New composting program at Fort Drum dining facilities reduces costs, landfill waste (VIDEO)

FORT DRUM — A new composting program at the post’s four dining facilities and at the commissary could save the installation thousands of dollars and reduce its environmental impact.

Working with the Development Authority of the North Country, the Cornell Waste Management Institute and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, post staff found approximately half a pound of waste is generated per served meal, and of that total, 96 percent is either compostible or recyclable.

“You’re looking at only four percent of what we’re currently throwing in the garbage should be going in the garbage,” said Rodger H. Voss, a forester on post. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that’s huge.”

The composting has been in action since November, and was developed following an Army order at the beginning of 2014 to find ways to reduce waste output.

Currently, about six to seven tons of food waste from the five sites is collected weekly, which can lead to a large price tag when considering the multiple trips needed to dispose of the products.

“You’ve got tipping fees, transport fees, so we’re saving those costs right off the top,” Mr. Voss said.

The food scraps, heavy in nitrogen, are mixed with wood waste products, heavy in carbon, setting up a natural decomposition process that creates a nutrient-heavy final product that can be used in a variety of settings. Among the uses the post projects for the composted waste is in its timber management program, filling in areas of the post’s forest where harvesting operations can strip nutrients from the ground. It also can be used for a variety of public works projects.

On Thursday morning, soldiers and civilian staff at the dining facility of the 1st Brigade Combat Team were hard at work whipping up dishes such as enchiladas and burgers for lunch. As they completed their prep work, scrap amounts of lettuce, peppers, onions, bread and other items could be seen filling up a bin designated for movement to the post’s compost piles.

Once the items are picked up from the various collection points, they are moved to the post’s transfer area near the main gate. In addition to the food scraps, post staff mixes in wood waste, in this case products such as waste ammunition cases and shipping palettes. In a proper mix, Mr. Voss said, the final pile, weighing about 30 tons, should consist of about two-thirds wood chips and about one-third food waste.

The decomposition process could be seen in the piles that had already been sitting.

As the compostible items sit, microorganisms within the pile get to work, releasing a large amount of heat.

Taking a shovel to one of the sitting piles, Mr. Voss pointed out that a small amount of steam could be seen rising where he worked.

Mr. Voss said that the piles sitting were about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and sometimes hotter, despite the chilly winter weather.

Into the future, Mr. Voss said, he is looking to expand the composting collections to include the fast food operations running on the post. Another plan for down the road is offering compost to soldiers and their families for their own home gardening projects.

Video featuring the new composting work on post can be seen at http://wdt.me/drum-compost.

 

 

By Gordon Block, Times Staff Writer

Watertown renters have growing number of choices, developer Murray says

WATERTOWN — Renters have not had so many choices of where to live in and around the city for a long, long time.

Local developer Brian H. Murray gave that assessment Wednesday during the 2015 Economic Forecast Forum hosted by the Greater Watertown-North Country Chamber of Commerce at the Ramada Inn, which featured a panel discussion on the short-range forecast of the local and national economies.

The Woolworth Building, two new apartment complexes in the town of Watertown, the redevelopment of the old Mercy Hospital, and single-family homes and duplexes dotting the city are among the many reasons for a changing housing stock.

It’s good news for renters, he said.

With all that competition, rent is now coming down, said Mr. Murray, CEO and founder of Washington Street Properties.

“Overall, the market is healthy,” Mr. Murray told about 80 business owners and leaders.

With so many projects completed or underway, the community has met Fort Drum’s need for more than 1,000 units, he said.

Watertown is not alone.

Mark Tryniski, CEO and president of DeWitt-based Community Bank, said communities across the country are going through the same trend of people moving back into city centers. It’s happening in Syracuse, where Armory Square has become a mecca for urban dwellers, he said.

“It’s called urbanization,” he said. “You will continue to see that’s happening.”

Some local apartment complexes now have vacancy rates of 20 percent and offer a free month’s rate or other incentives to attract new tenants, Mr. Murray said.

There’s now an ample supply of housing and high-end apartments that go for $1,000 to $1,200 a month, but demand remains for units in the $500 to $900 range, he said.

Mr. Murray is in the process of purchasing the Rodeway Inn, 652 Arsenal St., for $1.3 million and plans to convert the two-story hotel into 48 studio and one-bedroom apartments. Once that project is completed this spring, the units will cost around $500 per month to rent and include utilities.

