Women in STEM Rising

Judy Drabicki

I have served as the Director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Region 6 for more than a decade. In that time, we have doubled the number of female employees in the region, which covers St. Lawrence, Jefferson, Lewis, Herkimer and Oneida counties. In the five-county region, 50 women are currently employed in professional roles—a significant increase from the past.

    DEC offers excellent careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), careers in high demand that have been traditionally filled by men.

    In Susan S. Silbey’s 2016 article, “Why Do So Many Women Who Study Engineering Leave the Field,” from the online Harvard Business Review, Silbey noted that engineering is the most male-dominated field in STEM, with just 13 percent of women making up the workforce.

    DEC’s Region 6 Environmental Engineering Unit currently employs six women engineers, up from just one a few years ago. While all employees are selected because they are the best qualified for the job, at DEC we actively encourage managers to hire women, particularly in professions such as engineering, law, and biology—all fields where women are traditionally under-represented.

    Yuan Zeng is a professional engineer for DEC’s Division of Material Management in Watertown. Zeng has worked for DEC for more than 20 years. “I like my environmental career for its positive impact on the environment, such as air pollution control and waste reduction,” says Zeng.

    Her advice to younger generations who may also want a similar career path is to do well in school, intern with professionals, and demonstrate a strong work ethic.

    Jennifer Lauzon is a professional engineer in DEC’s Potsdam, St. Lawrence County office. She says, “My job has never been the same and is always adapting to the current environment. I like that the work I am doing will, in some way, benefit the environment and benefit the world that we live in.”

    Her advice for young women that like math and science and see themselves in an engineering career is to get a dual degree in engineering and engineering & management (E&M).

    As regional director, I see multiple benefits in increasing the number of women in all aspects of the DEC workforce. First, having been underrepresented in the past, seeking equity will mean the absolute best people are doing the work of protecting the environment. Second, women often have a different approach to problem-solving and conflict resolution, which benefits our collective decision-making. And third, the role models women present to the hundreds of students we meet through DEC’s outreach efforts benefits all of the young men and women interested in entering the field of environmental protection—they will see for themselves that DEC is a welcoming agency that employs a diverse group of New Yorkers from a variety of backgrounds, genders, in a range of demanding professions.

    Regardless of gender, our day-to-day business is handled by a team of highly skilled professionals. Working together, we are committed to the DEC mission, the health and safety of New York’s environment, and the communities that we call home. 

Judy Drabicki is regional director, Region 6 NYSDEC, with a career that spans three decades of ensuring the natural beauty of the north country is protected and enjoyed for generations to come. She oversees a staff of more than 200 people, including engineers, biologists, permit writers, Forest Rangers and Environmental Conservation officers, operations staff, and many others.

Breaking Biases


It can often be difficult for individuals with criminal convictions to find employment or housing, even years after serving their sentence. Even with protections in place, some employers and landlords can’t fight an unconscious bias towards these individuals. Local attorney Matthew Porter has begun using a new law passed in October of last year to protect his clients from such bias.

    New York State does not have any laws in place to erase, or expunge, criminal records. Instead, New York offers a processes for sealing certain criminal records. For an individual experiencing additional hardship due to an old conviction, applying to have their records sealed may be an attractive option.

     “When a person’s record is sealed it is not erased, but any related fingerprints, booking photos, and DNA samples may be returned to the individual or destroyed, and records of their crime will no longer be available to the public,” explained Mr. Porter.

    Under New York’s Executive Law Section 296(16), employers are prohibited from inquiring about or taking any discriminatory action based on an individual’s sealed record. This means that if a record is sealed it cannot be considered in an application for employment.

    “However,” said Mr. Porter, “this law does not apply to law enforcement agencies, nor to those charged with federal licensing for firearms or other deadly weapons.”

    The two processes for having criminal records sealed are outlined in New York’s Criminal Procedure Law Sections 160.58 and 160.59. Section 160.59, effective October 2017, has created a new opportunity for individuals who have not been convicted of a crime in the past ten years to apply to have their criminal convictions sealed.

