Northern New York Newspapers
Watertown
Ogdensburg
Massena-Potsdam
Lowville
Carthage
Malone
NNY Business
NNY Living
NNY Ads
Wed., Jan. 28
ADVERTISE SUBSCRIBE
Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
In print daily. Online always.
Perry White
Perry White
City Editor
About PerrySend e-mail
ARCHIVE
Outside Looking In

The sound of silence

First published: January 25, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: January 23, 2015 at 4:53 pm

In Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s combined State of the State and budget address last week, he said a lot. The speech ran for about 90 minutes, and he covered all the high points of his political and budgetary agenda.

Among the most prominent mentions: Fort Drum, which very clearly has the administration’s support as the U.S. Army looks to trim personnel and perhaps retrench its facilities. Mr. Cuomo left no doubt that keeping Fort Drum alive and healthy is a top priority for his administration, and that support is important.

But on another area that is of critical interest across the north country and across the state, the future of a threatened hospital and nursing home industry, the governor remained silent.

The state embarked last year on a plan to bring about health care consolidation, in effect trying to stabilize failing hospitals by forcing affiliations with larger or more stable facilities and creating health care regions to try to end expensive duplication of already expensive procedures.

The state will use an $8 billion rebate from the federal government, brought back by the state’s effectiveness in reforming its Medicaid system. Last year, the state used almost $500 million of that money in a short-term program designed to keep teetering hospitals from toppling before its consolidation program could begin.

The main criteria for that Interim Access Assurance Fund was on-hand funds that represented 15 days or less of operating cash. Carthage Area Hospital, Massena Memorial Hospital and Lewis County General Hospital all received funding from that pool.

That program is now completed, to be replaced by Delivery System Reform Incentive Payments program. This $6.4 billion pool of money will provide assistance in planning, implementing and administering the reforms that the name implies.

The intention is very clear: to use consolidation and cooperation as the primary way to cut health care costs and stabilize the health care environment. While the access assurance fund was a Band-Aid, the system reform program is major surgery. For many hospitals, it will be a life-saving operation.

The hospitals that are approved as a performing provider system will form the hubs of the new health care system, with affiliated hospitals taking a subsidiary role. While none of the applications have been submitted yet, it is fair to anticipate that in the north country, Canton-Potsdam Hospital, Samaritan Medical Center, Hudson Headwaters Health Network, Glens Falls Hospital and Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital would be the most logical organizations to apply for performing provider status. The geography involved and the strength of the application will determine which of them are successful.

Hospitals that received interim funding cannot be performing providers, except public hospitals. Thus, both Massena and Lewis County General could, in theory, seek to become performing providers.

However, their financial conditions will militate heavily against that, as will their risk to taxpayers should they fail. While many at Massena Memorial would welcome a strong network affiliation (and removal from the ranks of municipally owned facilities), Lewis County General has shown no recognition that it may be unable to stop hemorrhaging money.

That alone would disqualify it from performing provider status. And if you are not a performing provider, you are going to be an affiliate of one.

This is an incredibly important topic here and across the state. The reform incentive payments program, with it’s $6.4 billion pot of money to hand out, would have to be considered one of the state’s premier initiatives. Yet Mr. Cuomo failed to mention it in his address last week, and most of the state’s residents have no idea what it will mean.

Tis a pity — this will reshape the future of health care across New York, and it needs lots of public exposure so that people can understand what is happening and why. We just didn’t get it from our governor.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

VIEW ARTICLE PAGE GO TO COMMENTS

Oh, Addie, say it ain’t so

First published: January 22, 2015 at 3:28 pm
Last modified: January 22, 2015 at 3:28 pm

This morning, federal Justice Department authorities arrested Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, on multiple charges of fraud and abuse of his position.

The allegations are that Silver used his leadership position to enrich himself to the tune of $4 million that he had funneled to himself through law firms with which he had affiliation. The charges are serious and the speaker is looking at serious jail time if he is convicted.

While we must respect the concept that we are all innocent until proved guilty, it isn’t unreasonable at the same time to suggest that in a case like this, the perception of wrong-doing is sufficient for the speaker to voluntarily step aside while he is either defending himself for these charges, or making arrangements to respond to them in some other way. If Silver is innocent, his voluntary transfer of power to another Assembly member while this process is proceeding would do a lot to restore at least some faith to a shaken electorate. And members of his own party in the Assembly would be well advised to help him make this decision.

