Thursday, May 25, 2006

Tompkins County Democratic Committee

I was totally unaware of the political party committee system until a few years ago when Martha Robertson suggested I might be interested in the Dryden Democratic Committee and I started attending meetings. It took me a long time to figure out who these people were and how they related to each other. The committee consists of several representatives of each election district. There are ten election districts in the Town of Dryden (see the map at the top of the sidebar) and I represent District #1. The town committee circulated a petition on my behalf for a seat on the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. (Incidentally, there are several vacancies on both the town and county committees. If you're interested in joining contact me or Simon St Laurent. There are also corresponding Republican committees in the town and county)

Last year, at a county committee meeting, someone innocently asked, "What does the Committee do?" Irene Stein, chair of the County committee answered, with aplomb, that the committee identifies and supports candidates for political offices. And that's it. There is some discussion of party platform and strategies to encourage Democrats to register and vote. But no momentous policy decisions are made by the Committee.

Last night's county committee meeting was a vivid example of the process of finding and supporting candidates. We voted unanimously to send Peter Stein and Lori Gardner to the NYS Democratic Committee. We voted unanimously to endorse Elizabeth Garry for NYS Supreme Court in the 6th Judicial District. We endorsed Barbara Lifton for State Assembly with one nay vote. Although the committee usually doesn't endorse candidates at the national level, those of us who live in the 26th congressional district (City and Town of Ithaca and Town of Danby) unanimously endorsed Congressman Hinchey. There was some resistance to endorsing Michael Arcuri for Congress in the 24th district because, tho' he spoke once in Lansing, most of us haven't had a chance to meet or hear him. Still, the endorsement passed with fourteen abstentions.

The passionate debate began when a motion was made to ask Stein and Gardner to withhold support for Senator Clinton at the state committee meeting. A substitute motion was offered to write a letter of concern to Clinton rather than instruct the state delegates. It may seem that withholding support at the state committee meeting makes a more dramatic statement than writing a letter. But Peter Stein pointed out that a delegate saying, "Pass," as the roll is called would go virtually unnoticed. Writing a letter will make a clearer statement. Still, should that statement be made relatively privately to Senator Clinton or somewhat publicly in the state committee?

More important to many committee members is the issue of instructing the state delegates. The committee can express an opinion but cannot require a delegate to vote a certain way. I think this point is too often overlooked at all levels of politics. Try as we might to sway elected officials, we can only express opinions and provide facts and vote. Elected officials are not bound to vote as their constituency wishes. As voters, we study the candidates' positions on important issues to find people whose judgment we trust. We elect them and then their on their own.

I'll write another day about my waning faith in Clinton's judgment. But for now, I appreciate that the committee has let Peter and Lori know how we feel. The discussion was long and heated. The vote was so close, Irene asked supporters of each side to go to opposite sides of the room for an accurate count. Remaining agenda items had to be abandoned because of time constraint. What Peter and Lori and Irene say to the state committee and to Clinton is probably more influential than any single vote. It's local democracy at work and I'm pleased to be a part of it.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Public Workshop on Renewable Energy

Environmental Planner, Dan Kwasnowski, will lead a public workshop on Renewable Energy Tuesday, June 6 at the Neptune Hose Company in Dryden. I'll post the time when I get it.

Sustainable Energy

Last night Supervisor Trumbull, three Town Board members (including myself), several members of the Planning Board and several members of the Conservation Council visited two residential wind energy installations in the Town of Caroline.
Questions about how wind energy converters look and sound were easily answered. This tower, at the home of Steve Nicholson, is about thirty-five feet tall. It blends with the surroundings so well that I had a hard time getting a picture that shows it clearly. It was drizzling while we were there and the sound of the rain on my umbrella masked the whooshing sound of the spinning blades. Nicholson says the 600W wind converter supplies nearly all his household electricity in the winter. Solar collectors provide the rest. Because the house is "off the grid," the energy is stored in batteries before reaching the house's conventional wiring. Nicholson acknowledges that if the tower were higher the converter would provide more electricity. In fact, he will soon have to cut some trees that have grown substantially since the tower was built ten years ago.

This tower at Ed Cope's house is more conspicuous since it's not surrounded by trees. The forty foot tower supports a 2kW converter with blades between seven and eight feet long. The wind was barely blowing while we were here. Cope says it is louder than the one at Nicholson's house.

Both Cope and Nicholson built their wind towers because their houses were far from enough from existing electrical lines to make connection prohibitively expensive. Both designed their systems for winter wind and supplemented the wind converters with solar collectors for summer energy. Cope has since connected to the electrical grid (sharing the cost with new neighbors) and is thus able to direct excess electricity generated by his system to the public utility.