    Due to the individual nature of applying this new law, Mr. Porter is unable to state that any conviction will be automatically sealed. However, he was able to provide certain requirements a person must meet in order to apply to have a conviction sealed under the new law, primarily including but not limited to:

  • The individual may have up to two convictions, including only one felony conviction;
  • To be considered an “eligible offense” the conviction(s) must not have been for any of the following:

    ◦ sex offenses,

    ◦ other crimes requiring sex offender registration,

    ◦ Class A felonies (including but not limited to the following non-violent felonies: aggravated enterprise corruption, criminal possession or sale of a controlled substance in the first or second degree, operating as a major trafficker or conspiracy in the first degree)

    ◦ violent felonies, and

    ◦ attempts to commit any ineligible offenses under the categories listed above;

  • It must have been at least ten years since either

    ◦ the date the sentence was imposed, or

    ◦ the date of release from the individual’s last period of incarceration; and

  • The individual must not have been convicted of any new crimes during the ten-year waiting period.

    Once the application is filed, the local district attorney’s office has forty-five (45) days to notify the court whether they will oppose sealing the record. Then a judge must consider a number of factors in determining whether to grant a sealing application, including:

  • the amount of time since the individual’s last conviction,
  • the circumstances of the offense the individual seeks to have sealed,
  • any other convictions,
  • the individual’s character,
  • statements by any victims of the offense,
  • the impact sealing will have on the individual’s reintegration into society, and
  • the impact sealing will have on the public.

    Any experienced criminal attorney can help individuals determine whether they are eligible for sealing and to guide them through the sealing application process. The attorneys at Conboy, McKay, Bachman & Kendall, LLP, with offices in Jefferson County and St. Lawrence County, understand this new law and have begun aiding clients in having their criminal records sealed.

AMANDA COLTON is from Ogdensburg. In 2016, Amanda received her J.D. from Hofstra University and she is currently pending admission to the bar. Once admitted, Amanda will be practicing in the areas of domestic relations and criminal law.

20 Questions: Success from the Start


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Third Quarter Sales: Tri-county home sales drop to lowest price point

BY: Marcus Wolf
Realtors sold more homes in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties during the third quarter last year than any third quarter in the past four years, with prospective homebuyers securing stable employment cited as the reason.

    Third quarter median home prices for both counties, however, fell to their lowest during that time as homes, particularly foreclosures, were sold at lower prices.

    “We’ve seen economic recovery in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties,” said Lance M. Evans, executive officer of both the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Realtors and St. Lawrence Board of Realtors. “From the big downturn, unfortunately, we also had some foreclosures.”

    The number of houses sold in Jefferson County during the third quarter increased from the same time in 2016 by 34 units, or 10.3 percent, from 330 units to 364, according to the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Realtors.

    At the same time, the third quarter median home price in Jefferson County fell from the same quarter 2016 by $16,750, or about 11 percent, from $152,000 to $135,250.

    Vickie L. Staie, president of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Realtors, said the U.S. Department of Defense has been stationing more soldiers and federal employees at Fort Drum and providing more long-term work to some current Fort Drum workers, which has led to more home purchases.

    Investors have also driven up homes sales during the third quarter by continuing to purchase foreclosed homes on the cheap and refurbishing them to later sell at a higher value, which has also lowered the median price.

     “I think it’ll have a great effect. We’re eliminating many zombie homes in our area,” Mrs. Staie said.

    Zombie properties are homes that owners abandoned after they stopped paying the mortgage and before banks began the foreclosure process.

    Homes sales during the third quarter in St. Lawrence County were up from the same time in 2016 by 23 units, or 11.3 percent, from 204 units to 227, according to St. Lawrence Board of Realtors.

    The third quarter median home price in the county fell from the same quarter in 2016 by $7,250, or 7.2 percent, from $101,250 to $94000.

    Richard J. Wood, president of the St. Lawrence Board of Realtors, said the Canton-Potsdam Hospital expansion continued to bring more homebuyers to the county. Several people also moved from a different home within the county to expand or downsize, which also drove up homes sales.

    “I think it has a lot to do with the length of time on the market,” Mr. Wood. “People want to wrap stuff up before it gets to the cold weather.”

    Prospective buyers also bought several foreclosed properties in the county, which Mr. Wood, who owns RJ Wood Real Estate LLC in Gouverneur, said brought down the median price.

“I’ve seen homes go right now that have sold for $10,000,” he said.

    Unlike Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties, home sales in Lewis County remained relatively flat in the third quarter compared to the same time in 2016.

    The number of houses sold in Lewis County decreased slightly from the same time in 2016 by two units, or about 3.3 percent, from 61 to 59.

    The median home price for the third quarter in Lewis County, however, decreased from the same quarter in 2016 by $20,000, or 17.4 percent, from $115,000 to $95,000.

