Saturday, May 31, 2008

Dan LaBella: Man Of Action

Even in the midst of tragedy our local politicians can be relied on to provide comedic relief. The only thing funnier than Mr. LaBella's inane "Don't inhale the fire!" comment during the Matt's conflagration was his sheer buffoonery in comparison to actual public safety professionals. Just seconds after he mugged for the television cameras and reassured his adoring public that "The fire is under control," Chief Brooks stepped forward and pointed out that the fire definitely wasn't under control.

The look on LaBella's face was priceless.

Update: Holy smokes. I originally whipped up this graphic as a joke, but I've had enough people email me about actually getting T-shirts that I set up a Cafepress store with a couple of different versions of it. Here's what the revised graphic looks like:

If anyone wants to produce the shirts locally I'd be more than happy to whip up a Creative Commons non-profit license. Heck, if you're willing to donate the proceeds to charity you could probably just steal the graphic. Hint, hint.

Weekend Video: Utica 1941, Part 2

Hope your weekend is going well. Here's another one of Lou Barile's incredible videos recounting the history of Utica using vintage news footage. This one features some intriguing looks at the city's schools, including several that no longer longer exist.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Up From The Ashes

If you're driving through downtown Utica today chances are you'll still be able to smell the acrid stink of smoke from yesterday's fire at the F.X. Matt Brewery. The blaze was a terrible blow, but the Matt family has already announced they'll be rebuilding and, thankfully, no one was seriously injured.

As an aside, both the Observer-Dispatch and WKTV did an incredible job of keeping their websites constantly updated all through the fire. I'd link directly to their coverage, but they've been shifting clips and stories around so much that there's a good chance the links would be broken by the time you're reading this. Just click through on the links over to the left and I'm sure you'll find more continuing coverage of the disaster.

On a more cynical note, the local politicians will start milking this for all it's worth in 3...2...1...

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dropping The Match

New York Governor David Paterson just dropped a lit match in a room filled with gasoline. He's directed state agencies to start recognizing same-sex unions.

Gov. David A. Paterson has directed all state agencies to begin to revise their policies and regulations to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, like Massachusetts, California and Canada.

In a directive issued on May 14, the governor’s legal counsel, David Nocenti, instructed the agencies that gay couples married elsewhere “should be afforded the same recognition as any other legally performed union.”

The revisions are most likely to involve as many as 1,300 statutes and regulations in New York governing everything from joint filing of income tax returns to transferring fishing licenses between spouses.

This is an important first step in finally getting government out of the marriage business. Paterson's move will, predictably, ignite a firestorm, but it is probably the only way to get the ossified power structures of the state to finally start dealing with the issue.

I know some of you reading this are probably agog at the idea of a Republican supporting the governor's actions. I can appreciate that intelligent people disagree with my point of view, but I think it's long overdue that we get rid of the whole idea of government approved marriages and replace it with civil unions. Why should the state have any role at all in what is, essentially, a religious ceremony? Transferring the traditional legal rights and obligations of marriage into the framework of civil unions would solve a multitude of problems while still allowing the faithful to enter into marriage via a simple checkbox. The important part is that individuals would be able to self-define the nature of their relationship instead of deferring to the state's power.

The Whole World Is Watching

See that little white blob in the picture there? That's one of the coolest things this area has ever been involved with.

What you're looking at is a picture taken from Mars orbit of the Phoenix Lander arriving on the red planet. That bright point is the lander itself, and if you look closely you can see the shroud lines leading up to the parachute that's helping it bleed off velocity on it's way to the ground. You can see an entire gallery of amazing photographs like that at the Phoenix Mars Mission official site.

Over the next several days the entire world is going to be watching that probe as it gets ready to carry out it's primary mission- using a robotic arm to dig into the martian surface and grab samples of soil and, hopefully, ice. The scoop that will be doing the digging, and the focus of the world's attention, was manufactured right here in Frankfort by the CTM Corporation. It's amazing that a local company is part of such an incredible mission, and even more impressive that it will be helping to answer questions about the possibility of life on Mars.

Congratulations to everyone at CTM. And who knows...maybe, just maybe, that scoop will be the point of first contact between humanity and an extraterrestrial lifeform. Even a speck of lichen under that dirt, as improbable as it might be, would profoundly change our place in the universe.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Not With A Bang, But A Whimper

So now that Utica mayor David Roefaro has payed off soon-to-be-ex-Chief Pylman, and handily placed the amazingly unqualified Dan LaBella in the top spot, what happens with the fruit of the Pylman investigation?

As Utica police Chief C. Allen Pylman prepares to retire this week, the Common Council investigation launched in January 2007 remains unresolved.

That month, for the first time in more than 30 years, the Common Council voted unanimously to exercise its investigatory powers.

At issue: Whether Pylman violated police department rules.