In the past couple of years, Mr. Murray has acquired the Lincoln Building on Public Square; the Solar Building on Franklin Street; the former Hospice Foundation of Jefferson County Inc. building at 425 Washington St.; the former Sanquist Apartments at 505 Washington St.; the Top of the Square plaza; and the Palmer Street and College Heights apartments.

Downtown is in the midst of a building boom that’s also creating some 300,000 square feet of commercial space in the business district. Most of that space has been vacant, Mr. Murray said.

There are a couple of corporate office complex projects underway nearby, but “downtown has become the business district,” he said.

While he looked at investing in other communities, including some out of state, Mr. Murray decided to remain committed to Watertown, he said.

Community Bank also has invested in the north country during the past 10 years by doubling its footprint and adding nearly 50 branches in the region, Mr. Tryniski said.

There are more than 300 Community Bank employees working in the north country, he said.

“We perform really well in the north country,” he said.

The other speakers on the panel included: Stephen Hunt, regional director of Empire State Development; John Chatterton, vice president of operations for New York Air Brake; and Col. Gary Rosenberg, garrison commander of Fort Drum.

Sponsors of the 2014 Economic Forecast included Community Bank, Visual Technologies, Sackel & Navarra CPA PC, NNY Business Magazine and the Watertown Daily Times.

 

 

By Craig Fox, Times Staff Writer

Fort Drum garrison commander explains lower economic impact of post in 2014

WATERTOWN — As he introduced figures showing a noticeable dropoff in Fort Drum’s economic impact from the previous year, Fort Drum’s garrison commander called for a broader view of the post’s impact on the north country.

The post’s impact in 2014 was about $1.296 billion, Col. Gary A. Rosenberg said. That figure is about $100 million lower than the 2013 total of $1.416 billion, and below the figures from the two years prior: $1.44 billion in 2012 and $1.63 billion in 2011.

The final report outlining the new financial figures is weeks away, he said.

“Even though we’ve seen a little downturn the last couple years, I don’t think it’s a bad news story. It’s a function of reality,” Col. Rosenberg said. “We shouldn’t focus on the negative aspect of that, we should look at the long-term health of it, and the fact is we’re growing and we’re doing well in the long term.”

Col. Rosenberg spoke Tuesday during a business briefing with the Northern New York chapter of the Association of the United States Army at the Hilton Garden Inn.

Col. Rosenberg said reduced construction activity was among the factors contributing to the lower figure.

“We built out, and have met the need,” he said. “We don’t really need a whole lot more.”

He also said Army personnel and worker reductions have played a role.

Overall, he pinned his evaluation of the figures on where the post was prior to activity in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“In the aggregate, since 2003, we’re up by a pretty good piece,” Col. Rosenberg said.

Also discussed was the March 20 event at Jefferson Community College, which will give the community a forum to speak out about Fort Drum as the military considers cuts at 30 installations nationwide.

In the extreme worst case scenario — a cut of 16,000 soldiers — the area would feel a $1.6 billion impact from lost income and sales.

The cuts would also mean the loss of 3,000 additional support jobs, and a population drop of about 40,000 when including soldiers, workers and their families.

David J. Zembiec, of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, said the group would bring Army officials to multiple small-group events through the day highlighting community ties in areas like education and health care.

“Whole different experience this time around,” Mr. Zembiec said.

The discussions through the day will lead up to a rally at 5 p.m. at the college’s campus, and a public comment period at 6 p.m.

The FDRLO has said it will emphasize community partnerships that enhance Fort Drum’s military value and the quality of life of soldiers, and that they set up the post for the future.

A media campaign to raise awareness about the March 20 event is scheduled to start next week.

With the post slated as the 29th of 30 installations being visited, Mr. Zembiec wanted the community to give officials “that last strong impression.”

 

 

By Gordon Block, Times Staff Writer

Ogdensburg council not interested in offer to take ownership of closed theater

OGDENSBURG — City councilors are not interested in acquiring the deed to a defunct downtown movie theater, despite an offer from the building’s owner to give the 9,000-square-foot property to the municipality for nothing.

For the second time since November, city officials received a letter from Gilbert J. Jones, owner of Jones-Trombley Development Corp., Plattsburgh, regarding his offer to give his two-screen movie complex at 219 Ford St. to the city for nothing.