    Mrs. Staie, who also owns Staie on the Seaway Real Estate Services LLC and Appraisals USA in Alexandria Bay, said several sellers’ asking prices were too much when compared to their market value, which keeps them on the market for a while. Many homes that sold during the third quarter were winter camps and cottages.

    “That brought (the median price) down a bit,” she said.

    Home sales from January to September last year increased from the same time in 2016 in all three counties. 

    The number of houses sold during the first three quarters increased in Jefferson County by 130 homes, or 18.3 percent, from 711 to 841; in Lewis County by 13 homes, or 8.9 percent, from 146 to 159, and in St. Lawrence County by 63 homes, or 12.7 percent, from 496 homes to 559.

    Foreclosure and waterfront home sales drove up the number of units sold last year in Jefferson County, Mrs. Staie said. The Kraft-Heinz plant expansion in Lowville led more people to buy homes in Lewis County, she said.

    “I think people are seeing the advantage of buying over renting,” Mr. Evans said. “It looks like we’re going to have a lot higher number for units sold than we had in previous years.”

    The median price for homes during the first three quarters of 2017 in Jefferson and Lewis counties, however, fell compared to the same time last year.

    The median home price for the first three quarters this year decreased in Jefferson County by $3,500, or 2.5 percent, from $138,500 to $135,000, and in Lewis County by $15,500, or 14.7 percent, from $90,000 to $105,500. Both price drops were driven by foreclosure sales, Mr. Evans said.

    “There are always foreclosures. There will always be foreclosures,” Mr.  Evans said.

    The median price in St. Lawrence County for the first three quarters of 2017, however, has remained relatively flat for the past four years.

    The price for the first three quarters of 2017 only increased by $1,000, or 1.3 percent, from $88,000 to $89,000.

    “We don’t have huge jumps,” in price, Mr. Wood said.

    Statewide, home sales in the third quarter decreased from the same quarter in 2016 by 1,248 units, or 3.1 percent, from 39,693 units to 38,445 units, according to the New York State Association of Realtors. The statewide third-quarter median home price, however, was up this year by $12,500, or five percent, from $249,000 in 2015 to $261,500.


Retail Woes? A look into the 2018 tri-county economy

The Gander Mountain in Watertown was slated to remain open after another company acquired it, but remains closed.

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An Agricultural Outlook for 2018


Intense anticipation for the next farm bill stems from the pressure that farmers are under due to the “kick me while I’m down” status the industry has experienced the last few years.  Low commodity prices, unpredictable weather, diminishing markets, raise in minimum wage, and just plain getting older to name a few.  While some have adapted to survive the times, others have had no choice but to sell out.  Martin Luther King, Jr., who we honor on the 15th day of this month, said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” 

                With the drought of summer 2016 leaving farms with minimal options other than to pay to drill more wells, pay for water to be trucked in, and pay for their feed commodities to be sourced in because they were unable to grow a sufficient crop on their own land, wallets were also sucked dry. Coming into the fourth year of low milk and commodity prices, farms could have used a bumper crop year in 2017 to help compensate, but instead fields were flooded by rain.  Planting and harvest was less than desirable and sometimes impossible. To learn more about making the best out of your core acres and feeding the right crop versus the best crop during tough years (among other great dairy related topics), see Joe Lawrence/Ron Kuck speak at Dairy Day Jan. 23 at Ramada Inn in Watertown. To register, call CCE Jefferson at 315-788-8450 or email me at amc557@cornell.edu

                In challenging times it is common to feel like you are alone in your struggles; this is not the case.  Financial and emotional counseling is available to help you make the best decisions for the farm and your family.  Such services are available through local organizations like Cornell Cooperative Extension, NY FarmNet, SCORE, Farm Credit, and USDA Farm Service Agency.  

How the Government could help: Farm Bill and Tax Reform

      The first farm bill was in 1933 as a response to major hardships resulting from events such as The Great Depression and Dust Bowl and they continued sporadically in the decades to come.  It was not until the 1970’s that the farm bill was taken up by Congress on a set, four–year schedule.  The latest is available for download on the USDA’s website if you’d like 357 pages worth of light reading.  The farm bill has been described with analogies like a two–engine freight train or a Swiss army knife with many tools available for use in a pocket–sized gadget.  Though these objects are drastically different, they both indicate that the farm bill is multifaceted.  It contains 12 titles and while content remains fairly constant, titles can vary from farm bill to farm bill: Title I: Commodities, Title II: Conservation, Title III: Trade, Title IV: Nutrition, Title V: Credit, Title VI: Rural Development, Title VII: Research and Extension, Title VIII: Forestry, Title IX: Energy, Title X: Horticulture, Title XI: Crop Insurance, and Title XII: Miscellaneous. Unbeknownst to most, 80 percent of the funds go to nutrition programs.