So what has happened? There has been no measured response from the Democrats. Many are refusing to comment. Others are suggesting that the presumption of innocence should rule. A few are aggressively attacking the charges in a fierce but perhaps short-sighted defense of the speaker.

And, based on an interview with WWNY-7 news, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell. D-Theresa, is one of the latter. Here are a number of quotes from the WWNY interview:

n “I still believe he can continue to be a strong and effective leader.”

n “This is only the position of a couple of lawyers. It has yet to be seen whether these allegations have actual merit to them. ... This may be just an attempt to use the judiciary to influence policy, such as outside income of legislators.”

n “None of this case has been put before anyone.”

n “This may be far more politically motivated in an attempt to rattle those of us who are working toward funding for our schools and creating jobs in our communities.”

It’s hard to characterize these comments as anything better than political pandering. It isn’t hard to consider some of them absurd. For example, who, exactly, would be behind a plot to “rattle those of us who are working toward funding for our schools...”? Preet Bharara, the prosecutor for the Southern District of New York who has been notably successful in blowing past politics to put a lot of bad actors in jail? Is he against school funding or creating jobs?

Ms. Russell has refused to talk to the Times about the Silver arrest. It’s probably just as well, if the drivel she offered WWNY is an example of how she really feels about this situation. Presumption of innocence is one thing; suggesting the leader of half of the state Legislature can just keep on doing his job as though nothing has happened after his arrest on public corruption charges is irresponsible, knee-jerk, politics as usual.

Ms. Russell barely squeaked through the November election. Her blind political attachment to the downstate Democratic power structure is one reason why her re-election was so tenuous. The position she is staking out now, after Silver’s arrest, only serves to reinforce the notion that our assemblywoman has more loyalty to her party than she does to either her constituents or the ethics of government.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

VIEW ARTICLE PAGE GO TO COMMENTS

In Turin, the public is the loser in council dispute

First published: January 18, 2015 at 12:30 am
Last modified: January 16, 2015 at 4:40 pm

A Turin town councilwoman is suing the Turin Town Council to gain access to the town clerk/collector’s office, which is conveniently in her home.

This tops the “Are you kidding me?” folder for 2015. That an elected town official has been banned from the town’s records office is almost impossible to comprehend. What, you may wonder, has she done to deserve this?

Well, as far as we can tell, the councilwoman criticized the clerk’s meeting minutes. Watertown Daily Times reporters have repeatedly asked what offense Councilwoman Julia Ielfield has committed. And the best anyone can come up with is that the clerk, MeLinda W. Maciejko, feels “threatened” because Ms. Ielfield took issue with the clerk’s minute-taking.

Clearly, Ms. Maciejko has some fairly extreme sensibilities. I once had a pretty big guy threaten to “obliterate” me if I didn’t stop writing about various unfortunate actions he was taking as a public official, and I did not ban him from the newspaper office. Nor did I stop writing about him.

Ms. Ielfield’s sins hardly seem to rise to the level of a threat of bodily harm, yet the Town Council has taken the clerk’s side in this little tempest. When Ms. Ielfield filed an Article 78 lawsuit against her colleagues, one councilwoman called our Lowville office, incensed that we wrote about the lawsuit.

Hello? We write about any lawsuit against public officials because the public has a right to know when someone is alleging their officials are doing something lawsuit-worthy. We’ve also written about this dispute and about the office ban because it is clearly a sign of a problem in Turin government.

There are many issues at play here. The first is, are the people of Turin in general being well served by having a town clerk whose hours are set whenever she hangs an “open” sign in the window of her residence?

Mrs. Maciejko is paid $11,500 by Turin taxpayers to provide a host of public service and record-keeping tasks, including issue all manner of licenses, provide all manner of copies of public documents and act as the registrar of the municipality. Those taxpayers should be able to have reliable hours, at a public location, where those services can be provided.

The salary Mrs. Maciejko pulls down includes $8,300 as town clerk and $3,200 as tax collector. Both of those jobs require interaction with the public — and with fellow Turin officials. The council allows the clerk/collector to work from home because she has young children.

