The BenCen Blog

Informing Public Discourse in the Hudson Valley and Across the State

Category: Hudson Valley Region (page 1 of 2)

PCBs, Lyme Disease and Honeybees

The world’s not a happy place these days but there is a temptation to think that at least some of what’s happening nationally — e.g. who gets what big job in Washington — won’t much impact your daily life. Wrong, for sure, when it comes to the air you breathe and the water you drink.

Look no further than Newburgh, New York last month.

In 2016 it was discovered that Washington Lake, a major source of water for City of Newburgh residents, was contaminated with PFOAs from nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base. These chemicals, used as fire retardants, have been linked to the proliferation of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol and ulcerative colitis, among other diseases. Then just a few weeks ago, the City was again threatened by the use of a chemical foam used at the airport.

Exactly two days after the latest news of contamination, The New York Times reported that the EPA wants to downplay the risk of this class of chemical in drinking water under pressure from the Defense Department. Prior to the EPA’s revision, the agency had suggested those responsible for proliferation would need to take immediate action. But proposed revisions would let the agency drag its feet on cleanup or avoid remediation.

These events and others like them across the state and country make the Benjamin Center’s latest discussion brief, Hudson River PCBs: What the GE Clean-Up Brings to Life, by Simon Litten, more than a powerful history lesson.

Litten shows that the extraordinarily costly, time-consuming, and ultimately equivocal cleanup of PCBs from the Hudson River is at least in part the result of even well-meaning researchers fumbling for decades about how to study the impact of toxins already released into the environment. Litten says “prevention would be far better, and far cheaper than cleanup.” Put differently, the broadly applicable general lesson is that pretending a problem doesn’t exist Continue reading

How Low Can you Go?! Scoring “well below proficient” on New York State Tests

by Fred Smith, retired administrative analyst with the New York City public school system, with Robin Jacobowitz, Director of Education Projects at the Benjamin Center.
Each year, the New York State Education Department releases a statement summarizing how well students performed on exams in English Language Arts (ELA) and math. The April 2018 tests were given to nearly one million students statewide. In September, SED announced that 45.2 percent of students were proficient on the ELA tests, an increase of 5.4 percent over last year.

But that still leaves 54.8 percent who were not—over half of the 966,000 students who took the ELA. Who are these kids, the majority who do not meet the standard of proficiency? And what do their scores reveal about the test?

Our recently reported research, New York State’s School Tests are an Object Lesson in Failure, has focused on students’ floundering over a significant part of the ELA—the written, or constructed response questions. We were particularly interested in the students who received zeroes on that set of questions, indicating complete befuddlement when they tried to provide intelligible answers.

In this post, we look at the big picture, children’s overall performance on the ELA from 2012 to 2018, and further investigate the kids that the New York State Testing Program is leaving behind. They are the ones who, in SED’s terms, do not even meet basic proficiency standards on the tests.

As in our previous studies, we focus on children in grades 3 and 4, the youngest test takers. Further, it is important to note that there have been significant changes to the test itself in recent years—a new test publisher, fewer questions, and unlimited time to complete the exams—that thwart comparison and confound interpretation of the results from year to year, particularly the latter years. Continue reading

When Politicians are Appointed, Rather than Elected, We the People Don’t Get to Choose

Filling vacancies when a politician steps down is a hot topic today. Witness the mess in Virginia. Closer to home in Ulster County, we likewise are facing a controversy, albeit of a smaller scale. Ulster County Executive Michael Hein recently announced that he will shortly resign to become the commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance. This will create a vacancy in the county’s top elected executive position for the first time since we adopted our charter in 2006. So we find ourselves learning now about how we must fill the vacancy. And some of us are not happy.

Ulster County Democratic Committee Chairman Frank Cardinale and his Republican counterpart, Roger Rascoe, have asked that governor Andrew Cuomo intervene in the process. More on that, shortly.

The bigger picture is that we miss the significance of this kind of issue because our governmental system is so decentralized. There are more than 500,000 elected offices in the United States.  After looking at some demographics and mortality tables, I reached a rough estimate that about 3,000 incumbents will die in office this year. And that does not count those who will resign, or get sick and can’t work, or move away, or are removed for cause. Nor does it consider offices that must be filled because no one runs for them. In total, that’s likely several thousand more. So we need to think hard about what is at stake.

When I worked on the question of filling vacancies in elective office for the New York City Charter Commission in the 1980s, I learned of the mix governmental and political considerations embedded in this process: continuity in governance; legitimacy of representative government; and political career advancement. Unfortunately, too often the latter priority overwhelmed the other two more noble goals, and careers in “elected” office were regularly launched and advanced by appointment. Continue reading

The Benjamin Center Update

An ongoing look at our research, events, and news coverage by and about our scholarship.