The theater has been closed since 2012.

Mr. Jones bought the theater in 1980, but could not make the property profitable, despite investments that included a $73,000 electronic marquee and a new roof and ventilation system for $85,000.

In a letter to the City Council last week, Mr. Jones sought a response from officials regarding a letter he sent in November offering the property to the municipality for no money. His most recent letter was read into the official minutes of Monday’s City Council meeting, but councilors took no action on the request.

“It has been two months since I made the sincere offer to donate the cinema property to the city,” Mr. Jones wrote. “As of this date no further communication has been received as to the city’s position on the transfer of the deed. Please advise via email or letter.”

While the council took no formal action on the theater owner’s request, Mayor William D. Nelson said it was not in the city’s best interest to take ownership of the private property.

Mr. Nelson said even if the city acquired the parcel, the municipality would not have the legal authority to operate the movie theater as a for-profit business under state municipal law.

“Should we be taking a property that we legally can’t operate?” Mr. Nelson said.

City Manager John M. Pinkerton said that he and other municipal officials, including Director of Planning and Development Andrea L. Smith, are willing to help find potential buyers for the defunct cinema, but that owning the property outright was an unappealing proposition.

In addition to needing other repairs, the 9,000-square-foot theater needs new digital projection equipment to be suitable for reopening, according to officials.

Before the cinema’s closure in 2012, Mr. Jones requested $100,000 from the Ogdensburg Growth Fund Development Corp. to purchase the digital projection equipment for both of the building’s theaters, but talks broke off after the fund offered only a $60,000 loan.

Under terms of that original agreement, the loan would have been paid back over five years with no interest for the first two years and at a rate of 2 percent annually for the remaining three years.

In 2013, officials declined an offer by Mr. Jones to sell the theater to the city.

With the closing of the theater, city residents have to travel to theaters in Canton, Potsdam, Massena or Watertown to watch a movie.

Mr. Nelson said over the weekend he did just that, driving to Canton with friends to watch the movie “American Sniper.” He said he sympathized with city residents who often ask him why Ogdensburg can’t support its own cinema.

“We all want the theater here,” Mr. Nelson said.

He said that city officials will continue efforts to find a buyer for the theater, but that owning the facility is not an option for the municipality.

“We can’t as a city operate and own a movie theater,” Mr. Nelson said. “Municipal law forbids that.”

 

 

By Larry Robinson, Johnson Newspapers

Stefanik says health care reform coming

 

LAKE PLACID — U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik spoke with members of the Medical Society of the State of New York on Saturday at Lake Placid about a Republican-led effort to reform the Affordable Care Act.

The Mirror Lake Inn’s conference room was filled with about two dozen doctors and health care professionals eager to hear the congresswoman’s perspective and to offer their own input on the state of health care. Ms. Stefanik, 30, a Republican from Willsboro who has been on the job for about three weeks, addressed the room for several minutes about her health care goals, and afterward there was a more extensive question-and-answer period.

Ms. Stefanik said her goals include having both high-quality and cost-effective treatment, and increasing health care accessibility for rural communities. Because “health care is a complicated issue,” Ms. Stefanik said she would make an effort to reach out to hospitals, patients and physicians.

“These groups need to be represented,” Ms. Stefanik said.

David Welch, a doctor from Saranac Lake, told Ms. Stefanik that making “little repairs to a broken system clearly isn’t working” and said that a whole new approach to health care is needed.

“Now that we have a new Congress fully controlled by one party, what kind of new concepts are coming up?” Mr. Welch asked.

Ms. Stefanik said there is not a specific health care replacement package being presented by Republicans yet, but it will happen.

“I think the most important part of formulating a replacement package is making sure that you have input from physicians, from hospitals,” Ms. Stefanik said. “I think that over the course of 2015 you will see a replacement package.”

“I think there is going to be a willingness to work with Democrats, something that I think was a failure of the Obama administration,” she added. “Certainly, I believe the Republicans have a responsibility to put forth a replacement package.”

Ms. Stefanik told the group she was optimistic about the repeal of the Medical Device Tax, which is an excise tax on the sale of certain medical devices. She said a repeal of the tax has bipartisan support and likely would pass the House and Senate.

“It’s strategically smart for Obama to approve,” she said.

There are several medical device companies within the 21st Congressional District, which Ms. Stefanik represents. The repeal of the medical tax was a campaign issue on which she ran.