After the investigation stalled for almost a year, a newly-elected council in February voted to turn the investigation over to Mayor David Roefaro.

Roefaro has hundreds of pages of transcripts. On Tuesday, he said he does not know if the case would still proceed.

He said Pylman’s retirement has “absolutely nothing to do with the investigation.”

“Actually, we never even talked about the investigation,” Roefaro said.

That's a stunning admission considering Mr. Roefaro has spent well over a year, and thousands of dollars of city funds, trying to prove Chief Pylman was guilty of a crime or crimes worthy of attention from the state Attorney General. After all that he hasn't even discussed the issue with the man he openly accused of wrongdoing?

That's quite a passive-aggressive management style, don't you think?

During the investigation, closed-door testimony focused on a case of time-card falsification that led to the conviction of then-Sgt. James Franco. Testimony also included a review of a 2002 incident in which an investigator shot an unarmed drug suspect with a pellet gun, according to documents obtained last year by the O-D.

It's the details of those two incidents, and the involvement of Congressman Michael Arcuri, that I think had a lot to do with the eventual meltdown of the investigation and, perhaps, with the current buyout situation. You can read the transcript of Mr. Arcuri's testimony to the Common Council for yourself over here (PDF file).

The most interesting part, at least to me, is the contrast between the handling of the Franco forgery investigation and the later assault investigation, also involving a member of the Franco clan. In the first case Mr. Arcuri goes to great pains to justify a full criminal prosecution of Sgt. Franco despite Chief Pylman's assertion no crime has been committed:

Arcuri: Over time I continued to hear a great deal about this. I continued to hear it publicly, privately. I heard about it from police officers, I heard it from public officials. And it got to the point where I was concerned that perhaps there was something that needed to be looked into, which is without a double the role of the district attorney. We are not a police agency. We’re an investigatory agency. And our role is to basically work with police but not work for police or vice versa.

I contacted the chief and said that, “Chief, you know, we’re at the point now where I’m hearing too much about this, and, you know, people are complaining about it, and it’s probably a good time for me to look into it. We’ll look into it and if it’s as you say, there’ll be no problem. We took a look at it and it will confirm what you said, but at least we’ll have another pair of eyes looking at it.”

In the second case, Mr. Arcuri uncovers clear evidence that a crime was committed, but steadfastly refuses to prosecute the officer involved. It's a curious choice, since one would think a violent assault on a handcuffed suspect involves quite a bit more abuse of power than some forged paperwork. Even more questionable is Mr. Arcuri's refusal to prosecute after the suspect's accusation of torture revealed that documents involving the case had, in fact, been falsified.

So James Franco's falsification of records is worthy of prosecution, but Anthony Franco's assault on a suspect, and subsequent falsification of records to cover up the attack, isn't.

Odd? You bet. And I'm not the only one to think so, as Councilman Phillip's questioning the night Arcuri offered testimony attests:

COUNCILMEMBER PHILLIPS: The thing that I have, just like — and I — I have to say because Marshall Owens was an African-American was a — I have to state for the record because that’s how it comes back to me when they referred to, and, you know, what we went through with the Washington case and a few other things, it comes back to me as — from police officers on the scene that Anthony Franco shoot this kid with the pellet gun, okay. I think the number of times was six, okay.

I guess my — my question is, do you have the documents that were submitted to you in this case so that I can compare them to the documents that we have before us? Because as 30 years in this business, I can’t make sense out of why wasn’t an assault charge filed? I can understand the part of being pissed off with a gun pointed at you. And if we were in a battle, and it went off, chances are, I guess, I would — I would have accepted murdering this kid more than what I’m getting on this case. Because if you got a gun, I’m within my right to blow you away. I guess what I can’t understand, okay, that it’s not acceptable to me that you’re so mad that after you get the gun from him, you shoot him six times. That’s to me go beyond being — being something that I can turn my back to. To me that would have been — If we were charged with that as correction officers,somebody would have been charged with a crime, and the crime would have probably been assault. So I don’t know if you have records, what was submitted to you.

MR. ARCURI: Again, I think records are probably there. I don’t know. In — my recollection was that — I’m reasonably certain was that I saw was he shot once. And, you know, I may have — frankly, I may have made the wrong decision. I don’t know. But in looking at it at the time, weighing the circumstances, people I talk to and judging from the penalty that he was going to receive, that was — you know, try to put myself in both the place of both people in it.

Maybe I made the wrong decision, I don’t know. But I felt at the time and I continue to feel that the — what happened in that case was appropriate. I mean, I may have been wrong. It was a judgment call. But I felt that was the appropriate situation. And again, I — I could’ve been wrong.

Could've been wrong?

Mr. Arcuri's investigation produced clear evidence that the suspect in question was assaulted while kneeling and handcuffed. He was shot six times. When his accusations resulted in an investigation it was revealed that documents were falsified to cover up the assault. Despite all this no charges were ever filed.