Calendar

November 6th
The Benjamin Center’s associate director, K.T. Tobin, will be a guest of Radio Kingston talking about Sam Sinyangwe’s studies of police violence against African American communities. This will be ahead of Sinyangwe’s visit to the SUNY New Paltz campus (see next listing). Tobin will be on air at 4:30 PM and you can stream the station live on your computer or phone. 

November 8th
Sam Sinyangwe will be a guest of the Benjamin Center for an event at SUNY New Paltz at the Lecture Center at 6 PM. Sinyangwe is a data scientist who works with communities of color to fight systemic racism through cutting-edge policies and strategies. He connected with fellow activists DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie and Brittany Packnett following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and together they founded Mapping Police Violence, a data-driven effort to quantify the impact of police violence in communities. Sinyangwe is also a co-founder of Campaign Zero, a platform for advancing reform proposals to end police violence. Along with writer Clint Smith, he also hosts “Pod Save the People,” one of the most popular news and politics podcasts in the U.S. This event is free and open to the public; click for more information.

November 14
After his series about the City of Poughkeepsie’s failure to follow its own plans for a successful economic, social, and business environment, and its unfair tax lien system that puts homeowners at risk of losing equity in properties seized by the city, the Benjamin Center’s senior research associate, Joshua Simons, will be part of a panel discussing a land banking system. The event, Understanding Poughkeepsie’s Tax Lien System and Opportunities for Land Banking, will include guests, Tarik Abdelazim, Associate Director of National Technical Assistance, Center for Community Progress, Jennifer Holmes, Assistant Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Madeline Fletcher, Executive Director, Newburgh Community Land Bank. It will be held at the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center, 317 Main St., Poughkeepsie, from 5:45 to 8:00 PM; click for more information.

BenCen in the News

City & State: Why Cuomo never had to debate Molinaro
Bloomberg: Molinaro has no Chance
White Plains Daily Voice: Westchester to use Benjamin Center Guidelines to save County Tax Dollars
The New York Post: New York School Testing’s Epic Failure
Gotham Gazette: The Attorney General’s Real Job
Wild Earth: Hopeful Signs for Kids Learning from Structured Outdoor Play

What You are Voting on in Tomorrow’s School Budget & Board Elections

Tomorrow, people across New York State will head to the polls. On the ballot? The election of school board members to govern local public school districts. And – very importantly – there will also be the chance to vote “yes” or “no” on the only budget directly put before the electorate, the one to support K12 public schools.

Think about this as you’re “pulling that lever”: the local share of school budgets, the part paid for by your property taxes, has been increasing over time because the state has been paying proportionally less towards the general fund, effectively pushing off a greater portion of the tab to you and your property tax paying neighbors.

Overall, too, we’re still under-funding our schools, with an impact that falls more heavily on schools in poorer districts where there are fewer local resources. Here is the trend over time in local, state, and federal funding, as a percentage of total revenue, for our Ulster County school districts:

Continue reading

The Tangled Web of Administering Veterans’ Benefits in New York 

In 2014 the State of New York sent 6,347 soldiers into the U.S. military, widely considered the best trained, best organized armed force on the planet. 

Unfortunately a recent study by the Benjamin Center’s Dr. Gerald Benjamin and Timothy Toomey, both veterans themselves, found that New York state’s own organization serving our veterans once they return from service is disorganized and dysfunctional. And among the findings of the recent discussion brief, are that although service members are required to receive lengthy separation counseling, where they also learn of multiple support systems that include state and federal networks ranging from health care to education, employment, and financial and legal benefits, all too frequently these new veterans get fire-hosed with information. 

As one analyst noted:

… [M]embers of today’s military have many resources at their fingertips when they separate, but it’s often incredibly overwhelming. Transitioning service members are trying to change careers, and may be moving themselves and families across the country, all while doing their day jobs up until terminal leave. Many service members may still be trying to figure out exactly what they want to do.

It’s not just that veterans may not hear of benefits they’re qualified for, either. Toomey and Benjamin’s research shows that veterans may be victims of fraud as a result of getting conflicting information, or they may over-pay when they’re entitled to benefits. For instance, in New York state law requires that localities offer veterans partial exemption from property taxes; there are specially focused programs for veterans with service-related disabilities, and for those who have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system.