Ms. Stefanik, when asked about medical malpractice lawsuit reform, said the Republican leadership, such as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., want to make sure “tort reform is part of the package.”

Some doctors also raised concerns about “confusing” medical diagnostic codes to describe a patient’s injury and how the doctor treated it. The system existed before the ACA, but the act added thousands of new codes, which some doctors said was an added burden.

“We are given X amount of time to see a patient, and now I need to take 20 minutes to figure out the code,” said Hal Sokol, a pulmonary critical care doctor from Albany.

After the meeting, some of the doctors in the room expressed approval of Ms. Stefanik’s remarks. A few of them described the group of doctors as being conservative-leaning.

Robert Hughes, a doctor from Queensbury, said he thought Ms. Stefanik was “very astute” and “perceptive of the reality of what is going on right now.”

Dr. Sokol said he was a lot more impressed than he thought he would be.

“I think she really cares,” Dr. Sokol said.

John Kennedy, a doctor from Schenectady, told the room that Ms. Stefanik and his daughter were high school classmates at the Albany Academy for Girls.

“Two years ago my daughter said, ‘My friend Elise is the real thing; she ought to run for Congress,’” Dr. Kennedy said.

Dr. Welch said he was concerned that Republicans are still creating a plan but added that it’s also an opportunity to get health care right.

“Republicans have spent the last two years saying no, and now they have to come forward with something positive,” Dr. Welch said. “My concern is they don’t have a plan yet.”

 

By Matthew Turner, Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Developer buys former Blockbuster building, expects to lure brand-name retailer

WATERTOWN — Alexandria Bay developer Patrick M. Donegan has purchased the former Blockbuster building on Arsenal Street, where he hopes a brand-name retailer will be open for business by the end of this year.

That’s just part of his plan for area properties. He also wants to attract a big-box retailer to Watertown City Center, but he’ll need the city to build a connector road to do it.

VDI Properties LLC of Alexandria Bay, owned by Mr. Donegan, bought the former Blockbuster property at 1240 Arsenal St. for $1.3 million from Aerco LLC of Vista Valley, Calif., according to Jefferson County property sales recorded Tuesday.

“I saw it as an opportunity to pick up a troubled piece of property and maybe develop it into something newer and nicer,” said Mr. Donegan, who developed the series of hotels, restaurants and retail shops off Arsenal Street at the Watertown City Center. “It would be a brand-name outfit, and I have a couple of different leads I’m pursuing. I’m talking with a national and a regional retailer.”

Mr. Donegan said Thursday he is optimistic that a tenant could move in by the end of the year, but he said that will depend on how long it takes a project to be approved by the city.

Blockbuster moved out of the building in April 2013. A seasonal retailer, Spirit Halloween, was located there in September and October of last year.

Mr. Donegan said the spot is particularly attractive for brand-name retailers. “Arsenal Street is where all of the brand-name stuff is, and they like to be next to each other,” he said.

Bringing a store to the Blockbuster site could be less challenging for Mr. Donegan — who leads projects statewide and across the country — than readying the 18-acre lot at the back of the Watertown City Center, near the Hilton Garden Inn, for a big-box tenant. That plan will hinge on whether the city will build a connector road through the Stateway Plaza parking lot to Gaffney Drive at the northern end. Mr. Donegan said his purchase of the former Blockbuster site won’t have any impact on plans for the proposed road.

Last fall, members of City Council balked after Mr. Donegan urged the city to build the connector road because they said they were concerned about the cost. Council members have said they believe the project probably would require eminent domain proceedings because the plaza owners have declined to sell a needed strip of land for the project.

Mr. Donegan said he has been frustrated with the city’s inability to move forward with the project.

“Last summer, I told them I had all these people looking at it and it didn’t move faster — they move at their own pace,” he said. “A big-box store would bring in 60 to 100 million dollars in annual sales and generate a considerable amount of sales tax revenue. People should be paying more attention to retail projects because they generate the revenue we need. I think they reserve too much of their attention to other things.”

City Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso said she and Councilman Joseph M. Butler Jr., who have expressed reservations about the cost of acquiring the plaza land by eminent domain, met with Mr. Donegan to discuss his plans in December.