Could've been wrong? Ya' think?

So what happens now? It's obviously pointless for the Pylman investigation, such as it is, to continue. Unfortunately, I have the feeling the extensive records of the investigation won't be released because they contain too much embarrassing material regarding both Mr. Roefaro and his good friend Congressman Arcuri. After all, it's clear there were active coverups of the three incidents the Common Council investigation focused on- the fraudulent police union election, the Franco forgeries, and the Franco assault.

Why would anyone shy away from another coverup?

The Long Reach Of Sauquoit Creek

Here in central New York, Sauquoit Creek's most recent claim to fame is as the site of the leaky pumping station that dumps millions of gallons of Oneida County's raw sewage into the Mohawk River. Which makes me a little sad for the students of Antioch High School in Illinois.

In our neighborhood, one high-school nickname that definitely is a one-of-a-kinder is Antioch High's "Sequoits."

In his book, "Why Mascots Have Tales," author Fred Willman tried to explain the Sequoit nickname.

He wrote the following: "The word Sequoit is a form of spelling of the Iroquois Indian word Sa-da-quoit, which was the name the Iroquois Indians gave to a stream that flows through Oneida County in New York state. In the Iroquois language, Sa-da-quoit literally means 'smooth pebbles in the bed of a stream.' When settlers moved into Oneida County, they modified the spelling and pronunciation of the stream to Sauquoit Creek."

Apparently, Antioch's first settlers, Darius and Thomas Gage, traveled west from Oneida County, and named the stream that ran past their land "Sequoit Creek" because it reminded them of Sauquoit Creek back home."

And that's how we got to "Sequoits."

Hopefully their Sequoit Creek isn't filled with as much feces as the one here in New York.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pylman's Pricetag: Hefty

Utica Police Chief C. Allen Pylman has 250,000 reasons to love the city of Utica.

"In a mutual agreement between the city of Utica and Utica Police Chief C. Allen Pylman, after 37 years of service to our community he wishes to retire," Roefaro said.

Pylman became police chief in 2001 after serving with state police for a number of years. Pylman had a contract with the city and he will receive more than $249,000 in a payout. After taxes that figure will be about $180,000.

WKTV has a few more details:

Mayor David Roefaro has appointed current Public Safety Commissioner, Daniel LaBella, as acting Police Chief until further notice. Roefaro says LaBella will act in dual capacity as Public Safety Commissioner and Police Chief for the time being.

Roefaro also addressed the rumor, stating that it is true, that he is petitioning the state of New York to make the Police Chief position a non-civil service position. This means that a civil service examination would not have to be taken or passed in order for someone to take the Chief position on a regular basis.

So Pylman gets a $250,000 payout and the city of Utica now has a police chief that, allegedly, couldn't even pass the exam for Sergeant. Oh, and Mayor Roefaro is doing everything in his power to remove even the basic civil service qualifications required for the post, presumably so someone unable to meet them can take over the position permanently.

It would appear the Roefaro "Friends and Family" employment plan is setting it's sights pretty high.

Update: That was fast. An anonymous emailer claims that all the paperwork surrounding the Pylman "investigation" has already vanished. That sounds a little iffy to me, since I think multiple copies have already been made, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were fenced off for "privacy" reasons.

Update: Here's the alleged narrative- "It's all Julian's fault!" It's already been arranged that the other high-scorers on the Chief's test will be leaving the department with hefty payouts of their own. That's going to be a major chunk of change, so Mayor Roefaro, purely for reasons of fiscal responsibility, will have LaBella take over "until the financial crisis is resolved".

Update: From the November 8, 2007 Observer-Dispatch:

Mayor-elect David Roefaro won't consider buying Utica police Chief C. Allen Pylman out of his 18-year contract, he said Wednesday.


Update: A kind emailer points out that Dan LaBella isn't actually the interim police Chief. During an interview on WKTV Mr. LaBella stated, in his inimitable speaking style, that he'll be the "intrum chiff for dose guys".

Monday, May 26, 2008

Pylman's Pricetag: Part Deux

Here's what I've heard in the last 24 hours. Take it for what it's worth.

1. Pylman's departure is being very carefully choreographed by the powers that be.

2. Ka-ching! Pylman is getting a big ol' wad of cash.

3. The Common Council investigation into Pylman will be officially closed and all the transcripts and paperwork will, indeed, be dropped into the memory hole. One person I talked to said getting rid of that "report" is more important than getting rid of Pylman, hence the payout.

4. They really are suprised that Pylman's departure is generating a stink in some quarters and think it's part of an "anti-cop" agenda.

5. Here's some real crazy talk- Pylman had some kind of involvement with the state "Troopergate" affair that Attorney General Cuomo is currently investigating.


