Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Demolition man

Building a structure from scratch is almost never as easy as taking one down. Toppling even the most stalwart of frameworks usually only takes a couple of well-placed charges in the foundation and enough dump trucks to haul away the debris. But demolishing something in this fashion is finite. Once the framework begins to topple, the only way back to a standing structure is to start anew.

And in the case of a not-for-profit ambulance service, there simply is no rebuilding it after a demo crew has done its work. But don’t tell this to Public Safety deconstructionist Ron Kim, who seems hell-bent on tearing down the frame work that has allowed the Saratoga Emergency Medical Service to flourish in the Spa City.

Kim has waged an aggressive campaign to ditch the city’s main ambulatory service in favor of hiring one of two for-profit companies that answered the bizarre request for proposal he issued last month. There is no apparent rhyme or reason for the sudden decision, other than to generate a bit more revenue for the city.

“SEMS is going to come in and say that people will die in the streets if we don’t do this. I haven’t made up my mind, but the reality is that Empire and Mohawk do this in several cities, and there aren’t people dying in the streets in those cities,” Kim told the Saratogian Tuesday.

Naturally, there have been a number of emergency-related personnel who have argued against privatizing the city’s ambulance service. The comments have varied in their content and validity, but they all seem focused at the same point: Snuffing SEMS out of business would create a looming fiscal disaster for the city.

Here’s the math. The city may be able to bilk $100,000 in rent from one of the private companies that would use space at the Westside fire station. This service would then provide residents with what is called ‘basic life support’ care aboard their rigs. City firefighters responding to emergencies would supply paramedics, who would ride aboard the private ambulances in cases that required ‘advanced life support’ services. Under these circumstances, the city would be reimbursed for the care.

It all sounds pretty good up until the for-profit service’s bean counters discover how much more lucrative their business would be if they simply stationed an ambulance crew in Saratoga County instead of paying the city’s ludicrously expensive rent on what amounts to a garage bay. Then if they’re wise, they’ll consider staffing their own paramedics aboard the rig, meaning the city could quite easily find itself with no revenue from the company at all or possibly even worse.

Once SEMS is omitted from the city’s ambulance contract, the company will quickly head toward insolvency. In fact, giving the city contract to anyone other than SEMS would ring the death knell for the four-decade old ambulance company. With the not-for-profit ambulance company liquidated, the city will have to choose between fulfilling any demands the new service may have; or establish their own city-funded service.

Some say this is what Kim wants. The destruction of SEMS would allow him to slowly build a city-owned ambulance fleet. He may even be brazen enough to purchase some of the spoils that will hit the market once he chokes the company out of existence. Some are alleging this is his diabolic plan: Expand the control of the Public Safety Department over to one part of the emergency system it doesn’t control.

But there’s a more logical reason for Kim’s sudden affinity for all things ambulance. Both Empire and Mohawk aren’t shy about dipping into their coffers when campaign season comes around. And while Kim says he hasn’t made up his mind, it’s clear he’s not pulling for SEMS, which most assuredly won’t be bankrolling anyone’s campaign this or any other year.

Mohawk, on the other hand, has a distinct record of getting into the political fray. More specifically, they have a number of curious links with the Albany County Democrats. One of their head spokesmen served under Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari, while another was a campaign spokesman for county Legislator Phil Steck’s unsuccessful run at Congress. Kim, who will surely face a tough election this fall, could probably use all the cash he can muster.

As usual, the victim of this mindless dickering will ultimately be the city’s residents Kim swore to serve. SEMS is an asset to Saratoga Springs and a model other municipalities have viewed as a very well functioning model for an ambulance service that doesn’t require taxpayer funding. But also, SEMS is Saratoga’s ambulance. It’s staffed by professionals who were raised in the community and know the difference between making a buck and providing emergency care for someone who could very well be their neighbor. Let’s hope this is a message Kim gets through his unconscionably thick skull this evening when the three ambulatory suitors give their presentations.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Told ya' so

Give them a bus and they’ll flock into the city. Give them a club and they’ll start to drink. Give them one goddamn inch and they’ll take over everything. Pretty soon, pools of blood will eddy in the streets, Broadway will host an all-night gang-style shooting gallery and businesses will be cloaked behind veils of stainless steel bars.