She said Mr. Donegan discussed a plan to develop a shorter connector road that would extend only to the big-box retail site near the Hilton Garden Inn, rather than extending to Gaffney Drive. She said that while she was receptive to that idea, which would significantly scale back the estimated $1.75 million construction cost of the original proposal, there could be some difficulties.

“He needs to extend the road maybe a quarter-mile to the site,” Ms. Macaluso said. “It would cost a lot less than the original proposal on the budget. If he needs to move more urgently and can’t wait for the rest of the road to be put in, I would support him putting in the road to the parcel he wants to sell. I don’t want to stand in his way if he has someone who wants to develop that land and will generate revenue for the city.”

Even so, she said, she remains concerned that legal fees to resolve the eminent domain proceeding with plaza owners could be too expensive.

Mr. Donegan said he continues to be in talks with multiple national retailers who have expressed interest in the site. He said one of them will visit in February.

Persuading a national tenant to commit to the site could help spur the city to build the connector road, Mr. Donegan said. But he said that big retailers often want to get projects done quickly, and they might not be willing to wait long enough for the road to be built.

“If these guys come in February and want to commit to a deal, they would want to break ground late this year or in the spring of 2016,” he said. “I’m worried that if I do sign up these guys, the city isn’t going to be able to keep up fast enough to make it happen. … Private sector people move faster than public people.”

Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.

 

 

By Ted Booker, Times Staff Writer

Gov. Cuomo recognizes Fort Drum in sprawling speech that outlines reforms and budget priorities

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo mentioned Fort Drum and the north country prominently in his sprawling combined State of the State address and budget message Wednesday afternoon as he touted past accomplishments and, at times, veered into more aspirational territory, holding New York state up as an example for the nation.

Gov. Cuomo proposed $1.5 million for the Army’s Compatible Use Buffer Program, which north country representatives said would go a long way toward protecting the post during the next round of Base Realignment and Closing proceedings.

“I certainly was very pleased to see that Fort Drum was included and right now is a critical time for Fort Drum as the military weighs in with some potential cuts,” said state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton. “Having the governor bring up Fort Drum during the budget presentation and to put some real dollars — over a million dollars — to protecting Fort Drum is a really big deal for our area.”

“It’s the culmination of a lot of work,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. “It will make sure Fort Drum is in a strong position.”

“I think he realizes, like we all do, that we need to make sure Fort Drum stays in the north country,” said Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River.

Gov. Cuomo spoke of the 323 10th Mountain Division soldiers that have been killed since 9/11 and the crowd at the convention hall adjacent to the Capitol recognized soldiers in attendance with a standing ovation. Gov. Cuomo visited the division in Afghanistan last year.

Gov. Cuomo, a Democrat, called for big investments in education and transportation, a higher minimum wage and an overhaul of teacher tenure and evaluations Wednesday as he outlined his priorities for 2015.

He said the north country was one of the areas of the state in most dire need of economic development and pointed to the state’s success reviving Buffalo as evidence that government investment can make a difference, asserting, “If you can turn Buffalo around, you can turn around anything.”

The speech was accompanied by the release of Cuomo’s $141.6 billion state budget proposal, which is likely to drive much of the debate in the Legislature.

The combination made for a muddled composition as Gov. Cuomo tried to articulate his broad policy goals for the year while simultaneously delivering concrete proposals for how many of those initiatives will be funded.

Ahead of the address, Elizabeth Lynam, vice-president of the Citizens Budget Commission, said she was interested to see how the governor would keeping spending growth under 2 percent, given the steady drumbeat of new proposals he has rolled out over the past few days.

During his address, Gov. Cuomo proposed keeping most state funding flat, with the exception of education spending, which would increase if the legislature agrees to adopt several controversial reforms the governor proposed, according to Ms. Lynam.

In order to keep spending down, money to local governments may be reduced by as much as $1.4 billion, Ms. Lynam said.

To spur the economy, Cuomo is pitching a small-business tax cut and $1.5 billion for upstate economic development. Seven upstate regions would compete for the funds; $500 million would be disbursed among three regions.

Many of the new proposals, including the $1.5 billion in economic development funds, will be backed by more than $5 billion in “settlement funds,” sums forfeited by foreign banks to settle allegations of misconduct.

The one-time expenditures will be largely spent on downstate infrastructure projects. The Citizens Budget Commission is eyeing the economic development initiatives with some skepticism, as Ms. Lynam said it’s harder to track return on investment with those proposals.

