Monday, December 17, 2012

[UPDATED] Week ahead: Sibley COMIDA hearing, State funding awards, Vargas meeting, state Electoral College convenes

Posted By on Mon, Dec 17, 2012 at 9:39 AM

On Wednesday, December 19, the state will hold a ceremony to announce funding awards for the regional economic development councils.

Details haven’t been announced, but the co-chairs of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council mentioned the event during the council’s meeting last week. And media reports say the event will be held Wednesday, and will be hosted by Maria Bartiromo of CNBC’s Closing Bell.

The state’s 10 regional economic development councils are competing for $220 million in grants and tax incentives. The state will also distribute $542 million in funding from its agencies; the applications for the funding progressed through the councils.

The Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council has identified 12 priority projects for investment. They’re based on a strategic plan the council adopted last year; in last year’s round of funding, the council received $68.8 million in awards. Jeremy Moule

Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas will hold his Coffee and Conversation meeting with parents, students, and residents at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, December 18.

Bolgen Vargas. - FILE PHOTO

Vargas holds the meetings monthly, typically handling a wide range of questions and concerns. During the past few weeks, he has used the opportunity to talk about his proposal to update the district’s aging schools.

Tuesday’s meeting is at the district’s central office, 131 West Broad Street. Tim Louis Macaluso


Today, New York Secretary of State Cesar Perales convenes the state Electoral College.

The body meets at noon and the members will promptly cast their votes for president and vice president. Specifically, they’ll cast their votes for President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

The meeting will be broadcast live on PBS, so in Rochester that means it’s on WXXI channel 21.1 (cable channels 1011 and 11). Jeremy Moule

The Monroe County Industrial Development Agency will hold a public hearing Tuesday on a tax incentive package for the Sibley building’s new owner. The hearing is at 11:45 a.m. at the Ebenezer Watts Conference Center, 49 South Fitzhugh Street.

Sibley Redevelopment LP, a subsidiary of Boston-based Winn Development, purchased the building in September. The company is paying $5 million for the building and plans to invest $5.8 million to fix it up, says COMIDA’s notice of the hearing.

The company is pursuing a payment in lieu of taxes agreement as well as sales tax exemptions. Under the PILOT agreement, the company will pay $3.9 million over 22 years, say COMIDA documents. Jeremy Moule

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Friday, December 14, 2012

RCSD faces $50 million budget gap

Posted By on Fri, Dec 14, 2012 at 9:42 AM

Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas last night presented board members with a rough outline of his budget plan for the 2013 to 2014 school year. And it’s going to be another financially tough year for the district.

For starters, the board approved a $705 million budget for the current year, but the district has operated on a $726 million budget due to an influx of grant funding. To get somewhere close to the $705 million operating budget for next year, Vargas has to close about a $50 million gap.

At last night’s board meeting, Vargas told board members it was possible, and that he has no plans to cut music, arts, or sports programs. And there was no mention of cutting teachers.

But this is only the beginning of the budgeting process and Vargas’s numbers are based on some strong assumptions.

For example, Vargas is planning on about a 7 percent increase in combined forms of state aid. That could be ambitious considering Albany is confronting billions in recent storm damages to the New York City region. State lawmakers are pushing Washington for disaster relief funding, but there are reports that some officials in Washington are flinching at the costs.

Vargas is also counting on more than $6 million in efficiency savings and $15 million in attrition and retirement to help close the gap. He plans to ask the Rochester Teachers Union for $5 million in concessions.

But Vargas’s savings from efficiencies and attrition are strained by increases in just about all of the district’s expenses. The biggest increase is a 37 percent jump in teacher retirement costs. Non-teaching retirement and health insurance costs have also shot up.

Vargas noted that more than $36 million of the district’s budget goes directly to charter schools.

“This will continue to go up,” he said.

Vargas framed his budget around the district’s undeniable academic problems: 55 out of the district’s 60 schools are either not meeting state performance standards or are at risk of lowered performance.

And the district’s attendance problems continue.

“I cannot make a promise that we’re going to improve, when you’ve already got 4,000 students missing 10 or more days of school,” Vargas said.