Skeptics needed no more proof than the stabbing that occurred around the witching hour just outside Club 388 on Broadway two weeks ago. Two of the bar’s patrons from Schenectady –both of them coincidentally black –peppered a Ballston Spa man with knife wounds after a pre-dawn fight by the club’s entrance.

The assault sent a news shockwave through the embattled television media, which has spent the cold winter months searching desperately for something to dramatize.

“This scene is smack-dab in the middle of Broadway, so for people walking down the street, taking a look on the sidewalk and seeing blood makes them nervous,” said FOX23 News reporter Kristin Lowman, sounding the first media alarm. “Others say it can happen anywhere –even police.”

And then there was Capital News 9, which always had a morbid fascination with stories that involve injury. They tried the ‘what if I told you that you’re standing on blood’ approach to the story in trying to convince out-of-town residents they should be scared to walk down the rough-and-tumble streets of the Spa City.

“What if I told you that you’re standing on blood right now,” queried reporter Dave Detling.

“I wouldn’t believe you,” replied the Ballston Spa man

“Well take a look down.”

Unbeknownst to these reporters, their perfect interview was festering in Corinth, just one news release away. Michael DiGioacchino, a Republican hoping to primary the longest tenured sheriff in New York, was furiously tapping up a statement to say he was right all along. Several months ago, the Schenectady County Sheriff’s deputy said he’d lay down the law in lawless Saratoga County. He’d stop the gang train at the Glenville border and make sure to the suburban enclaves of Clifton Park and Ballston wouldn’t become the crime zones that have plagued Schenectady.

So what better opportunity to strike fear in the hearts of voters than a stabbing involving two black fellows from Schenectady? Well, none if you're the guy arguing for a larger drug task force, more road patrols and commitment to monitor the tide of ‘gang activity’ flowing up from all points south.

“When I first announced, I was told that I was crazy, that Saratoga County has no crime problems or gang problems,” he told the Post Star last week. “The stabbing in Saratoga Springs is a prophecy fulfilled as far as gang activity moving into Saratoga County.”

The statement goes on to accuse “at least one” of the assailants of having a “known affiliation with the Bloods.” Watch out, south central Saratoga. Here come da’ gangs.

Of course, the news-starved television media and DiGioacchino aren’t alone in ringing the alarm. Recalcitrant Saratoga County Sheriff James Bowen has been hammering on the damn thing since he was elected into office 37 years ago. Every year, crime is getting worse. And every year, Bowen asks for more deputies.

Under Bowen’s administration, the sheriff’s office has experienced unprecedented growth. Spending has increased by more than 40 percent since 2004 alone. He claims the increased spending and staffing is due to the population rise and anticipated explosion with the creation of the Foundry facility in Luther Forest. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a scrap of evidence to suggest Saratoga County has or will see a 40 percent spike in population.

That’s alright, Bowen insists, because crime is on the rise. Last month, Bowen grudgingly turned over his crime stats to the Post Star, but has since gone mute on their meaning. The paper learned that calls for service went up 20 percent in 2008. Felony arrests increased by 19 percent and misdemeanor crimes increased 15 percent. Curiously “for whatever reason” the jail population decreased by 8 percent.

Well, here’s a bit of explanation. Bowen hires a slew of new deputies, many of whom don’t know the law or good policing from the curious orifice in their posterior. In as much, they file spurious charges when a warning would have done; they make errors in collecting evidence that allows cases to go unprosecuted; they’re oblivious to the legal process so they can’t even build a case against even the most egregious criminals.

But as keystone as these cops might be, they can make money for Saratoga County, Bowen assuredly tells his bosses on the county Board of Supervisors. More road patrols equal more bull-shit cases that percolate through the justice system and pump money into the county’s towns and villages. The idea isn’t to get deputies to crack down on crime; it’s to get them to write as many violation tickets as they can fit into their shift.

See most law-abiding citizens don’t mind violations, especially if they have little bearing on their record. They’ll unwittingly take a financial kick in the teeth just to avoid the unpleasantly of spending an evening in a courthouse or having the ominous scepter of the law hanging over them day in and day out.

Take for instance the recent citing of 22 underage drinkers who were knocking back a few at a house party late last month. The citations are about as meaningful as a parking ticket, in that they only carry a fine. That fine will eventually land in the spending coffers of the town of Ballston, which will greedily accept the money as a sort of quasi-tax.