But the Times, among thousands of other companies, has employees with young children and we don’t let them work from their kitchen. Certainly no public official whom the public has so much interaction with should be doing so, not in 2015.

When I started writing news stories about local governments, the first town board meeting I covered was in a cozy little parlor/office in Marshall Slauson’s house. He was town clerk, and the council met there once a month to buy sluice pipe, audit bills, approve minutes and do all the varied business a small-town government must do.

But that was 43 years ago. And within a couple of years of my first meeting, every town I covered had public meeting rooms and town clerk offices to accommodate the public.

And so it should be. Times have changed, and public officials have to change with them.

So Turin’s decision to allow this cozy little arrangement with its clerk/collector may very well work out nicely for the clerk, but not so well for the public. Members of the public, I point out, who pay the clerk’s salary.

If Mrs. Maciejko held regular hours in a town office, there would be no question that the town would be unable to ban a council member from there. The council apparently believes, however, that having public space in a private residence allows it to do something that deprives a fellow elected official of her basic rights without any due process.

That the town attorney has participated in this farce is shameful. That the Town Council continues to perpetuate it should make Turin voters wonder just who they’ve elected to represent them.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

VIEW ARTICLE PAGE GO TO COMMENTS

Gamblin’ Andy

First published: January 15, 2015 at 3:24 pm
Last modified: January 15, 2015 at 3:24 pm

It should be little surprise to anyone that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is the man who has led New York state full-tilt into casino gambling. Andy, it turns out, is a gambler of the riverboat family.

I don’t see how you could reach any other conclusion when you examine his popular Regional Development Roulette. Annually, New York’s Regional Economic Development Councils are forced to compete for state development money. It’s a giant poker game in which no one has yet had to go all in — but stand by.

Because the governor today upped the ante, if you will, asking the seven upstate regions to compete for $1.5 billion in economic development funds he intends to pare out of the $5 billion in “surprise” money the state will take in this year. Under Andy’s table rules, three regions will emerge with $500 million each, and the other four will be sent off with a home version of Upstate Monopoly.

It isn’t bad enough that significant areas of upstate New York are lagging so far behind in the economic recovery that has come to the metropolitan New York, Capital District and Niagara Frontier areas. Now the governor is going to ask all the areas that can’t shake high unemployment, nonexistent job growth and stagnant wages to spin the state’s wheel to see who comes up with their ball in the slot and who goes home in a freight car with his or her pockets turned out.

While this may excite Gamblin’ Andy, it begs the question: with $1.5 billion in the pot, why not give EACH region $215 million for economic development. Or, if there really is concern about the most heavily suffering areas, why not apportion this $1.5 billion on a graduated basis, with $300 million for the most depressed region, $250 million for the next most dire, and so on, with the goal of allowing all regions enough to actually improve each region’s economy?

With either of these proposals, there would be no true losers. All these economically bereft areas would receive help from the state. Under Gamblin’s Andy’s plan, three regions win big and four get bupkus. That means that three win, four lose. In the Olympics, you expect that. In spreading out money for economic development, you would hope for a more measured and fair plan.

This idea has no place in state government. New York’s business climate is already being blamed for driving companies and people away, and studies show the state has one of the most onerous and poorly distributed tax burdens in the country. Now the governor is acting like a carny pitchman, inviting regions in the state to “step right up and take a shot at the brass ring.”

While the state Legislature hasn’t shown it has the backbone to reject many of the governor’s hare-brained schemes, they should step in and stop this one. Time to pry the deck out of Gamblin’ Andy’s hot, sweaty hands.

VIEW ARTICLE PAGE GO TO COMMENTS

A deal’s a deal, for a’ that

First published: January 09, 2015 at 1:26 pm
Last modified: January 09, 2015 at 2:44 pm

There was some hope that the awful dysfunction that has become St. Lawrence County government would stabilize with new members of the Legislature and a new party in control. After their first 10 days in office, however, hope is rapidly dimming.

Take, for example, their first major vote. The Legislature was asked to ratify the agreement offered by the New York Power Authority as part of the 10-year review of its relicensing.

The task force charged with the negotiations worked long and hard, behind closed doors with NYPA, to come up with some more host-community benefits for the Moses-Saunders power dam. After sometimes acrimonious meetings, a deal was struck and offered up for ratification, by the task force, three towns, two villages, two school districts and the county.