Mrs. Russell, the Assemblywoman representing the “River District,” said that while the speech was long, it was effective in delivering some key messages while providing the legislature a start to their budget negotiations.

“A lot of this was a very long speech that accomplished two ends, that is, the entire budget is going to have to be analyzed and digested,” Mrs. Russell said. “There are some areas that I think, in a broad scheme, are good for the north country.”

Mr. Blankenbush said he would have rather seen the $1.5 billion in economic development funds spent on upstate infrastructure projects rather than divided according to a competitive process.

“We need this money to take care of things that haven’t been taken care of since I’ve been in Albany,” Mr. Blankenbush said. “But we haven’t seen the details yet. Maybe I’ll change my mind.”

The State of the State address, which was originally scheduled for earlier this month, was moved after Gov. Cuomo’s father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, died on Jan. 1.

The combined statements, which Gov. Cuomo called the 2015 Opportunity Agenda, came the day after President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address

As Gov. Cuomo prepared to wrap up his speech, he gave multiple examples of times during which New York led the nation in passing landmark reforms, from passing emancipation legislation before Abraham Lincoln was born, in Gov. Cuomo’s words, to allowing women to serve on juries in Albany County well before the rest of the nation followed suit.

Many political watchers speculated that Gov. Cuomo may be trying to position himself for a 2016 presidential run. Some of the governor’s remarks lent credence to that notion.

John Zogby, founder of the Zogby poll, said it never hurts to be prepared.

“There’s always come speculation that Hillary (Clinton) may not do it, so be prepared,” Mr. Zogby said. “He has name recognition, he’s from a good state, and that’s certainly a piece of it. He also has the capacity to raise money. It’s always important for a governor to appear to be larger than his or her state, it’s leverage. … Keep that door open. If Hillary decides not to do it, somebody’s gonna.”

The Associated Press and Times staff writer Gordon Block contributed to this report.

 

 

By Daniel Flatley, Times Staff Writer

Gov. Cuomo’s State of the State Wednesday: Lots of ideas, how will he fund them?

Ahead of the joint State of the State address and budget message today, there has been a steady drumbeat of new policy ideas coming from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office as he prepares to begin his second term.

The proposals include a $1.5 billion competitive economic stimulus package, a proposal to raise the minimum wage, a proposal to cut student loan debt, a proposal to cut property taxes and a proposal for a 4 percent small-business tax credit.

The ideas have been met with enthusiasm by the area’s Democratic leadership — Jefferson County Democratic Chairman Ronald H. Cole said he was optimistic the proposals would translate into jobs and projects — but the two messages, which are typically delivered separately, bring into contrast the governor’s broad policy priorities and their financial implications.

“The governor has committed to staying under 2 percent in his spending growth and there have been a lot of announcements. We want to see how the whole thing fits together and how he manages to stay under that 2 percent,” said Elizabeth Lynam, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission.

Ms. Lynam used the state’s education funding as an example.

“School aid: they’ve blown through the cap,” Ms. Lynam said. “They were supposed to keep it under the annual growth rate in personal income, and for three years, they’ve blown through the cap. … They’re looking at a 7½ percent increase this year in school aid. It’s hard to square a 7½ percent increase in school aid, which is the largest single item in the budget, with an overall spending cap of 2 percent, so something’s gotta give.”

The governor’s education agenda has already come under fire from teachers’ unions, parents and students who are demanding that Gov. Cuomo increase funding for public schools, according to the New York Times.

The governor’s address, which will be broadcast at 1:30 p.m. from Albany, will be met with reactions from the left and right sides of the aisle, as the Republican Party and the Working Families Party are expected to issue video responses to the governor’s message.

Sen. Rich Funke, a former Rochester TV news and sports anchor, is set to deliver the official GOP response to the address, Senate majority leader Dean G. Skelos announced Monday.

In a letter to the Albany Times Union published Monday, William B. Lipton, director of the state Working Families Party, called on Gov. Cuomo to put forward an even more progressive agenda than has been predicted by early proposals such as a $15-per-hour minimum wage, free college at CUNY and SUNY schools and a green energy agenda.

The Working Families Party endorsed Gov. Cuomo in June after he agreed to back a strategy shifting control of the state Senate back to Democrats and a slate of more liberal legislation.