And the district will expand the school day in eight more schools next year, while continuing to implement the new teacher evaluation plan.

Vargas’s presentation did not go into great detail about next year’s budget, and he concluded by repeating that the budget may need adjustments.

The full budget will be presented to the community at a series of public forums after the first of the year, and a final version will be presented to the board for approval in March.

The city school district’s budget also requires City Council’s approval.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Geraci confirmed as federal judge

Posted By on Thu, Dec 13, 2012 at 3:40 PM

The Senate has confirmed Frank Geraci as the new US District Court judge for the Western District of New York.

Geraci has served as a County Court judge and acting state Supreme Court judge since 1999; judges often serve both roles in the state's court system. Senator Chuck Schumer recommended Geraci for the judge position and President Barack Obama nominated him for it.

Former District Attorney Mike Green was previously nominated for the federal judgeship, but the Senate never voted whether to confirm him. Last year, after it became clear his nomination wouldn't get a vote, Green said that Republicans in the Senate were blocking his confirmation. Green now serves as the executive deputy commissioner of the state Department of Criminal Justice Services.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Legislature approves borrowing for MCC campus

Posted By on Wed, Dec 12, 2012 at 9:11 AM

A measure that'll allow the county to borrow $28 million so Monroe Community College can buy and build a permanent city campus had no trouble passing during last night's County Legislature meeting.

Just before midnight, the 29 legislators unanimously approved a bonding package that included the MCC funding. The bond resolution, however, does not commit to a specific site. The college's Board of Trustees selected buildings on Kodak's State Street campus, which it wants to buy and renovate into a permanent downtown campus.

MCC President Anne Kress said that the site-neutral language in the bond won't be an issue for the college and that it's a very good thing that the Legislature passed the measure. Approval of the bond will allow the college to move forward with its effort to build and own a downtown campus, she said.

Earlier in the meeting, legislators heard from several faculty members and student body leaders encouraging them to pass the bond. Many of them stressed that the current campus in the Sibley building doesn't offer the space for programs to grow, nor does it have adequate space for the student body to hold events.

Joe Eddy, vice president of Winn Development, which now owns the Sibley building, also encouraged the Legislature to pass the bond resolution. The students and faculty at the city campus deserve an enhanced campus, he said. And the ongoing site selection process will result in the highest-quality campus, he said.

Even a month ago, it was uncertain whether the borrowing measure would get the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. Rochester Mayor Tom Richards was pushing back because he believed there were unaddressed issues with the college's preferred site. He has said that he wants MCC to stay in the Sibley building and Democrats in the county Legislature have sided with him.

But the mayor dropped his objection to the bond after he saw a draft resolution, which was site neutral. In a letter to Legislature president Jeff Adair, he said that the language "preserves a broad range of options that could serve the community well." Last night, several Legislature Democrats echoed the mayor in their comments.

Democratic Leader Carrie Andrews said that the site-neutral language of the bond allows for a discussion about the best location for the downtown campus.

While the college's board has selected a site for the campus, the issue isn't yet settled. The county owns all of the college's property in trust. Kress says that the Legislature will have to approve the acquisition of any building or buildings. In other words, if MCC reaches a deal with Kodak, then the Legislature has to sign off. But that won't be as heavy of a lift as the bond referral. Approval of an acquisition requires the support of a simple majority of legislators, versus the two-thirds majority required to bond. It'd only need 15 votes, versus the 20 required to bond.

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Legislators approve 2013 county budget

Posted By on Wed, Dec 12, 2012 at 8:43 AM

Last night, after several hours of discussion, county legislators passed a 2013 budget that was unaltered from County Executive Maggie Brooks' proposal.

In short: the property tax rate will remain at $8.99 per $1,000 assessed value, suburban residents will pay a new chargeback to cover the cost of county snowplowing contracts, and another new chargeback will fund indigent burial assistance, an arrangement which is expected to disproportionately affect the city. The $1.2 billion plan passed along party lines, with the 18 Republican legislators voting for it, and the 11 Democratic legislators voting against it.

