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News Briefs 5.14.03 

Our expert couldn't tell the difference

Plenty of Rochester's indigenous exports have put the Flower City on the big map. Bursting with Rochester pride, I love to see hometown products hit the market. I've got a few ideas of my own, too. How about Zweigle's White Hot --- the other whitening toothpaste? Or Genesee Cream Ale Rinse? Or a new environmentally safe cologne, Ektachrome, By Kodak? In all seriousness though, somebody is marketing a scent from the region --- "Highland Lilac Of Rochester."

            "Highland Lilac" perfume was first developed in 1967 by horticulturalist Dan Morgan out of seven blends of lilacs. With months of research here and the help of production talent at International Flavors and Fragrances, the sweet scent of lilacs hit the market.

            "It was a big hit," says Morgan, now a resort developer in Florida. "It was used in the Sister Cities Program, and picked up by all the department stores."

            Selling out to a big cosmetic company a few years later proved fatal.

            "They said they could take it into Europe and Japan," says Morgan. The company ultimately went out of business with the Highland Lilac perfume left to wither on the vine. Until...

            It came back after a 30-year hiatus. And boy does it smell sweet. My sister loves it. The ladies in my office were mixed between loving it and comparing it to an air freshener. It kinda reminds me of soap. Regardless, It smells just like lilacs, and could serve as nostalgia for those who were foolish enough to leave our fair city.

--- Frank De Blase

No taxes, no office

If Governor Pataki approves spending the $1.5 million that Democratic Assemblyman David Gantt included in the legislature's transportation budget, a permanent Department of Motor Vehicles office will likely reopen in downtown Rochester. Considerably less likely, however, is the prospect of that office reopening in its former digs: the Sibley Building on East Main Street.

            It's not because Sibley's owners don't want it there. Quite the contrary. As detailed in this week's cover story (see "Big debt downtown," page 10), the building's owners, Rochwil Associates, are desperate for tenants.

            That's the problem. With so much of the building vacant, Rochwil doesn't have the money to pay its property taxes. And according to a Rochwil representative, the state will not renew a lease for a state office in a building that owes back taxes. Rochwil owes $122,033 in taxes and late fees. It's also nearly $4 million in arrears on payments it's scheduled to make as a condition of its participation in the county's PILOT (Payments In Lieu Of Taxes) program. (That figure also includes late fees.)

            The state closed its downtown DMV office at Sibley on April 1, apparently in response to its own budget problems. Its lease at Sibley would have expired in October. Assemblyman Gantt's bill does not specify where restored DMV services would be located, just that they would take place "at a fixed location within the City of Rochester."

            Gantt spokesperson Bob Cook says he's also heard that the state has a prohibition against renewing leases in tax delinquent properties, but says it's unclear whether the state would enforce it in this case. He also raised the possibility that the state could reopen the office at Sibley until the lease expires this fall.

            The spokeswoman for the state's Office of General Services says the state does have such a policy in place, but that a lease could be renewed in a delinquent building if its owners have an arrangement to eventually pay the back taxes. As also mentioned in this week's cover story, the city and Rochwil will likely continue negotiations over taxes and other issues in the near future.

Judging George

Monroe County Executive Jack Doyle weighed in on the state budget stand-off earlier this month, declaring himself fully behind Governor Pataki's budget proposal. "Unfortunately, the State Legislature's spending plan will cost Monroe County and its hard working families dearly," Doyle was quoted as saying in a May 6 press release from the governor's office. Doyle complained that the state lej had failed to provide Medicaid relief to counties like ours, saying this "will be a crushing blow to local budgets that are already beginning to buckle."

            Doyle said Pataki's plan "included nearly $12 million in added savings for Monroe County alone." Of course, it also would have saved the state over $31 million in funding to the Rochester City School District alone. As a result, the city schools could save on the cost of providing pre-kindergarten and kindergarten to children; offering sports, music, gym, and art; and paying librarians and hundreds of teachers. (That's based on a plan district Superintendent Manny Rivera outlined should the state funding not be restored.)

            The state lej's plan would restore that money to Rochester and provide many millions more to other school districts in the county, among other restorations. The proposed restorations are intended to ease property tax increases many Monroe County communities would likely enact to fund education in their school districts. It would provide the funding through a state sales tax increase and a temporary increase in the income tax rate wealthy couples and individuals pay. Pataki has pledged to veto most elements of that plan.

            Given the county executive's prominent role as an advocate for the county in Albany, voters might be curious what this year's two declared candidates for the seat think of the competing state budget plans.

            The Democratic contender, Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, refuses to endorse either plan. "The irony is that there's merit in both sides," he says, but those involved in the debate have "missed the big picture."

            "Certainly, the governor's budget cut out some very important services," Johnson says. "But there needs to be a careful examination about what needed to be restored." Rather than accept the argument that Pataki's cuts would automatically lead to property tax increases, Johnson suggests that Pataki's plan could be beneficial, in that it "maybe would have forced localities to be a little more thorough in [their] own budgets, if this is the real bottom line."

            "Neither side, in my opinion, settled back and really engaged in the kind of analysis that would lead to reform," Johnson says. He says he's concerned about the high overall tax rate in New York, and says "I wish there had been some effort to sit down and deal with the long-term implications" of raising taxes.

            Because of the nature of state politics in New York, Johnson says legislators usually focus on short-term goals and act in their individual district's interest --- an approach that ignores "the big picture." They can also be blind to the legislation right before their eyes.