Before the county took up the matter, incoming Legislature Chairman Joseph Lightfoot was on the record supporting it. The deal had several components and a pot-sweetener: The governor would sign the bill authorizing monetization of power produced by the project for economic development in the county. It was a package deal, and anyone who says they didn’t realize that is in danger of having their nose grow.

Before any of the government units that have a vote on this acted, the governor did his part and signed the bill. So the deal, everyone thought, was struck.

Until Mr. Lightfoot and his merry band of Republican legislators rejected it in a surprising 7-5 vote. This despite the knowledge that the quids had been pro quoed, if you will, and the state was anticipating prompt ratification in St. Lawrence County.

Mr. Lightfoot’s explanation of why he changed his mind to vote against the deal is about as satisfying as sea foam. Everyone in the county, and in fact in the region, gets something from this agreement.

And the Power Authority has absolutely no obligation to add to its host-communities package from 2003. Yet it chose to do so.

It appears that a significant problem in St. Lawrence County is that many, many people view the Power Authority as some kind of cash cow that can put right a ship that is listing badly. It is not the solution to municipal government challenges there, however. Whether this Legislature and these town boards want to acknowledge it or not, the responsibility for St. Lawrence County is St. Lawrence County’s.

A large number of public officials have jumped on the Power Authority’s back with both feet. Village of Waddington (or Whinington, as it is becoming known as) officials seem to think that the Power Authority has some obligation to right every wrong that ever occurs there, and pay for it to boot.

Town officials, conversely, took the time to really look at the NYPA proposal and voted to ratify it. The task force did the same. Both votes were unanimous.

The task force’s attorneys from the Wladis law firm have told anyone who will listen that this deal is the best one that is going to be offered. It is worth millions of dollars to the county over the years, money that the Power Authority didn’t have to bring to the table. With the governor’s blessing, the monetization bill made the deal a little sweeter.

Imagine, then, the governor’s reaction when the county Legislature rejected the deal. Of the many, many qualities attributed to Andrew Cuomo, magnanimity isn’t one you hear much — if at all. Sources close to state government said Gov. Cuomo did not take the news well.

So what, you may ask? Well, a key part of the monetization bill is a review board appointed by the governor.

All he has to do is decide not to appoint that board and that $2 million just stays in the Power Authority’s account. St. Lawrence County would get bupkus.

And, you will recall, the state was going to shut St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, but the facility got a last-minute reprieve, primarily because people in Ogdensburg and St. Lawrence County made the governor listen to their pleas. An angry Andrew Cuomo may reconsider that decision.

Likewise, St. Lawrence County is home to three state prisons, all of which have avoided the prison-closing ax of the governor’s administration. The doesn’t mean, however, that issue can’t be revisited as well.

The reason the federal government has bogged down is because the opposing sides are so polarized that negotiations have ceased. In the case of NYPA and the task force, there were true negotiations. There was give and take.

There was a pot-sweetener to make it all more palatable. And when all was said and done, a deal was struck. If municipal greed and pigheadedness void that deal, the folks of St. Lawrence County can look to their Legislature and their local governments as the culprits.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

VIEW ARTICLE PAGE GO TO COMMENTS

A call from the governor

First published: January 02, 2015 at 10:10 am
Last modified: January 02, 2015 at 1:59 pm

Gov. Mario M. Cuomo was the first — and, come to think of it, only — governor ever to call me up.

It was the early 1990s, and I was the editor of a weekly county-seat newspaper in the Catskills. My “staff” consisted of a full-time sports and general assignment reporter and two part-time copy setters.

Our reach was the county seat and the handful of towns surrounding it that make up the center of Delaware County. To call it a sleepy operation would do it proud. Still, we persevered.

So one day in late October — it was a Thursday or Friday, that’s the best I can do — my phone rang. And when I answered, a man said, “Mr. White? Can you hold for the governor?”

Yeah, right.

But then a very familiar voice came on, and it was indeed the governor. He proceeded to give me a solid thrashing for an editorial I had produced that week suggesting that his pet proposal for the coming election — a very large environmental bond act — should be rejected in favor of a year-by-year dedicated fund to use for environmental projects. I was dead wrong, he told me in no particularly tactful way, and the best thing I could do for myself and the state of New York was publicly change my mind.