My questions, as a Town Board member, were about safety and the visual and audible impact. The view from both of these sites is fabulous and the towers don't detract from it. They're barely audible. New research is showing that the impact on wildlife is minimal. The wind towers are constructed so as to be unlikely to fall and sited so that if they did fall the risk of damage to surrounding structures or injury to people is nearly non-existent. The solar collectors are silent, less visible than the towers and pose no safety risk at all that I'm aware of. From an ethical standpoint, how could the Town possibly rationalize preventing residents from building and using sustainable energy equipment? In fact, shouldn't we be actively promoting the development of sustainable energy?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Stretch Breaks

Wegman's used to announce periodically, "Wegman's employees, time for a stretch break." It must have been at least once an hour, 'cause I heard it every time I was there. And, sure enough, the clerks would stretch their arms, arch their backs and touch their toes. Last night's Town Board meeting was four hours, with nary a single stretch break.

The perfectly reasonable agenda was derailed almost immediately by Ellis Hollow residents questions and discussion of the feasibility study for water and sewer service on Ellis Hollow Road. That's fine. But then we slid effortlessly into a presentation by insurance agent John Bailey on the relative benefits of commercial insurance vs collective municipal insurance. We should have seen this coming and had it on the agenda. But we didn't. The Insurance Committee (of which I'm a member) had met with Bailey and the NYMIR representative earlier in the month and had agreed to recommend the NYMIR policy if the price was competitive. I wonder how long this discussion would have gone on if we hadn't been prepared to make that recommendation.

There was one brief citizen comment urging timely action on the Renewable Energy Law under consideration. So it was 8:40 before we got to the "County Communications Tower Project" agenda under "Citizen Privilege." I don't know why it was listed there. "Citizen Privilege" is supposed to be three minute comments from the public. This was a thirty minute presentation (a very good presentation) regarding the construction of new towers and improvements to existing towers to support the new county-wide emergency communication system.

Reports from eight town departments followed. So, it was 10:45 before we went into executive session to consider a pending litigation issue and possible real estate transaction. My point, and I do have one, is that we need to take better advantage of our extensive committee system to research and present information to make best use of the four hours of the monthly meeting.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Conservation Council

We had a spirited three-hour discussion of renewable energy last night. There is no disagreement among Council members that the Town should put into place whatever process is necessary to facilitate residents' access to alternative energy technology. The discussion was about how the process will work.

The technology is changing rapidly now and as more people begin using it we can expect improvements to come even faster - much faster than we can change laws. It's impractical to think we could write a law regulating engineering specifications of new technology.

The question is: what aspects of the technology should be subject to review to assure the maximum benefit to the community? Clearly, safety is a concern. Less clearly, visual impact is a concern. And hardly anywhere on the radar screen is consideration of the value of renewable energy production. No matter what we do, this will not turn out to be a black and white decision. It will be an effort to maximize advantages and minimize disadvantages.

Above all, it's important that opinions and decisions be based on objective information.
Some sources of information to check:
  • Tompkins Renewable Energy Education Alliance (TREEA)
  • New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA)

Monday, May 08, 2006

How a Draft Becomes a Law

On Saturday at Living in Dryden, I commented on the process of adopting a law enabling the Zoning Board to approve building permits for alternative energy structures. I want to review what I've observed of the process of passing a law to put the wind energy issue in focus.

In the first four months of 2006 the Town of Dryden has passed two substantive laws and one law repealing an older law. A fourth is scheduled for public hearing in May.

1. A local law ESTABLISHING THE TOWN OF DRYDEN POLICY ON NOTIFICATION UPON THE UNAUTHORIZED RELEASE OF PRIVATE INFORMATION. At the March Town Board meeting, Attorney Perkins said that changes to the New York State technology law, effective in December 2005, require municipalities to "adopt a notification policy no more than one hundred twenty days after the effective date of this section. [Dec 7, 2005]" Perkins introduced the law. The only discussion was "Cl Christofferson noted the Town should have an inventory of what personal and confidential information it has and where it is, and should ask the staff to come with a plan on how to address that." Public Hearing was set for the April meeting. The Public Hearing was opened at 7:05PM at the April meeting. There was no discussion. The hearing was closed at 7:16PM and a resolution adopting Public Law #1 was passed. (Total time from draft to law: I don't know how long Atty Perkins worked on it prior to its introduction, but from its first mention to the Town Board to passage was a total of one month.)