The problem goes beyond information overload, however. Too frequently New York’s State Division of Veteran Affairs overlaps county entities, and the agencies are either at cross purposes or frequently not in communication with each other, or literally feuding over turf instead of working in unison. Rarely are these layers of bureaucracy in touch with each other, working from the same databases, or even aware that they’re offering similar services to the same constituent base.

A further problem is that there’s a fundamental lack of accountability Continue reading

The End of Cheap Water

Aging Infrastructure is Driving Up Costs in the Hudson Valley

New York State has some of the oldest water and sewer networks in the country. But unlike roads and bridges, where we see the direct effects of what that means (like an axle-smashing pothole that causes accidents and lawsuits), leaking pipes are underground. We know that sometimes the water coming out of our faucets can be rusty or brown, that water main breaks can unexpectedly disrupt our commutes or errands, and that our water bills may have slowly increased through the years. But despite these impacts on our daily lives, we rarely recognize the connection to our aging infrastructure.

Or, as is the case in Flint, Michigan, and Newburgh, New York, we only know there’s a dire problem after the fact, when the water turns out to be poisonous.

Continue reading

What We Lost When We Vetoed a Constitutional Convention

 

Calling a state constitutional convention is New York’s long established method for fundamental, systematic governmental reform. Yet in a period of pandemic corruption and enormous anger at government, with demands for change from all across the political spectrum, New Yorkers rejected the convention option by a margin of 5-1 this past November. In essence, if 2016 was a year of great demand for change, the regret set in quickly afterward, and 2017 became a year, at least in New York, of holding fast to a system that people perceived to be less frightening than yet more change.

Peter Galie and Gerald Benjamin, co-authors with Christopher Bopst of New York’s Broken Constitution, and strong convention advocates, sat down a few weeks after the election for a post mortem. The reasons for the crushing defeat of the convention question, they thought, were both structural and political. Most voters didn’t even know there is a state constitution; they don’t distinguish between it and the revered national document, which most of them certainly don’t want to be touched in an era in which basic rights are threatened. New York has no initiative process; referenda are limited in use and unfamiliar to many as a way of making decisions. The wording of the convention question, mandated in the constitution for use every twenty years, requires that everything be on the table if a convention is called.

This scares those who have constitutionally guaranteed benefits or favored policies that they don’t want to risk.

Continue reading

Partisan Gerrymandering in New York

On Monday, October 3rd, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a potentially landmark case concerning partisan gerrymandering in redistricting the Wisconsin state legislature. Partisan gerrymandering, the drawing of legislative district lines to favor one political party over another, has long been commonplace for legislature at all levels of government. The Supreme Court has previously said the practice might be unconstitutional, but has never overturned a districting plan on this basis.

In New York State the redistricting process is done by LATFOR (The Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment). It is no secret that there is an agreement between the Republican-led State Senate and the Democratic-led Assembly that each house majority does their own redistricting and signs off on the other. This bipartisan gerrymandering has been the practice for a long time; the outcome in Gill v Whitford is therefore very important for New York.

Continue reading

Elected Officials and Social Media Use: Should There be Rules?

Social Media can make government better, more accessible, more transparent, more accountable, all good things. But when elected officials decide that government social media accounts are theirs to use as they please, we may be in very different territory. Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum reminded us of that this week.

In 2015 the Benjamin Center studied how local governments in the Mid-Hudson region use their websites and social media. We found that nearly 97 percent of the towns, villages, and cities of the region had some digital presence. At the time of the study 60 percent of local governments had a Facebook presence, but barely one fifth were on Twitter. (This was in the sleepy pre-Trump era of Twitter.) In general, we found that the more open governments are with constituents, the more they engender trust.

Even though our study was conducted barely two years ago, it came against a very different societal backdrop. President Obama was behind the push for government at all levels to communicate electronically with the goal of increasing trust and accountability. These days cities like Kingston and Poughkeepsie maintain fairly active Twitter accounts and post frequently. This seems appropriate: In our fast-paced era, when even Facebook seems too onerous to peruse, governments that can blast quick info to constituents (especially missives that can be read on a phone) are reaching people quickly and simply.

But what happens to the trust that openness engenders when the public official steps out of his or her governance role, and uses official social media platforms to advance personal views, or agendas?

Once Donald Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, sheriffs around the country have felt emboldened to use social media to express their own views, sometimes using government platforms as their bullhorn. The latest but hardly the most inflammatory missive came this past weekend when Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum used both Facebook and Twitter to tell citizens to boycott the NFL because, he argued, players taking a knee during the national anthem were being unpatriotic.

This isn’t nearly as disturbing as sheriffs in Oklahoma trying to thwart criminal justice reform through use of official social media communications.  Continue reading

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