Democrats proposed a handful of amendments — all of which failed or were rejected on procedural grounds — the majority of which were meant to add funding for indigent burial assistance or runaway and homeless youth services. For example, one amendment would have transferred money from a reserve account into the indigent burial assistance line. That would have allowed the county to increase the size of the burial assistance grant, said Democratic Leader Carrie Andrews, who introduced the amendment. Advocates for the poor have said that the current $1,250 isn't enough to pay for a dignified burial and that many families are forced into cremating their loved ones.

Another amendment would have directed hotel and motel tax money away from a non-profit sporting event promotions group and boosted funding for a runaway and homeless youth program.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Economic development awards coming up

Posted By on Tue, Dec 11, 2012 at 9:21 AM

On December 19, the state will announce this year's funding awards for the regional economic development councils, reports The Business Review, an Albany-area publication. The awards will be announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maria Bartiromo, the host of CNBC's "Closing Bell," The Business Review reports.

The 10 regional economic development councils are competing for $220 million in competitive grants and tax incentives; that pot includes five, $25 million awards. Those awards will be based either on the progress the regional councils have made toward their strategic goals, or on revisions to their strategic plans. The basic goal is to provide funding that helps the councils advance their strategic plans.

The state will also be distributing $542 million in funding from state agencies. The funding applications went through the regional economic development councils.

The Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council developed its strategic investment plan last year and it received $68.8 million in awards. This year it is seeking funding for 12 priority projects, including Eastman Kodak Business Park, the College Town development on Mt. Hope Avenue, Seneca AgBio Green Energy Park, Midtown Tower redevelopment, and several university, business development, and employment facilities or initiatives.

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Week Ahead: RCSD meetings, city violence forum, and county budget — with MCC vote

Posted By on Mon, Dec 10, 2012 at 10:38 AM

RPD Chief James Sheppard. - FILE PHOTO

Rochester Mayor Tom Richards and Police Chief James Sheppard kick off a quartet of community forums on violence in the city. Rochester and cities across the country have experienced a significant uptick in violent crime this year, including homicides.

Richards says the forums are a chance to hear from a broad spectrum of the community, and that they allow for back-and-forth between parties — an opportunity that doesn’t exist at City Council meetings, for example. Richards cites new regulations on corner stores as an example of what can come out of public outreach.

“That took a neighborhood conversation — that’s still going on — because some of the [corner stores] are good,” he says.

Citizens attending the forums are asked to discuss violence under four broad categories: open-air drug sales and drug houses; gangs, guns, and culture of violence; bullying and truancy; and house parties.

This week’s meeting is from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, December 11, at the Frederick Douglass Resource Center, 36 King Street. There are more meetings scheduled in January and February. Christine Carrie Fien

The Legislature will vote on County Executive Maggie Brooks's budget proposal this week. - FILE PHOTO
  • The Legislature will vote on County Executive Maggie Brooks's budget proposal this week.

On Tuesday night, the Monroe County Legislature will vote on County Executive Maggie Brooks’s proposed 2013 budget.

The $1.2 billion spending plan keeps the property tax rate flat, but adds a fee for snow and ice removal in the suburbs. And it includes chargebacks to fund $550,000 to $750,000 in indigent burial expenses. Democrats say the chargebacks are hidden tax increases.

The county’s contribution to Monroe Community College is increasing by $500,000 this year. Several years ago, the county implemented chargebacks to fund its MCC contribution.

During Tuesday’s meeting, legislators will also vote on a package of borrowing resolutions to fund projects and purchases in 2013. Included is a resolution to bond for expenses related to MCC’s downtown campus. The college’s board wants to buy several Kodak buildings on State Street and relocate the campus there. But Mayor Tom Richards wants the campus to stay in the Sibley building on East Main Street, and Lej Democrats seemed to be backing the mayor.

Last week, however, Richards threw his support behind the bond because the resolution does not mention a specific site: Kodak or the Sibley building.

I asked several Democratic legislators if, in light of Richards’ support, they’d now support the bond. They either said that they would, or are likely to. But none were in a position to speak for the full Democratic caucus, they said. Jeremy Moule

Got questions? Here's your chance to interrogate RCSD Superintendent Bolgen Vargas. - FILE PHOTO
  • Got questions? Here's your chance to interrogate RCSD Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.

