Thursday, February 28, 2013

If MCC flops, will city taxpayers be on the hook?

Posted By on Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 1:02 PM

The lessons of Frontier Field and the soccer stadium have yet to be learned, apparently, says Rochester Mayor Tom Richards. The backers of both projects swore that they could survive on their own steam, only to need taxpayers to bail them out.

That history is causing Richards to look at MCC’s planned move to Kodak’s State Street campus with a jaundiced eye. MCC plans to buy more than twice the space it presently needs, and to take over Kodak’s power system. Richards asks: What happens if MCC one day realizes it bit off more than it can chew?

Tom Richards

Richards says he worries that taxpayers, particularly city taxpayers, will be on the hook. City taxpayers pay more for MCC through the county’s chargeback system, and they would be hardest hit if MCC ends up needing a bailout, he says. They are also the taxpayers who can least afford it, Richards says.

“We fall in love with a project, we have the money to buy it or build it, [but] we can’t afford to operate it,” he says. “Kodak’s giving the thing away. The issue has never been could you buy the building for less.”

“The County Legislature is making these decisions, but all they plan on doing is passing it through,” Richards says. “They’re not over there voting to raise taxes so we can do this, so that takes a lot of pressure off the decision.”

The Legislature voted to allow MCC to buy the Kodak site for $3 million. All Republicans voted in favor, and all Democrats against.

MCC officials say operating expenses will be less at Kodak than at the Sibley building — MCC’s current home. But Richards says there are too many uncertainties: the unused space, the power system, and Kodak’s bankruptcy to make that guarantee.

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Cuomo vs. the IDA's

Posted By on Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 11:23 AM

Virtually every industrial development agency in New York has come out against Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposal to restrict their ability to offer state sales tax exemptions to businesses. The Monroe County Industrial Development Agency is part of the opposition.

"We've been doing it since 1969 and it's been effective," says COMIDA executive director Judy Seil.

"It" is providing sales tax breaks to a variety of projects. COMIDA has awarded state sales tax exemptions, along with county sales tax exemptions and other tax incentives, to projects including the new ESL headquarters in the city, the Culver Road Armory mixed use development, and Harris Corporation's Henrietta facilities. The University of Rochester-initiated College Town project is one of the more recent recipients of sales tax benefits.

The governor's plan would change who can receive the benefits, and none of the projects mentioned above would have been eligible under the new arrangement, Seil says. In 2011, COMIDA exempted approximately $3.4 million from state sales tax.

Cuomo's proposed 2013 to 2014 budget says that IDA's currently provide the exemptions without input from the state or regional economic development councils. He says he wants to limit the industries that can receive the exemptions to scientific research and development, software development, agriculture, back office operations, distribution centers, financial services, data centers, and manufacturing. Housing and retail — which IDA critics say shouldn't receive exemptions in the first place — would not be eligible.

Cuomo also wants the regional economic development councils to approve the state sales tax exemptions.

Seil has one other criticism of the governor's plan. Any companies that receive the exemptions would have to pay the sales tax upfront and then seek reimbursement, but Seil says many companies use the savings from the tax breaks as cash-flow tools.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

City gets land bank approval

Posted By on Wed, Feb 27, 2013 at 2:02 PM

The City of Rochester has received state approval to form a land bank.

Earlier this month, city officials submitted an application to Empire State Development, seeking to form the nonprofit Rochester Land Bank Corporation. The land bank will acquire vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties in the city and then turn them over to the Greater Rochester Housing Partnership's HOME Rochester Program. HOME Rochester will rehab the houses and sell them to first-time homebuyers.

A press release from the city says that the land bank corporation could begin acquiring properties as soon as this summer. For the first two years it operates, it'll take and transfer title to 25 properties.

City officials say a land bank is a helpful tool that will put properties back on the tax rolls and improve neighborhood property values.

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NYS looking to alternatives to the GED

Posted By on Wed, Feb 27, 2013 at 12:05 PM

There may be a rival exam to the GED in New York State in 2014. GED Testing Service’s plan to computerize the GED exam and rising costs are among several issues driving the state and more than 30 others to find alternative exams.

Currently, New York pays the testing company $60 for each exam because the state doesn’t permit charging residents to take the GED. And New York would rather maintain the pencil and paper exam format because computerized testing limits access, according to state officials.

The state’s 260 testing sites are not equipped to provide the more than 50,000 tests annually. And state officials are concerned about the computer-literacy of test takers.

New York is also transitioning to a more rigorous common core standard, and the state’s passing rate could be stressed by the change. State education officials want to move to computerized tests that include the common core gradually.

New York’s GED passing rate was the third lowest in the country in 2011. The nation’s average is about 72 percent.

Supreme Court case could deal another blow to campaign finance law

Posted By on Wed, Feb 27, 2013 at 12:02 PM

The Supreme Court is set to take up a case that could wipe out federal campaign contribution limits. And if that happens, the public is supposed to pity Washington lobbyists, apparently.

An article published yesterday in The Hill, a news site devoted to all things Congress, bears the headline "Lobbyists fear shakedown if Supreme Court lifts campaign contributions cap." Lobbyists, who get paid for trying to influence members of Congress, also get hit up for campaign contributions a lot, reports The Hill. And they fear that, without limits to what they or their clients can give, politicians would be even more aggressive about soliciting contributions, The Hill says.

Republican and Democratic donors both tell The Hill that the limits give them an excuse to deny at least some fund-raising requests. But seriously, there should be restrictions on what people lobbying Congress can contribute toward elections; money and politics have a long history and much of it isn't pretty.