The State of the State address originally was scheduled for earlier in the month but was moved to coincide with the budget message after Gov. Cuomo’s father, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, died Jan. 1.

For his part, Mr. Cole, the Democratic Committee chairman, said he was looking forward to the State of the State and the budget message and another four years of Andrew M. Cuomo.

“Has he been controversial? Yeah,” Mr. Cole said. “People who get things done are controversial.”

Economic stimulus: Seven upstate regions — Mid-Hudson, Capital Region, Mohawk Valley, Central New York, North Country, Southern Tier and Finger Lakes — will compete for a pot of $1.5 billion. The three winners will receive $500 million each.

Minimum wage: The state’s hourly minimum wage is set to increase from $7.25 to $9 in 2015. Gov. Cuomo is proposing to raise the wage to $10.50 by 2016 and New York City’s minimum wage to $11.50.

Student loan debt: The state will supplement the federal government’s “Pay As You Earn” income-based loan repayment program for graduates who attended a New York state college, stayed in the state and earn less than $50,000 annually.

Property taxes: Taxpayers with incomes below $250,000 would qualify for a credit valued at up to 50 percent of the amount by which their property taxes exceed a 6 percent burden threshold.

Small-business tax credit: Reduces the net income tax rate from the current 6.5 percent to 2.5 percent over a three-year period for businesses that file under the corporate franchise tax, according to the governor’s office.

 

By Daniel Flatley, Times Staff Writer

Tax preparers brace for busy season as short-staffed IRS to leave phone calls unanswered

Tax preparers expect to be inundated with questions from clients about the Affordable Care Act that the short-staffed IRS won’t be able to answer this tax season, which officially starts today.

The much-maligned federal agency, which has 13,000 fewer employees than it did in 2010, won’t have the ability to handle all of the phone calls and mail it’s expected to get this tax season,according to a report last week from the national taxpayer advocate Nina Olson. The report found that the agency will be able to handle only 43 percent of U.S. taxpayers’ phone calls; the IRS itself estimated it could handle 54 percent of its calls.

In some cases, that conundrum will be a boon for tax preparers because more people are expected to turn to professionals to complete their returns to ensure they’re accurate, according to John J. Gray Jr., CPA and managing partner for Hoffman, Eells & Gray CPAs, Canton. But he said staffing woes at the IRS, which has been severely underfunded because of budget cuts, makes it more challenging to serve clients in some cases.

“The IRS has a tax professional hotline, and it’s now taking two to three hours to get a person on that line,” Mr. Gray said, adding that clients often have issues with past tax returns that can be resolved only by the IRS.

He said wait times previously were about three to five minutes on that hotline until about a year and a half ago, when they began to balloon.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with the latest budget cuts to the IRS, because it’s already bad, and I don’t know if it can be much worse,” Mr. Gray said. “If we have a priority and can’t get answers on the hotline, there’s no way they’re going to get answers on the general public line.”

Each customer service call will cost the IRS $42.33, up from $33.21 in 2013, and wait times will be as long as 19 minutes to talk with an IRS representative, according to the report from the national taxpayer advocate. And letters are expected to go unanswered, as the agency will be able to handle 1.9 million fewer letters than last year.

Faced with uncertainty over the new individual health insurance requirement under the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Gray said he expects more clients to do business this season with the firm, which also has locations in Franklin, Essex and Clinton counties. He said the Canton firm hired two full-time tax preparers for the season to prepare for extra traffic.

“People who have health insurance but don’t file the forms correctly might have to pay a penalty,’ he said. “If you don’t tell the IRS that you have coverage in place, that penalty is going to appear on your return and result in more balance due and less of a refund.”

Because of the health care rollout, the firm has “already had new clients who have asked to come on board before tax season started,” he said.

CLEARING HEALTH CARE CONFUSION

Along with their W-2 form, new enrollees in the ACA will have to file a 1095-A with their tax return this season. And that change is expected to throw some taxpayers off-guard, said JoAnn St. Croix, franchisee of H&R Block who owns offices in Watertown, Evans Mills, Carthage, Adams and Fort Drum.

“People will need to make sure they have health insurance and are able to acquire it if they don’t have it — either through the marketplace, Medicare, an employer or privately,” she said.

All tax professionals at H&R Block have received training to handle health-insurance questions.