6. There might be an announcement tomorrow (Tuesday), but the real action is going to go down on Thursday. That's when Pylman will hold, or be part of, a press conference to offer up the spin that he was waiting to leave until the Lindsey murder trial and sentencing was completed. He'll be offering up a huge speech at the sentencing, followed by the press conference.

7. The big "award" last week was just prep work for this week's shenanigans.

8. Pylman's settlement is big. Really big.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Pylman's Pricetag

It looks as though Utica Police Chief C. Allen Pylman will be stepping down, but the details of how much it's going to cost the city are a bit hazy beyond "lots".

Keep in mind that a year ago Councilman David Roefaro stated that the Common Council's investigation into Chief Pylman had uncovered evidence, presumably of criminal activity, that needed to be sent to the State Attorney General. Now Mayor Roefaro is cutting him a check and sending him on his way.

Curious, that.

Update: WKTV says it's a done deal, but they don't have a pricetage either.

Update: The Observer-Dispatch put a story up just before midnight:

Mayor David Roefaro plans to make an announcement this week regarding the city’s police chief.

The mayor said he’s received media inquiries about Utica police Chief C. Allen Pylman’s tenure with the department. Roefaro wouldn’t elaborate on the nature of the announcement.

“It is regarding that matter, and it’s really all I can say right now,” he said Sunday. When he returns Tuesday to City Hall, Roefaro said he has to consult with the Corporation Counsel. He will make an announcement Tuesday or Thursday, he said.

If the city is going to pay off Pylman to keep mean compensate him for the remainder of his contract, there's a good chance they'll be dropping all the documents and testimony collected by the council into the memory hole. Which means a Utica police officer was able to assault a handcuffed suspect, falsify his report about the assault, and get away with it.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Weekend Video: Utica 1941, Part 1

Lou Barile has to be one of Utica's greatest assets. I had the pleasure of working with him at General Electric and his warmth, kindness, and intelligence made a major impression on me.

It's a real pleasure to offer up this video from his extensive historical collection on YouTube, but I have to admit it's rather bittersweet viewing. When you compare the Utica of today with the vitality and innovation it displayed over fifty years ago you begin to appreciate just how much has been lost. That said, this footage is an amazing look at what was once a thriving, influential community.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Does Governor Paterson Know Something We Don't?

There was some tough talk last month from Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, but it's not a sure thing that the state is going to go to court over the Oneida's land into trust decision. The O-D offers up some details:

New York state Gov. David Paterson still hasn’t stated definitively whether the state will file suit against the U.S. Department of the Interior for its decision to place 13,004 acres of Oneida Indian Nation land into federal Indian trust.

The Interior Department issued its decision Tuesday.

Paterson encouraged the parties involved to negotiate.

“When it comes to matter concerning Native Americans the Bush administration has shown a pattern of acting in a manner that is detrimental to the interests of New York, its citizens and even the tribes,” Paterson said in a statement.

The statement continued: “The procedures the Department of the Interior – through the Bureau of Indian Affairs – followed were flawed, and its decision is decidedly harmful to ongoing efforts on the part of interested parties to resolve these matters locally. Unfortunately, any possible negotiations will now be conducted under the specter of the litigation that is sure to follow this decision. I continue to encourage all parties to negotiate.”

Riddle me this. If every politician involved in this mess so desperately wants to "negotiate", from the Mayor of Verona to the Governor of New York and right up to Congressman Arcuri, why haven't there been any negotiations? Every elected official involved has been issuing press release after press release praising themselves for all their hard work and dedication, but somehow they've accomplished absolutely nothing. It's amazing that so many have worked so hard for so long, yet we still don't seem to have any actual, you know, "negotiations" going on.

There's one other thing worthy of note in Gov. Paterson's actual press release, although the O-D's story doesn't mention it. The full text is available from the governor's website, and one particular line in the first paragraph jumped out at me:

Governor David A. Paterson sharply criticized the federal government’s recent decision to put 13,004 acres of land in Madison and Oneida Counties into trust for the Oneida Indian Nation. The land is scattered throughout the two counties, and a move to take all of it into trust would threaten the fiscal solvency of county and local governments. Governor Paterson is now working with federal and local officials and the Oneida Indian Nation to organize negotiations in an effort to reach a settlement that is satisfactory to all parties.

Bolding mine.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the governor of New York just said that Oneida county is facing insolvency if this decision stands. That's a pretty dire prediction, since the likelihood of the DOI's findings being overturned are slim at best. If the governor is correct, and I have no reason to suspect he's lying, the outlook for the area is looking more grim than ever before.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Money Can't Buy You Love

The Snakepit has been getting quite a number of search hits since Tuesday's Department of the Interior decision on the Oneida Indian Nation's land into trust application. Some of the more interested searchers appear to be looking for details of Congressman Michael Arcuri's relationship with the Nation, particularly any financial support or contributions he received.