The Supreme Court case in question, McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission, doesn't involve limits on contributions to individual candidates. Instead, the the case questions the constitutional validity of aggregate limits for each two-year Congressional election cycle; PBS's Frontline explains here. Basically, the court could strike down limits on the amount of money a person or entity can give to multiple candidates or committees in a two-year election period.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Shale gas drilling moratorium proposed in Assembly

Posted By on Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 4:41 PM

Tomorrow could have been fracking decision day in New York, had the state Department of Environmental Conservation not missed a necessary deadline. Instead, the state's review of fracking continues.

Today, however, a group of Assembly members introduced new legislation that, if passed, would implement a moratorium on drilling in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations. The moratorium would last through May 15, 2014, and is intended to "afford the state and its residents the opportunity to continue the review and analysis of any potential effects on water and air quality, environmental safety, and public health," says the text of the legislation.

No matching bill has been introduced in the State Senate, which needs to happen for the moratorium to become law.

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NAEP scores not bad, not good

Posted By on Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 9:58 AM

Student achievement in reading, math, and science in the nation’s five mega-states matches or falls slightly below the national average, according to a report released last week by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The organization analyzed test scores of children in grades 4 and 8 from 1990 to 2011.

NAEP examined educational progress over the last 20 years in California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois. The mega-states, as NAEP calls them, contain more than 40 percent of the country’s public elementary and high school students. The five states also have eight of the country’s largest urban school districts.

The report’s findings are interesting in several ways. While it’s true that students in the mega states generally do not perform better than the nation as a while, some of the states have made major gains during the last 20 years.

Most of the states had gains in one area and not in another. New York, for example, scored higher in grade 4 reading than the national average, but lower in grade 4 mathematics and grade 8 mathematics and science. California showed the least progress, scoring lower than the national average in reading, math, and science.

And some states are making significant progress closing the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white peers.

California’s black students increased their reading scores by 28 percent, a larger increase than black students nationally. And New York’s Hispanic 4th-grade students increased their scores in all three subjects more than Hispanic students did nationally.

But perhaps the most important finding from the report was the nation’s rapidly changing student demographics. All five states saw major shifts in population, with Hispanic and Latino students on track to overtake white students as the majority. And white students no longer make up the majority of 8th graders in three of the mega-states.

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Lej committee blocks gun proposal

Posted By on Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 8:53 AM

A Democratic proposal to strengthen a gun ban in county buildings was voted down by a County Legislature committee last night. The vote was 3 to 2 along party lines — Republicans opposed, Democrats in favor.

Members of the public are not allowed to bring guns into buildings owned or leased by Monroe County. But there's an exception: anyone with a permit to carry a concealed gun is allowed to bring the gun into county buildings. (Law enforcement officials are excluded from the ban.)

The Democrats' legislation would have eliminated the concealed carry permit exception.

A press release from the Democrats says that they can still call for a vote on the bill during the March 12 meeting of the full Legislature. It is unclear if they actually will.

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Monday, February 25, 2013

WEEK AHEAD: Proposed gun ban, RCSD budget hearing, downtown safety meeting

Posted By on Mon, Feb 25, 2013 at 9:54 AM

A County Legislature committee will vote tonight on a Democratic proposal to ban guns from county buildings.

The measure will be considered by the Agenda/Charter Committee, which meets at 6 p.m. today at the County Office Building, 39 West Main Street.

Under current county policy, members of the public cannot bring guns into buildings owned or leased by Monroe County. But there is an exemption for people who have a permit to carry a concealed gun.

County employees cannot bring weapons into county buildings, even if they have concealed-carry permits. (Law enforcement officials are exempt from the current prohibition and would also be exempt under the proposed new law.)

The committee must pass the legislation in order for the full Legislature to consider it. Jeremy Moule

The Rochester school district will hold a public hearing on its 2013 to 2014 proposed budget at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, February 26.

Superintendent Bolgen Vargas presented a $726 million budget late last year. The proposal has a $50 million gap, though Vargas says he expects to close about $30 million of it through the governor’s recent adjustments to the state pension system.

The meeting will be held at Montessori Academy in Dr. Freddie Thomas High School, 625 Scio Street. Tim Louis Macaluso

Rochester Mayor Tom Richards and Police Chief James Sheppard will hold a meeting from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, February 28, to discuss downtown safety and other issues. The meeting is in the Riverview Ballroom at the Radisson Rochester Riverside Hotel, 120 East Main Street. Christine Carrie Fien

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Irondequoit Tops getting tax breaks, too

Posted By on Fri, Feb 22, 2013 at 8:35 AM

Last month, I wrote about a Henrietta Tops store that received tax breaks to move from one plaza on Jefferson Road to another.

Now a similar scenario is happening in Irondequoit. Earlier this week, the Monroe County Industrial Development Agency approved tax breaks for the market at 1455 East Ridge Road to move to the former Kmart plaza. Morgan Depot Plaza LLC plans to demolish part of the Kmart plaza and then build a 52,000-square-foot grocery store and install some gas pumps.

Tops, under its corporate business model, requires its stores to have gas pumps. The Henrietta Tops is moving because gas pumps aren't allowed at its current location. A COMIDA press release says the East Ridge Road store has the same problem.

Morgan Depot Plaza will receive sales and mortgage tax exemptions on $10.78 million worth of construction and renovations, says a COMIDA press release. Tops will receive sales tax exemptions on $2 million worth of renovations and equipment purchases, says the press release. The project will retain the equivalent of 79 full-time jobs and is projected to create the equivalent of 18 full-time jobs over the next three years.

Grocery stores are essentially retail operations, so they locate based on market potential, and IDA critics tend to look unfavorably on tax breaks for the stores for that reason. The incentives, they say, are supposed to be used to attract and retain businesses that could locate anywhere.

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