Ms. St. Croix estimated that about 20 to 25 percent of people in the north country might not be covered with health insurance this year. She said that although the fine for being uninsured this year is expected to be “relatively small,” it will continue to increase in coming years. The fines are based on personal income and household members, she said.

“Next year, fines will double, and for each year you don’t have health insurance, they will go up,” she said.

Due to changes from the ACA, Ms. St. Croix said, the firm expects to spend a lot more time answering questions about tax returns this season.

“We’ll help anyone with questions, but the expectation that we can help everyone is not realistic,” she said, adding that she expects the firm to be busier as a result of the staffing crunch at the IRS. “But I do believe that because the IRS is being up front about (the problem), people will realize that these aren’t issues they’ve incurred on their own. It’s not a problem with their tax return as much as it is the IRS not being able to handle the volume of calls they used to.”

H&R Block expects to increase its client portfolio by about 10 percent this season in the north country, largely as a result of confusion over the ACA, Ms. St. Croix said.

Michael Crowley, CPA, principal of Crowley & Halloran CPAs in Watertown, said the firm hopes to expand its client size by 10 to 15 percent this season because of new requirements on tax returns introduced by the ACA. He said the IRS’s inability to handle questions is expected to spur more people to seek professional help.

“People that call up the IRS are going to be waiting more, and it means clients will have more questions for us,” Mr. Crowley said. “For the general populace, they’re kind of stuck if they’re not using a tax preparer. … This is the first year of the rollout with the individual mandate for health care, and there may be a large number of people who don’t know about it and want to get their taxes prepared this year.”

It’s a trend that Mr. Crowley said all tax preparers are hoping to capitalize on by expanding their number of clients.

“If we could get another 60 to 65 clients this year, we would be happy,” he said.

Nathaniel J. Carroll, tax accountant and CPA for Bowers & Co. CPAs in Watertown, said he doesn’t expect the ACA will be a major hurdle for taxpayers to handle on their tax returns.

“It boils down to two questions: Were you covered for the year and did you receive any subsidy from the act during the year? It’s just a matter of educating your clients,” he said. “That said, a large portion of the effect is more hype than anything else. It’s probably going to affect less than one out of five people.”

 

 

By Ted Booker, Times Staff Writer

New analysis calls New York’s private colleges a major job source and economic engine

Economic activity statewide is up thanks to private nonprofit universities such as Clarkson and St. Lawrence, according to an economic analysis released last week by the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.

Conducted by the Center for Governmental Research, Rochester, the analysis called private nonprofit colleges “a major source of jobs in all regions of New York State,” according to a commission release.

The analysis reported that in 2013, they added $74.3 billion to the state’s economy, an increase of $11.1 billion over 2011. With a combined payroll in excess of $26 billion, they employed 190,500 people, who in turn paid $1.9 billion in taxes.

“New York’s independent sector continues to be a major contributor to the New York State economy. This is particularly impressive in the current hyper-competitive higher education economy,” said Kent Gardner, Center for Governmental Research chief research officer, who led the study. “These schools have maintained enrollment in the face of declining numbers of high school grads, and boosted total research spending by 17 percent despite reductions in federal research investment.”

In the north country, private nonprofit colleges employed approximately 2,200 people and helped create 210 construction jobs.

Yearly, they added $679.9 million to the state and region, $69 million of which was spent by students and visitors.

“Higher education is a proven and powerful economic catalyst, bringing benefits to host communities,” St. Lawrence University President William L. Fox said. “Through creating and maintaining jobs, purchasing of goods and services, spending by students, families and alumni visitors and other financial contributions, colleges help propel economic development — a mission we take very seriously.”

Overall, the analysis indicated that since 2011, SLU’s economic impact has increased by nearly $15 million to $276 million in 2013, through projects such as the construction of Kirk Douglas Hall last year.

Clarkson University, whose Shipley Center for Innovation has facilitated the creation of more than 100 new startups, had an overall economic impact of $327.9 million in 2013, a $57 million increase since 2011.

“Clarkson’s story goes beyond the data collected from this economic analysis and the tremendous impact that our students, employees, visitors and contractors have in supporting our local retail and service economy,” Clarkson President Anthony G. Collins said. “As a research university committed to the region and our employees and alumni who want to stay and make their career and family lives in the north country, we are fully integrating research discovery, innovation and commercialization into our curriculum and outreach efforts.”

 

 

By Alan Rizzo, Times Staff Writer