I believe what they're trying to find are the details surrounding the short-lived "New Yorkers for Better Communities" 527 group that was sponsored by the Oneidas during the 2006 congressional election. A brief blurb about it's founding can be found in the New York Daily News archives over here, while records of it's financial transactions are available here.

A casual perusal of the group's expenditures will show that pretty much all the money funneled into the group ended up at Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates. What a shock!


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Oneida Indian Nation: U R Pwned

After years of study and maneuvering the Federales have finally moved on the Oneida Indian Nation's land into trust application:

If the U.S. Department of the Interior's land-into-trust ruling issued Tuesday stands, the Oneida Indian Nation would have more than 13,000 acres to govern in western Oneida County and northeastern Madison County.

The implications are enormous, promising a profound political, economic and social impact on the future of both the Oneidas and the surrounding local community.

Experts on Native American issues said Tuesday they didn't know exactly how the Interior Department's decision would affect this region, but they agreed it would be a plus for the tribe and for its autonomy.

“It confirms that it is their undisputed homeland, because it frees them from any claim to municipal taxation and regulations,” said Robert Batson, government lawyer in residence at Albany Law School.

Predictably, the politicians that have continually bungled the situation have been busy issuing press releases vowing to fight, fight, fight the decision. Nevermind that they've had years, in some cases decades, to resolve it on their own. No, they're going to attempt to drag out the process even further with an endless series of lawsuits designed to assert their rightful claim to the money generated by the Nation's businesses.

They're also studiously avoiding stating the obvious: they were pwned, and pwned hard, by the Oneida Indian Nation.

As for the claims that this is somehow "costing" the taxpayers money, a politically motivated smear that stops just short of accusing the OIN of being stereotypical "thieving injuns", it's bunk. From the Department of the Interior's Record of Decision, page 22:

In general, the Nation has not paid taxes on its lands since re-acquiring them beginning in 1987 under the assumption that it had could assert tribal tax immunity over those lands. After the Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in City of Sherrill that the Nation cannot unilaterally assert tribal tax immunity as a matter of Federal law, disputes persist over whether the Nation owes taxes as a matter of State law.3 The Nation has, however, recognized that it uses State and local government services, and has therefore made voluntary payments through service agreements to defray the costs of such services. These payments, in combination with other direct and indirect contributions that the Nation has made to the State and local governments, more than offset the alleged annual loss of revenue resulting from the Nation’s non-payment of real property taxes. Under agreements reached with the Cities of Sherrill and Oneida after the City of Sherrill decision, the Nation makes payments to cover the full amounts of the taxes levied by the Cities.

And from page 23:

The Final EIS analyzed the baseline 2005 economic conditions by comparing the Nation’s use of State and local government services to its positive economic contributions. In 2005, the revenues provided directly and indirectly by the Nation to the State and local governments (including agreements and employee and multiplier taxes) totaled approximately $24.29 million. The Nation’s costs to New York State and local governments for services attributed to the Nation totaled approximately $7.54 million. Thus, the Nation provided a net positive contribution of $16.76 million to the New York State and local governments.

As for the legal fight to seize the Oneida's treasure...well, good luck with that. It's likely to cost millions of dollars and go on for at least another decade, but the political "leadership" of central New York, and the state at large, will at least be able to claim they did something. Since they've consistently refused to actually negotiate, instead relying on a maniacal "Kneel before Zod!" approach, it's about the only option they have left.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I'm So Confoozled

State senator Joe Griffo believes that recording and disseminating violent attacks is a bad thing:

State Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, today announced he is sponsoring legislation aimed at curbing the videotaping and online distribution of violent acts.

Several incidents have been reported by national media recently in which teenagers attacked other students or homeless people and then posted video of the attacks on sites such as The legislation Griffo is sponsoring would make it a crime to commit assault while knowingly recording the event, a press release said.

“It’s disturbing to see folks trying to achieve fame, attention and celebrity through criminal violent acts,” Griffo said in the release. “If criminality is caught on a recorded media, then we need to use it as a tool to pursue and prosecute these offenders.”

State senator Joe Griffo also believes that recording and disseminating violent attacks is a good thing:

The sport Mix Martial Arts, made popular by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, continues to grow in popularity, but it's not legal here in New York State.

It is a combination of different fighting techniques including martial arts and boxing. Matt Hamill of Utica is a contender and fights around the world. But the game isn't legal in many states including New York and State Senator Joseph wants that to change.

"I think it's time for the state of New York to take a look at the possibility of allowing this considering that the sport has grown and has evolved and has a significant interest and demand. And there's an opportunity for significant tourist and tax revenue to come as a result of holding and hosting these multimillion dollar gates," said State Senator Joseph Griffo.