Then there’s the ‘diversion’ route county District Attorney James Murphy will undoubtedly offer the teens. This way, they can avoid paying their money directly to Ballston. But they’ll still have to pay something to certify they’ve reformed and will wait the four or five years before they can responsibly drink alcohol in accordance with the law. These programs are often funded with either county or state tax dollars and wouldn’t exist in the first place were it not for a couple dozen pimple-faced teens trying to get their drink on just like ol’ pappie did back in the day.

To add insult to injury, these glorified mall cops can’t solve real crime even if it means there’s a murderer on the loose for more than three years. Just ask Christina White. She certainly stands testament to the investigative skills of the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office, which treated a homicide like a missing persons case until a hiker found her bones seven months later.

In other words, the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office exists almost solely to levy an additional tax on generally law-abiding people. And the two candidates proposing to guide it into the future only want it to grow more omnipresent. One offers a random stabbing in Saratoga Springs –well outside the sheriff’s jurisdiction –is reason to add more road patrols and a gang violence unit. The other can’t seem to explain the fact that his office exists primarily to reign in speeders and underage drinkers. As the saying goes, voters will have to pick the lesser of two evils this November.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Park Place

It’s hard to get the full flavor of the Spa City’s parking debate unless you’ve once endeavored to dance upon a wet rooftop holding aloft a 15-foot metal rod amid the fury of an early spring lighting storm. Needless to say, the experience is about as electrifying as the local conversation stirred by something as seemingly mundane as a collection of lines painted on a stretch of pavement.

During its previous incarnations, the debate focused almost solely upon building immense concrete parking garages and securing more tracts of asphalt to prevent chubby city consumers from walking three or four blocks to their destination. Forcing these little pork chops to do this –say during an early spring lighting storm –might scare them into taking a traffic-filled journey to the paved paradise of Wilton. Pretty soon, the downtown shops would shutter, the lights on Broadway would dim and the criminal element would move in.

So for nearly a decade, the impetus in the city was to pave just about every patch of downtown not impeded by buildings and to construct massive multi-million dollar poured concrete structures to add a handful of spaces to the waning inventory. This carried on fine up until the second and last of these behemoths was completed in 2005. By that time, the City Council was poised to fall to the Democrats, who decided it was better to fight among themselves rather than finding new ways to shoehorn parking spaces into areas where they have no business existing in the first place.

This is all ancient history now. Today, the parking debate has nothing to do with bringing more cars in. Rather, it’s focused on how to squeeze dollars from the same lazy drivers who insist walking two or three blocks is overrated and potentially bad for the economy.

Ask any pundit in city government at this point and they’ll tell you that paid parking is more of a certainty than it is a debate. Mayor Scott Johnson mentioned it in his state of the city address, and didn’t get any biting response from the city Democrats, who literally relish the thought of tearing the Republican a new orifice in his posterior. After all, they need to support paid parking. It’s the only way Ron Kim, their sole voice on the council, will get the new public safety facility he’s pined for since his first term.

All of the proposals for a new facility include a paid parking component. Some are more creative than others, but all of them include sections of downtown that will be dedicated to those who don’t mind throwing a fiver down for several hours. In other words, get ready to feed the meter Saratoga.

Unfortunately, this whole concept of paid parking is inherently flawed, as other state and regional agencies have shown. Once the beast of paid parking is unleashed downtown, the city will be creating something that will one day grow far bigger than anyone could have ever envisioned.

The first step is simple: put a gate and a parking attendant in front of a few choice lots and watch the ducats role in. This cash will initially be used for its intended purpose to fund the behemoth police and courts building. But as the building’s maintenance costs rise, so will the city’s thirst to establish an increasing number of paid parking spaces throughout the land. Pretty soon, all of the spaces downtown will be paid.

Yet such a plan would surely need a permitting system, which would obviously require some sort an administrator. And this administrator will need an office in the new public safety building. The tedium of answering calls at the office will require an administrative secretary. After awhile, the administrator would need an assistant to help out the finer tuning of the whole system.

However, the administrator, the assistant and the secretary will be wholly unprepared to audit the whole bureaucracy. In steps the private auditor, who will cook the books and find that the parking system isn’t nearly as efficient with its collections and maintenance. He or she will suggest a new computer mainframe to oversee the system, taking some of the stress of the administrator and assistant; individual Blackberries for parking attendants so they can expediently upload fines to the aforementioned mainframe; and Segways for parking enforcement officers, so they agree to the new union contract.