                Budget reconciliation, which allows for reconsideration of certain tax, spending and debt limitations, is important to mention in the context of the 2018 bill due to the fact that House and Senate Republican leaders have announced their intention to use this tactic at least twice throughout 2017.  Dairy, crop insurance, and commodities are among the areas stated to be in need of substantial reform.  For example, the Margin Protection Program that was created for dairy in the 2014 Farm Bill has left many dairy producers severely dissatisfied.  Many farms grow their own crops to feed their animals so improvements to these programs could have a positive impact on multiple aspects of their farm business. Several states would like disaster assistance to farmers facing droughts and other extreme weather events. Although Northern New York doesn’t have to deal with enormous wildfires or relentless hurricanes like other areas of the country, there is no doubt that drought and excessive precipitation has taken a significant toll on our local agricultural industry over the recent years. 

                In addition to the potential changes brought about by Farm Bill 2018, the new tax reform recently passed in late December could provide some relief for farmers.  A few ways the new tax bill could benefit farmers include repeal of estate tax, full expensing of certain capital investments, and lowering of tax rates on pass-through businesses, which comprises 94 percent of farms (heritage.org).  In last year’s economic outlook from Jay Matteson, an underlying message was one of hope. It seems that this sense of hope for the future has only intensified looking towards 2018.

Alyssa Couse is an agricultural outreach educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. Born and raised in the north country, she feels at home working with Jefferson County residents, both two-legged and four -legged.  Contact her at amc557@cornell.edu.

Attention Educators: Ag teachers needed!

Jay Matteson

BY: Jay Matteson

September 22 was National Teach Ag Day.  I had never heard of the day. But as I learned more about its purpose recently, it became necessary to share this story with you. National Teach Ag Day is organized by the National Association of Agricultural Educators.  A small part of the observance is to say thank you to the existing ag teachers across the United States for the fantastic job they do.  The primary reason for National Teach Ag Day is to highlight a gaping demand for ag teachers.

    The website for Teach Ag Day is www.naae.org/teachag/index.cfm. The website makes very clear the purpose of the day is to “bring attention to the career of agricultural education, get students thinking about a possible career in agricultural education, and support agricultural teachers in their careers.”  There is currently a national shortage of agricultural educators at the high school level. Mrs. Tedra Bean, the Belleville Henderson High School Agricultural teacher recently told me, “there are 40 schools interested in starting agricultural education programs, but they don’t have agricultural teachers.”  Bill Stowell, ag educator at South Jefferson High School supported Mrs. Bean’s statement, adding that recently 24 ag teachers were added across New York state.

    Mr. Stowell and Mrs. Bean indicate that ag education programs at the high school level have three components: classroom instruction; FFA membership and participation; and supervised agricultural experiences.  The classroom instruction includes regular classroom instruction and laboratory learning.  Classroom instruction may cover sciences, business development, and a variety of other courses that develop the knowledge base of the student.  Laboratory instruction involves hands-on learning that may include handling animals, plants, food products, and technology. FFA brings a great opportunity to build leadership and communicative skills as well as the critical tools of time management. FFA (www.ffa.org) also allows students to join with thousands of students across the U.S. sharing common interests in a dynamic and large youth-led organization.  Supervised Agricultural Experiences provide students the opportunity to go into fields of their interest and gain true work experience. They may work in a number of fields that could include communications, farming, agribusiness, veterinary, environmental stewardship, and many other agricultural related career paths.   All three components combine into an ag education program that is a powerful tool to prepare students for the many career opportunities that exist in agriculture. 

    Those who graduate from college with a degree in agricultural education have more than one career opportunity they can pursue. Yes, there is tremendous opportunity to become a high school agriscience teacher with the huge demand that exists. College graduates might also follow a path towards being an ag literacy coordinator, an ag education professor in college, farm business management instructor, or a variety of other possibilities.  Here in New York state students graduating high school could pursue an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and then go on to SUNY Oswego to obtain their masters degree. There are many ag education programs across the nation to look into. The Teach Ag Day website mentioned earlier provides many resources for those interested to look at. 