I'm aware that I'm making a not altogether fair comparison, but I think there's a serious issue here. Is there really any moral difference between the "Bumfight" videos and Ultimate Fighting? In both cases you have willing participants being paid to fight each other with a minimum of safety equipment and limited rulesets. Why are bumfights bad and ultimate fighting bouts good? And why do we need to make recording a crime itself a crime? Don't existing laws against assault and conspiracy already cover it?

In case you were curious, Utica does have a thriving "Fight Club" scene. The majority of participants are high-school kids that don't seem to appreciate what the movie "Fight Club" was really about. Most of the videos are pulled off Youtube pretty quickly, but this one was uploaded earlier this month:

And then there's this gem, which gives new meaning to "getting medieval":

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Kinder, Gentler NYRI

The lovable scamps behind the NYRI powerline proposal are taking their commitment to helping people very, very seriously:

New York Regional Interconnect Inc. said Tuesday it will reserve at least 10 subcontracting construction-related contracts for qualified and affiliated members of the National Disabled Veterans Business Council when its power line is constructed.

The proposed 190-mile transmission line, which would stretch from the Utica area to Orange County, needs certification by the state Public Service Commission.

NYRI said its project would create 300 or more construction jobs during the three years of project construction and scores of permanent jobs when the power line goes into operation.

A commenter on the above story pretty much nails it:

What an incredibly cynical way to exploit disabled veterans. Shame on NYRI and shame on the veteran's organization. This is a new low ... even for NYRI.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Hotel Utica: Your Tax Dollars At Work

You would think an infusion of over $5 million dollars in taxpayer cash would allow the Hotel Utica to truly recapture the grandeur and style of it's bygone glory days.

In reality, quite the opposite seems to be true, at least according to the reviews on popular vacation planning site TripAdvisor. Here's what some of the more brutal visitors had to say:

The bed sagged in the middle, the hallway carpets were dull and dingy. There appeared to be remnants of blood stains on the wall of my room, which was 606 by the way. Urine stains in front of the toilet and outdated tv's as well. The steak in the 1912 restaurant was very tough and the food was just average. Front desk staff was uncaring and indifferent.

Be prepared to schlep your own luggage up stairs to lobby. All 3 entrances, including the one leading to the parking lot, have stairs. Wheelchair lift is at entrance on the opposite side of the building from the parking lot--If you have trouble with stairs i wouldn't recommend travelling alone to this hotel.

After concert came back to room to have coffee, there was still coffee in pot from last customer, front desk at this time of nite no help, my wife had to go down to the hotel restaurant herself and wash out coffee pot.

As a native of the area, I can say for sure that it's not the best part of Utica, and I probably wouldn't walk around too far alone but the place is completely safe inside so as long as you don't plan on venturing out alone in the depths of the night.

Breakfast was only fair considering the purported stature of the hotel, and quality of maid service could be improved. At the moment this is still an interesting and adequate hotel, but it appears to be at risk for the future.

The soda was flat, the wait staff slow, it was the WORST hotel experience of our life. Whatever CLASS this hotel had was in the past. We were very, very disappointed!

Body fluids, dirty pots, dingy interiors, and a warning not to go outside at night- and those are just the reviews from the first two pages. It sure looks like that $5 million dollars is paying some big dividends, eh?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Like A Bad Penny

You've probably noticed that things are picking up around here again.

There are a couple of reasons for that.

The first, and most important, is that someone else has volunteered to do most of the work and let me take all the glory, such as it is. I've had offers from people willing to take over the blog before, but this is the first time someone has convinced me they share my political beliefs, my disdain for both Utica and Oneida County's "leadership", and my sense of humor. In essence, I'll be the editor for someone elses reporting. Which, let me tell you, is one sweet gig- they'll be doing all the grunt work of finding interesting stories and links while I get to concentrate on slapping a thin veneer of prose on the result.

The second, and this is something I really, really regret, is that no one else seems to have stepped up to the plate. There are some awesome Utica/Oneida County blogs and forums listed over there on the left of the page, but that list has been cut in half from what it once was. Some have petered out after an initial burst of enthusiasm, some just stopped posting for reasons unknown, and some just vanished into the ether. Whatever the reason, there's just not much informed discussion of area politics anymore.

That's something I find extremely odd, since there's certainly a demand for it. I don't think my scribblings are particularly notable, but even when I cut down my posting to once a month the site was still getting a couple of dozen hits a day from search engines. If Google is any indication there's a huge hunger for information on "Tim Julian", "David Roefaro", "Mohawk Valley EDGE", "Mike Arcuri", "Oneida County sewage", "Frank Meola", and dozens of other subjects I've touched on.

Speaking of which, that's the third reason I'm going to try and keep things up to date again- traffic. Even in stasis the Snakepit was generating thousands of hits a month. Please don't take that as bragging, since I'm as surprised as anyone else at the numbers. About 70& of all those hits are unique addresses across central New York, while the rest are from various governmental and political organizations.