AND RELATED FACILITIES was drafted in January 2006 with consultation among Cl Christofferson, Zoning Officer Henry Slater and Telecommunications Consultant Jeff Kirby. The text of the proposed law was distributed to the Town Board, Attorney Perkins, the Conservation Council and the Planning Board in February. It was reviewed by the Conservation Council and the Planning Board in February. Atty Perkins reviewed the language in February and introduced the law at the March Town Board meeting. Public hearing was scheduled for the April Town Board meeting. When the hearing was opened "Atty Perkins said this local law re-states in part Local Law 2 of 1998 and Local Law 4 of 2004. It revises some of the definitions that have been troublesome over the years." There was no discussion and a resolution adopting the law was passed. (Total time from draft to law: four months.)

3. A local law ESTABLISHING THE QUALIFICATIONS FOR ELECTRICAL INSPECTORS was drafted in January. Zoning Officer Henry Slater contacted those organizations and agencies that currently are authorized to provide that service to the Town. He received a supporting letter from the NYS Board of Fire Underwriters in February and distributed it, with a copy of the proposed law, to the Town Board in February. At the March Town Board meeting, Atty Perkins presented the law. There was a brief discussion of the qualifications of journeyman electricians vs certification by the The International Association of Electrical Inspectors. The Town Board asked that The board asked that the law be revised to omit the part about being a recognized journeyman electrician for at least five years and asked that it be ready to be introduced next month. It was introduced at the April meeting and public hearing was scheduled for the May meeting. (Total time from draft to law - assuming it passes in May will be five months).

My point is this: if we're very industrious, very careful and everyone cooperates, we could expect to pass an alternative energy ordinance in August. Since every hesitation can cost a full month between Town Board meetings, there's little room for error if we hope to make construction this season possible for residents now being delayed.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Natural Feature Focus Areas

Last night Kate Hackett from the Tompkins County Planning Department presented the first of several scheduled public information sessions introducing the Natural Feature Focus Areas the planning department has been developing. Eight of the fifteen areas identified are, at least partially, in the the Town of Dryden.

For each area, the planning department has identified major reasons for the importance of area including, water quality, critical habitat, outdoor recreation, sustainable timber harvesting and many more. Protection and management issues for each key function are enumerated and the planning department is now seeking public input on how landowner management practices and municipal priorities affect or are affected by these functions and issues.

I highly recommend reading about the areas that interest you. Then plan to attend public information sessions on May 22 at the Tompkins County Public Library or May 23 at the McLean Fire Department.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Tax Assessment Review

The Local Board of Assessment Review seems not to be a favorite assignment for Dryden Town Board members. So a slot on the board was happily passed on to me as the newest Town Board member. This morning I met with BAR members from other towns and County Department of Assessment staff for an introduction to the process.

Appraisers at the Department of Assessment have completed the process of calculating fair market value as of July 1, 2005 for all 34,000 properties in Tompkins County based on review of building permits and visual inspections. Analysis of recent sales shows prices to be 10% higher than 2005 assessments. So, if no changes have been made to a property, the fair market value will be increased by 10%. On the other hand, since this is now a three-year valuation, this year's assessment will be 90% of fair market value. The percentage for next year will be determined next year and in 2008 assessment will be 100% of valuation.

The Department of Assessment reports that valuations of 9,000 properties have changed with 7,000 of those being increases. Properties showing greatest changes are lakefront, vacant land and apartment complexes. Taxpayers could have contacted the Department of Assessment at any time prior to March 1 to discusses changes to their property that the department may not be aware of. Now that tentative assessments are complete, property owners may file for a review with the Local Board of Assessment Review which will make recommendations to the County Board of Assessment Review. The Dryden Local Board of Assessment Review, made up of Bambi Hollenbeck, Town Clerk and Town Board member Steve Stellick and myself, will meet May 17 at 3:00 at the Town Hall. The County Board, made up of appointees, primarily realtors and bankers familiar with real estate appraisals, will meet May 23.

Note that the only thing the Assessment Review Boards address is assessment - not tax rates. And, practically speaking, the only aspect of assessment taxpayers can address is the market value of their property. And information most likely to affect valuation is a) physical description of the property or b) recent independent appraisal.

A wealth of assessment information is available on public computers in the Department of Assessment office. You can find the physical inventory of your property that the valuation is based on. You can search for prices of similar properties sold recently. You can access maps showing protected wetlands and unique natural areas. From your home computer you can access Image Mate Basic which gives the most basic information about building style, acreage, and assessment.