCabe rightfully spoke with trepidation Tuesday over Bonacio’s plan, which was more than rest of the city’s suck-hole politicians could do in response to this ludicrous plan. Keehn suggested “broadening” the discussion to include all parking, while Commissioners John Franck and Ron Kim urged action on the proposal because the parking and public safety building “issues” are not going away. In the end, they decided to schedule a meeting with the developer to further discuss this absolutely ludicrous plan.

In truth, there should be only one action taken with Bonacio’s plan, and that is to hand-deliver it to him with a big red “F” written at the top of it along with instructions to reread the city’s original RFP. If the city asks for 300 new parking spaces, come back with a plan that brings 300 new parking spaces, not a tax boondoggle that raises more questions than it answers.

Monday, June 04, 2007

What's wrong with this picture

Robust coverage for the Spa City’s so-called Arts and Blues Fest still couldn’t turn out a crowd tantamount to Caroline Street Block Party, the raucous event the milquetoast street crawl replaced. That didn’t prevent some sponsors from hyping up the event that basically denudes the traditional atmosphere of Saratoga’s own Bourbon Street.

The Saratogian, the same newspaper that editorialized the Block Party into nonexistence and then sponsored the new event, posted what appears to be a photo of the normal afternoon street traffic on Caroline Street. The beneath caption reads “Caroline Street was loaded with people Sunday afternoon.”

True, this could be a misprint. Perhaps they meant to say “people were loaded on Caroline Street Sunday afternoon,” which would make a hell of a lot more sense on any given day. Or maybe they’re just banking on the fact that people will read the caption and article, but ignore the picture.

Either way, the arts and snooze fest were about as popular as always, which is basically not very much so at all. True, there were a few more people on the street than your standard Sunday afternoon; the Times Union claims “hundreds” of people were there. But in comparison to other street festivals of similar ilk –even winter’s Chowderfest –the turnout was paltry to say the least. This is nothing new for the Caroline Street Association’s annual event, which has limped through the city for seven consecutive years now.

Several years ago, organizers tried to steal a bit of Chowderfest’s thunder by throwing a chili cook-off among the street’s restaurants. After three or so years, the competition has yet to draw the crowds or entries that its winter doppelganger does each year.

So what bedevils this event every year? Well, first and foremost, it’s difficult to appeal to the soulless masses of the white-bred 50-something tourist culture with the lure of raspy soulful blues. Perhaps an Arts and Michael Bolton Fest might be more of a draw. After all, he’s probably looking for work anyway.

For blues, however, having free-flowing booze is almost a prerequisite, especially if it’s being played on a city block with no less than eight bars. But boozing is one element the organizers don’t seem to keen on bringing to the event. They seem to think they can repetitiously call something a “bluesfest” and eventually have the masses buy into believing it. It’s the same tired package every year as the downtown businesses trudge between Skidmore graduation and the fast times after Independence Day.

For organizers, the arts and blues fest is a perfect fit: a lazy tourist magnet to draw some of the sloppy seconds from the Elvis Fest in Lake George. For longtime residents, however, it’s a constant reminder of the vibrancy that is increasingly lacking in gentrified Saratoga Springs.

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