There will be two opportunities this week for public comment on Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas’s draft proposal to modernize city schools.

The first will be a Coffee and Conversation with Vargas at 7 a.m. on Thursday, December 13. The second opportunity will be during the Rochester school board’s monthly business meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 13. (The meeting is a week early because of the holidays). No vote will take place.

Both meetings are at the district’s central office, 131 West Broad Street. Tim Louis Macaluso

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Friday, December 7, 2012

O'Brien says he'll conference with Dems

Posted By on Fri, Dec 7, 2012 at 3:24 PM

Soon-to-be State Senator Ted O'Brien says he'll conference with Democrats, not the Independent Democratic Conference when he heads to Albany in January.

"I feel an obligation to conference with the Democrats when I'm elected as a Democrat," O'Brien said during a phone interview this afternoon.

He said he's had collegial conversations with IDC members Jeff Klein and Dave Valesky, and that he expects he'll be able to work with Governor Andrew Cuomo, IDC members, and his own conference to advance issues, including a minimum wage increase. He said he's willing to work with anyone who'll help him advocate for Monroe and Ontario Counties.

For the time being, O'Brien is still serving in the County Legislature. He said he doesn't know exactly when he'll step down from that position, only that it'll happen by December 31.

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The neighborhood school dilemma

Posted By on Fri, Dec 7, 2012 at 9:56 AM

The trouble with neighborhood schools is that there many definitions and ideas of what a neighborhood school should be. That was evident last night at a public hearing on the second phase of schools modernization in the Rochester school district.

Much of the evening was dominated by residents, parents, students, and teachers who either had comments or questions. And a couple of things should have become clear to the board: the people want more justification for the superintendent’s proposal to close five city schools, and they want the district to return to a neighborhood schools placement model.

Many parents seemed unimpressed with the schools selected for upgrades and more concerned with how the plan would impact their neighborhoods. About 25 parents and residents — many of them from the 19th Ward neighborhood in the southwest section of the city — held signs that read “Don’t Close School 30” and “Keep Our Small Neighborhood Schools.”

“Some of those schools are the lifeline to the neighborhood,” one parent said. “In some neighborhoods, drugs aren’t sold because of the proximity to the school. You take schools out of those neighborhoods, and you open it up to all of that.”

Parents also rejected large campuses housing one or more schools — calling them "big-box schools." Smaller schools with smaller classrooms are the only way to improve achievement, some parents said. Others cited research suggesting that consolidation of small schools into a larger building doesn’t achieve significant financial savings.

Vargas supports the concept of neighborhood schools, he said in a recent interview. But parents sometimes say they want neighborhood schools, he said, but then send their children someplace else.

And Mayor Tom Richards said in a recent interview that he envisions more schools that serve as community centers like School 33 and the Ryan Center.

The district currently uses a placement model based on choice, but how well it works depends on who you talk to.

At least some of Vargas’s schools modernization plan is being driven by declining enrollment and excess space; the district’s student population has dipped below 30,000 for the first time in year. Vargas attributes the decline mostly to the increase in the number of charter schools.

“If the trend continues where two new charter schools open every year, realize those students come from the district,” he said.

And though some look like little neighborhood schools, he said, they’re not.

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County not increasing size of indigent burial payments

Posted By on Fri, Dec 7, 2012 at 9:34 AM

The county is changing the way it covers the cost of providing indigent burial assistance, but it isn't increasing the amount it gives to applicants.

During a County Legislature committee meeting last night, Scott Adair, the county's chief financial officer, said that officials are budgeting $550,000 to $750,000 in indigent burial assistance payments for 2013. In previous years, the assistance was funded through the basic property tax levy. In 2013, however, the county plans to charge the expense back to communities. But the county is not increasing the $1,250 maximum in assistance payments, Adair said.

Anti-poverty advocates have called on the county to increase the size of the payments. They say that the maximum isn't enough pay for a proper burial and that it forces families into cremating the deceased's remains.

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