Pretty soon, the collection of parking fees will go to feed the growing beast. When or if revenues decline, the beast will growl and parking fees will increase. Is this far-fetched? Perhaps. But so was the concept of collecting tolls to the state legislators who created the Thruway Authority in 1949. They originally though the public benefit corporation would dissolve once the towering cost of the superhighway was paid in full.

Well, that day came and went more than a decade ago. And since that time, the Thruway Authority has continued to take tolls. Worse yet, they continue to raise them unabated.

This is what can happen when artificial revenue streams are created to fund bloated projects. Of course, not many would argue against building the Thruway retrospectively. At least that structure has the ability to generate commerce. The only things a towering new public safety facility will generate –and the new paid parking system by extension –are more ways for a ballooning justice system to levy tax-like fines on the general public.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


With seconds left on the clock, on their own 10-yard line and down by a fairly sizeable margin, the Democratic leaders of the 20th Congressional District decided to attempt a Hail Mary pass to the end zone in hopes of somehow landing a viable candidate in Washington. But something went dreadfully wrong. The wide receiver stumbled, the quarterback double-clutched, and the football trickled from his fingers to the ground. Now, it’s just a matter of seconds before one of the gorilla-like linemen runs it back for a touchdown.

That heavyweight just happens to be state Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco. The Democrats might as well have ceded the 20th District to the Republicans Sunday, when they announced Scott Murphy as their candidate for the soon-to-be-announced special election.

“A lost job is more than a statistic – it is a family facing the loss of health care benefits, a steady income and a future for their children,” Murphy said in a prepared statement. “The 20th Congressional District needs innovative leadership that will bring smart economic development and good jobs to our communities. That’s what I’ve done in the private sector, and that’s what I’ll do in Congress.”

The Glens Falls venture capitalist was pretty much the party’s last great hope for position, after the other two front-runners dropped out. Both former network anchor Tracy Egan and AFL-CIO director Suzy Ballantyne dropped out of the running late Saturday evening, according to the Post Star. They joined former New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter –the one candidate who could have handily beaten Tedisco –in declining a run for the office.

For the many who don’t know Murphy, he’s the director of Advantage Capital Partners, a venture capital group that manages more than $1 billion of assets. A Harvard grad, he once served as aide to two Missouri governors and once acted as chief executive officer of Small World Software. Some right-leaning blogs are questioning a curious omission from his bio, namely the mention of, an e-Bay clone that was sold to the tune of $50 million.

While Murphy isn’t necessarily a bad candidate, he doesn’t really stand a chance against an established politician who is well-liked in his district, has remained largely unchallenged in state elections, and happens to be enrolled in the party that holds a roughly 90,000 voter advantage in the district. Sure, anything can happen. But to say Murphy is an underdog is a major understatement. Outside of a colossal meltdown in Camp Tedisco, Murphy will soon become a footnote in district history.

So why pick a candidate that’s destined to lose? Well, Murphy has money for one. That means the Dems can save their ducats for races that will certainly require a lot of cash –namely the re-election of Gillibrand in 2010.

The 20th Congressional District is also in flux. There’s a chance it won’t even exist in the near future, depending on regional population trends. Even if it does, house seats come up for election every two years, meaning they’ll be more than ready to challenge for the district in 2010. Perhaps then a better know candidate –or even Murphy himself –will be apt to thwart the somewhat powerful Tedisco.

Also keep in mind Gov. David Paterson hasn’t even called the election yet. That means the absolute earliest a new congressman could take office wouldn’t be until sometime in late March. That gives the victor of the race a paltry 20 months in office. If the governor decides to delay –which he could as a politically strategic move –he might be able to whittle down this number even further.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Tedisco’s Assembly seat is –or was –one of the last Republican bastions in Schenectady County. The GOP will be hard pressed to find anyone capable of winning his district, considering the Democrats are firmly entrenched in both the county and city governments. In fact, the Republicans have been a bit like the red-headed stepchild of Schenectady County politics as of late –they’re beaten often and badly. Tedisco leaving the district will be a godsend for the Dems, who have eyed his seat for many moons.

So it’s tough to say whether the Dems have truly dropped the ball on this one, even though Murphy might as well be bleating lamb being led up to some sacrificial alter. There is undoubtedly some method to all this madness, which should reveal itself in the coming weeks. But in the meantime, it’s safe for residents of the 20th to brace themselves for Congressman Tedisco.

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