            Johnson says he recently heard from a member of our local legislative delegation to Albany, who called "to say, very excitedly, that something had been restored to the budget." (Johnson declined to specify what or who called.) "I said, 'Well, I'm just curious. Given that the state's got a $12 billion deficit, where's the money going to come from to pay for it?'

            "The answer was, 'I don't know.'"

            Johnson's Republican challenger, County Clerk Maggie Brooks, did not respond to several requests asking her opinion of the matter.

Right to know gets 'No!'

As lawns all over Rochester sprout new growth (and little warning flags), the Monroe County Legislature has effectively dug a pit for a mild environmental measure.

            Some background: In 2000, Albany enacted a "Pesticide Neighbor Notification Law" that requires commercial pesticide applicators to give 48-hour notice to neighbors of properties scheduled for spraying. But the law applies only in counties that pass a complementary local ordinance ("opt-in"). Six counties --- Westchester, Suffolk, Nassau, Albany, Tompkins, and Rockland --- have opted in. But Monroe County powers-that-be have not acted, despite pleas from local groups like Rochesterians Against the Misuse of Pesticides and legislators like Democrats Lynda Garner Goldstein and Stephanie Aldersley.

            Goldstein took an opt-in proposal to the Lej in early January. The Environment and Public Works Committee sent it to the administration "for review and comment" --- meaning that, as lawn applicators were greasing up for the coming season, the measure was put in the can. Then last week the committee looked at it again, in light of an advisory memo from county health director Andrew Doniger. In short order, committee chair Pieter Smeenk "filed" the Goldstein proposal, which puts it out of play and prevents re-introduction any time soon. (Goldstein says it can't resurface until January 2006, unless the Lej majority decides otherwise.)

            At a May 12 news conference, Goldstein, Brighton Supervisor Sandy Frankel, and representatives of local environmental groups were not amused by all this. "I'm very disturbed by the way it was handled," said Goldstein. "This is an issue that has had a great deal of community interest." Said Sierra Club activist Frank Regan: "Monroe County is keeping the public out of the discussion... It seems that pesticide spray-drift around children is an 'unmentionable.'" Lila Bluestone, a member of the Breast Cancer Action Coalition, said the county should use the "precautionary principle" --- that is, act to reduce exposures now, rather than wait for absolute proof that a particular exposure will cause an individual illness.

            Legislator Smeenk says he gave the proposal its due. The notification issue first came up in December 2000, he says. And Goldstein's recent referral, he says, had ample time before the public. "There have been a lot of speakers on the subject, and a lot of correspondence pro and con in the last four months." Moreover, he says, "they had the opportunity to challenge the ruling [to 'file'], but they didn't have the votes."

            On the issue itself, Smeenk says he was swayed by three considerations. First, he views the state law as just another unaffordable unfunded mandate. Second, he thinks the notification requirement would hurt small businesspeople. And third, Doniger's memo convinced him there's no crying need for notification.

            The memo shows Doniger's an agnostic on the issue: "Someday it may be established that there is a link between application of pesticides on lawns and the health of the neighbors," he writes, conceding that "high levels of exposure" to some pesticides is harmful.

            He does acknowledge that if low-level exposures are found to be bad, a Neighbor Notification law "could have a beneficial effect on human health." But he soon gets bogged down in a discussion of costs and the health department budget --- an estimated $50,000 to $100,000 per year for two to three years to run an enforcement program. (Some local activists say the estimate is inflated.)

            Doniger sees "pros and cons" here: "Purely from the perspective of human health, there may be some potential benefits to adopting the law. However, these benefits are theoretical and not fully proven." He also sees "potential disadvantages." For example, he fears money could be diverted from other health concerns like "childhood lead poisoning, food-borne illness, and smallpox preparation."

            That's no idle worry these budget-cutting days. But the memo is imbued with "cost-benefit" philosophy. Call it the anti-precautionary principle.

Warm welcome

Lots of studies point to the disastrous consequences of climate change on oceans and glaciers, continental climates, and other things global. But now the Boston-based Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ecological Society of America have brought the issue down to our backyards.

            The two groups recently issued a report, Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region, which looks at problems and offers regional solutions state-by-state. The report predicts "New York's climate will grow considerably warmer and probably drier during this century." Summer temperatures around here could rise seven to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, "roughly the same as the warming since the last ice age." There also could be changes in precipitation patterns (with drier soils and more droughts), more frequent "extreme events," and declines in Great Lakes ice cover.

            "Extreme heat days" and increases in ground-level ozone could seriously hurt agriculture and outdoor-oriented tourism. (The report emphasizes that "tourism in Upstate New York is almost exclusively outdoor-oriented," with the Niagara region and the Great Lakes shoreline as top attractions.) And human health could suffer as air quality gets worse and infectious diseases spread more easily.

            US Representative Louise Slaughter issued a statement about the report, calling attention to its "frightening predictions for New York's ecological future," and urging passage of "regulations to decrease harmful pollution that causes climate change." The report, too, has suggestions in this vein: The state and region, it says, should reduce their dependence on coal-fired electric generating plants by adopting renewables like wind-power; limiting urban sprawl; and discouraging gas-guzzlers and promiscuous road-building. (By the way, we're one of the most notorious areas in the country for sprawl and the concomitant destruction of prime farmland.)


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