That's a lot of eyeballs, and to an intellectually vain person like myself it's an irresistible audience.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ask Me No Questions And I'll Tell You No Lies

Why would anyone want to question the management of Mohawk Valley EDGE?

Sadly, that seems to be the opinion of Oneida County's "leadership". Which is particularly unfortunate since EDGE is an un-elected economic development authority tasked with spending tens of millions of dollars of your money. For the Marcy Super-Duper-Ultra-Mega-Nanotech site alone they're responsible for upwards of $26 million in expenditures, and that translates into a hellacious number of lucrative construction and development contracts.

This being Oneida County, you can just imagine the kind of tearful joy all that money, conveniently free of the oversight accorded to normal government contract procedures, inspires in the usual suspects.

That's why Larry Tanoury Jr. gets a shout-out for actually, you know, asking some questions about how EDGE spends all that cash:

Mohawk Valley EDGE has a new contract with the county.

After much discussion surrounding questions about accountability and taxpayer cost versus benefits, the Board of Legislators voted 24-3 Wednesday to renew the annual pact with EDGE for economic development services.

The no votes were cast by Larry Tanoury Jr., D-25, Utica, Joseph M. Furgol, D-27, Utica, and Shannon L. Scott, D-22, Utica. There were two absences.

Tanoury asked most of the questions, picking up the thread from a recent meeting of the board’s Economic Development & Tourism Committee when it considered the $412,892 contract. Tanoury thought his queries about the accountability of the not-for-profit EDGE and whether there was any analysis of what EDGE gets back on its investments were given the short shrift at the committee session, so he raised them again Wednesday at the full board meeting.

Mr. Tanoury deserves a great deal of credit for bucking the group-think of the rest of the rubber-stamp legislature. Regardless of your opinion of EDGE's effectiveness, and I'm pretty firmly convinced they're a convenient conduit for corruption, it's stunning that more questions weren't asked about the disposition of the County's multi-million dollar investment in the organization.

In an ideal world Mr. Tanoury's questions would lead to MV-EDGE embracing transparency and regularly publishing an accounting of their efforts, including the details of their development sub-contracts, on their website. This being Oneida County, and about as far from an ideal world as you can get, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Disclosure: Regular readers know that I've had several exchanges with Mr. Tanoury, including my merciless mocking of his taste in music, but I've always found him to be polite even when I was harshly criticizing him.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Roefaro Rolls Over For Hotel Utica

What a shock! What a totally unexpected development! After careful consideration, Utica Mayor David Roefaro has decided the answer to the Hotel Utica problem do nothing.

The meeting allowed Mayor Roefaro and Commissioner Sullivan to examine all aspects of hotel operations. The two also took a tour of the hotel and engaged in conversation with employees and guests. Roefaro said, “Joe and Chuck are giving 110% to the day to day operations of this facility. The downturn in the national economy, as well as the cost of daily operations has trickled down to this hotel and so many other local businesses, which is why we must remain flexible when dealing with this financial circumstance”.

He added, “The opening of new hotels in the area has also had an impact on their business. Hotel Utica is doing what it can and we need to stand behind them while we are finding solutions. We are doing no more for Hotel Utica than we would do for any other business that might need our assistance.” He noted, “The public must remember that it would have cost the taxpayers, 3 million dollars to tear down this beautiful and historic structure that has been a mainstay of our downtown for years. Although I believe that from the beginning, this loan was structured in the wrong manner, we are here today and must deal with the reality of the problem. Remember, ‘empty lots’ do not produce employment, property tax, or sales tax revenues”.

That's quite a different tune from what Mr. Roefaro was singing back during the election:

OD: Hotel Utica's owners have consistently failed to meet loan repayment terms since 2001, and have fallen behind on their taxes the past two years. How should Utica address this situation?

Roefaro: The Hotel Utica situation is a bi-product of both the Hanna and Julian administration that lacked both the commitment to tackle real business issues and the integrity to admit when they made some serious mistakes.

We must give the hotel the opportunity to make good on their debt. However, inevitably if the hotel can't meet their business commitments, foreclosure is the only option. We can't hold just a few businesses to policy and we can not allow tax payers money to finance private interests.

It would appear that Mr. Roefaro has decided that yes, indeed, the City of Utica should use taxpayer money to finance private interests.

After all, that policy has produced such wonderful results in the past. Just look at the thriving outlet stores at Charlestown Mall. Or the trendy boutiques and eateries that fill the City Center facility. Or the steady stream of shoppers coming to downtown to enjoy the offerings of the Boston Store.


As an aside, does anyone else find it hysterical that Robert Sullivan, who was running for mayor back in September with an outstanding $5800 tax bill, is now offering his expertise and support to the Hotel Utica? He's probably the most experienced city employee when it comes to not paying taxes, but c'mon.