    In addition to the ag programs at South Jefferson and Belleville Henderson schools, there are ag programs at Carthage, Indian River and Alexandria schools in Jefferson County.  In Lewis County ag programs exist at South Lewis, Beaver River and Lowville school districts. St Lawrence County has ag programs at Canton, Gouverneur and Edwards Knox schools along with a specialized program through BOCES called the St. Lawrence Agriculture Academy.   Unfortunately Oswego County does not have an ag education program despite their agricultural industry.

    With so many schools across the nation showing an interest in developing agricultural programs in their schools, and ag teacher positions going unfilled, students will take a second look at this opportunity.   Workforce development is critical to any industry, including agriculture, and having a robust offering of agricultural classroom opportunities in our high schools is important if we want to maintain our food supply.  At the core of providing educational opportunities in agriculture, is the all-important agriculture teacher. Thank you for doing what you do.

Breaking Misconceptions: New executive director focuses on fundraising, educating

Heather Spezzano, Director of the Jefferson County SPCA, watches a kitten play in the kitten room at the facility.

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September Small Business Startup: Grindstone Fabrications

Chris Matthews, left, and Jeremy Kellogg own and operate Grindstone Fabrications in Clayton.

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What is “Assessed Value?”

Lance Evans

By: Lance Evans

The word “assessment” is defined as “the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something.”  In real estate, the terms “assessment” and “assessed value” are used frequently and are interchangeable.  

                Frequently people ask why a property is on the market for more than the assessment and if, after the property sells, the assessment will be adjusted to reflect the purchase price.

                I  spoke recently with Brian Phelps, the city of Watertown’s assessor for the past eleven years. We talked about his experience, what an assessor is, and what his or her job is. 

                Assessors are certified by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. They need to take a basic certification class and then need to take continuing education periodically.

                Mr. Phelps, who has 20 years of experience as an assessor, began his career as one of three elected assessors in the town of Champion. At one point, prior to being hired by the city, he was employed by three different towns in three different counties. This allowed him to see different systems and ways of doing his job along with a wide variety of properties and economic factors.

                Assessments are, at their core, opinions of value. They differ from an appraisal, which looks at an individual property. The assessor looks at the properties as a whole. His/her estimate of the value of real property is converted into an assessment and is one component in the computation of real property tax bills.

                While properties are treated similarly, assessments allow for differences like square footage, lot size, and features like a pool, porch, deck, etc. They also take into account the general condition and upkeep a property has. Variations like a big upgrade or a decline in maintenance can affect the assessment. An assessor  has access to building permits and he evaluates these based on how they impact the quality and condition of the property.

                His job is to “hit the value” with his assessment. Since he has access to property sales, I asked him what happens when a property sells. Does that automatically mean a change in the assessment? His answer was no.

                Before going further, it is important to note that the city of Watertown assessments reflect 92 percent of a property’s value. This means that if a property is assessed at $92,000 and sells for $100,000, the assessment was right on target. 

                When there is a large variance (higher or lower) in the price versus the assessed value, it could trigger a review of the assessment. Mr. Phelps pointed out that what usually has happened is that what was sold is not what was valued in the assessment. There are times when a buyer pays more than a property would normally be valued.

                For instance, in a “hot” market where properties are selling very fast and have multiple offers, the price paid can easily be much higher than the assessment. Similarly, if an area has suddenly experienced a quick drop in market value, properties can sell well below assessment.

                Either way, the assessor looks at the reasons surrounding the difference between the assessed value and the actual sale price and may adjust it accordingly. Mr. Phelps looks at the property as it was valued and what actually sold.

                Outside of a city-wide revaluation, the main way an assessment changes is a physical change to the property like an addition, something that markedly improves the value, or something that causes a dramatic drop in value. 

                Earlier, I noted that the assessment is only one component of how the real property tax bill is calculated. The other portion is the tax levy that the municipality, county Legislature, and local school district set as the amount that needs to be collected. The levy is the amount of money needed to fund government operations after accounting for state aid, sales tax and other income sources.

                According to Mr. Phelps, the total value of property in Watertown is roughly one billion dollars. If the City Council determines that the amount needed from property tax is ten million dollars, then the City’s portion of the property tax will be $10 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation. In the earlier example of a property assessed at $92,000, then the bill would be $92.

                Next month, I will be looking at how appraisals work and how they differ from assessments and how they can help determine the market price for a property.