Finally, I've taken the liberty of archiving the city's press release I linked to above. Having experienced Angelo Roefaro's penchant for making embarrassing city documents disappear it would be silly to expect that Hotel Utica press release to stay around for long.

Update- A helpful emailer points out a damning fact I totally missed. Mr. Roefaro's press release uses the opening of multiple new hotels in the area as an excuse for the Hotel Utica's poor performance. Yet those businesses, none of which has the benefit of millions of dollars in public funding, are somehow turning a profit while the Hotel Utica continues to struggle financially.

Those other hotels aren't an excuse. They're an indictment.

Update: Part Deux- Anyone who has been following the dodgy history of the Hotel Utica will find the current promises of "regular payments" to be a cruel joke. This is exactly the same line of shifty rationalization they were peddling last year.

Utica is diverting a half-million dollars per year in community revitalization funds to cover the federal loan payments the hotel hasn't making on any kind of regular basis.

Carucci said the hotel's owners are working on keeping up on the payments.
"Of course, we're trying to restructure things and reorganize," he said. "We're working on it on a daily basis to make sure we keep up with things."

Despite several attempts since 2002 to rework the taxpayer-backed loan, the owners of the hotel are still struggling to make regular loan payments, records show.

The fact that they've been able to get away with this for years demonstrates that Utica's politicians are either stupid beyond belief or as corrupt as they come. Decide for yourself which camp Mr. Roefaro falls into.

The Hotel Utica Is Singin' The Deadbeat Blues

Eight years on, the song remains the same at the Hotel Utica:

Mayor David Roefaro, unhappy that Hotel Utica is once again behind in its tax and loan payments, says it's time a solution be found for the hotel's continued failure to meet its financial obligations.

“We need to find a way out of it and help them,” Roefaro said late last week. He's meeting with hotel co-owners Joseph R. Carucci and Charles N. Gaetano Thursday to discuss options.

Utica's taxpayers have to help more? The multi-million dollar loan guarantee the city is giving the hotel isn't enough?

Hotel Utica is $215,260.77 behind in its taxes, having missed its Utica City School District tax payment in October, its Oneida County tax payment in January and a city tax payment last month.

Penalties are piling up on the missed payments. A review of tax bills indicates Hotel Utica owes about $18,500 in tax penalties - nearly the amount of the federal loan payment the hotel missed last month.

Hotel Utica failed to make its $21,000 federal loan payments on both April 1 and May 1, following 10 straight months of making payments on what initially was a $5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Hotel co-owner Carucci said the hotel would catch up on its payments in the next few months.

“If you go back over the last several years, you'll find that we're always late,” Carucci said. “But we always pay them.”

If this were any other entity, either a private business or homeowner, this lackadaisical approach to making mortgage payments would have resulted in foreclosure or bankruptcy long ago. The only thing keeping the Hotel Utica in business is the continued goodwill of Utica's taxpayers, not to mention the continued use of city funds to make the hotel's mortgage payments. Funds that could be better used to fix a multitude of problems in the city, including the gigantic, tire-eating pothole just outside the Hotel's east entrance.

By now you might be questioning just how viable the hotel is as a going concern. Good, because I think the OD's story glosses over the most important fact in the whole article:

Hotel Utica in 2006 became affiliated with the Clarion national chain — a move Carucci said has helped the hotel. The occupancy rate is still at about 70 percent, he said, noting it hasn't increased from last year's figure.

“We're hoping this summer it'll perk up,” Carucci said.

The hotel certainly has its busy nights. Two charter buses were parked outside the hotel Tuesday night, and the lobby was filled with activity. Guests with rolling luggage were headed to the elevator. People were seen along the grand staircase. Patrons were dining in the Lamplighter Lounge and socializing at the bar.

What an interesting contrast. By any objective standard the Hotel Utica is in desperate financial straits, as it's inability to make regular tax and mortgage payments would clearly demonstrate. Business must be terrible, right?

Actually, no. If the given figure of a 70% occupancy rate is true the Hotel Utica is doing some boffo business. In fact, based on numbers from the American Hotel and Lodging Association, it's occupancy rate is well above average. Here are the latest figures for the hotel industry as a whole:

At-a-Glance Statistical Figures

4,389,443 guestrooms
$133.4 billion in sales
$61.93 revenue per available room (RevPAR)
63.3% average occupancy rate

The average room rate was $97.78 in 2006—up from $90.88 in 2005.

A quick check of Travelocity shows that the weekday rate at the Hotel Utica is $99.99 while the weekend rate is $149.99.

That means both the hotel's standard room price and occupancy rate is well above the industry average, which would seem to be exactly what you want for a thriving hotel.

Yet, somehow, the Hotel Utica is far from thriving.

Anyone care to hazard a guess as to what's *really* going on?