I declined. I have to admit, I was a little shaky as I did so.

The governor was a force of nature, even over the phone. It all took about two minutes — including 30 seconds on hold waiting for him — and he clearly dominated the conversation.

And now that I’ve had a few years to consider it, I still marvel that Gov. Cuomo the First had time to call a small-town newspaper editor about a ballot measure. I will say that the experience, coupled with a confrontation the governor had with the local press later that year at the county fair, left me with a sour taste for Mario M. Cuomo. But the incidents served to make me realize, after some time had passed, that this was a man with a deep passion for New York state.

While the press jeeringly dubbed him Hamlet on the Hudson for his waffling over reaching for higher office — he rejected a run at the presidency and then a chance to be on the U.S. Supreme Court — he was a hard-working governor. He was honest; he stayed away from the scandals that nagged his predecessors and successors; and you could believe him when he said something. Those are traits that, in retrospect, lift Mario Cuomo above the political wasteland that we gaze upon today.

Mario Cuomo, son of an immigrant grocer, never forgot humble beginnings and the working class people of the world. He was a compassionate liberal, a rare politician who was dedicated to both balanced budgets and an inclusive government that was not just for the wealthy or well connected.

And now his son Andrew has succeeded him as governor. There appear to be some significant differences between these men who have and are leading our state. It’s not just a matter of style; it’s also a matter of substance.

Where Mario Cuomo was at ease in his skin, Andrew seems far less so. Mario’s visits to the north country left the folks he was around while here with the sense he could be one of them.

One of the notable instances was a Good Friday speech he gave at the Italian American Civic Association that he began in Italian — to the great joy of his audience. Even though he was governor, when he was here, he was 100 percent here, making people at ease in his presence.

Andrew, well, not so much. He gives the impression of reluctantly being wherever he is.

His dash to the Waddington fishing tournament, his frenetic snowmobiling trip on Tug Hill, even his recent appearance at Fort Drum all left people with a sense of impatience, of his gaze being out over the horizon rather than focused on the scenery at hand. It makes him aloof and distant, where his father was warm and familiar.

And Andrew has some need to be so clearly, unfailingly in charge of everything — from his schedule to the information a public information officer in an obscure state agency can give out — that he has quickly gained a reputation for micromanaging to a degree not seen in this state in decades, if at all.

But this isn’t about Andrew Cuomo. Having lost both of my parents, I know the sense of loss the Cuomo children are feeling.

Sadly, it never goes away. It can dim over time, as sorrow eventually turns to fond memory.

And eventually, many children are able to reflect more objectively on their parents’ legacy. I have reached that point, and it has helped me become a better man. Perhaps that will also come for Andrew Cuomo, who would truly benefit from a good dose of Mario.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

VIEW ARTICLE PAGE GO TO COMMENTS

The challenges of freedom

First published: December 07, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: December 05, 2014 at 9:12 pm

For the past two-and-a-half centuries, citizens of this country and the loose confederation of states that preceded it have frequently donned uniforms, gathered up arms and gone off to fight for the freedoms that were eventually guaranteed in our Constitution. Hundreds of thousands have died over that time to ensure that we are free today.

And yet, we are also raised from birth to respect authority, to trust our leaders, to obey our police. For most Americans, this is a fact of life, like breathing or wearing shoes.

Unfortunately, respect for authority and protection of freedom from time to time rise up in conflict. When authority threatens freedom, hard choices must be made.

Thus far, we favor freedom. But it’s never a sure thing.

And right now, America is facing a situation that will not take much to evolve into a full-blown crisis. Police and prosecutorial events in Missouri and New York have caused many citizens of this country to question whether we have ceded so much authority that essential freedoms — including the basic human freedom to life — are threatened.

While the riots in Ferguson, Mo., that started when a white policeman shot a black teenager were initially characterized as a black reaction to white discrimination, subsequent events there transcend that narrow though important conflict. When the grand jury convened to consider this case failed to indict the officer who pulled the trigger, more than just a lily-white police force was called into question.

Then the very foundation of the justice system — the grand jury process itself — took the brunt of the controversy. Slowly, people began to think, “This may not be a black-and-white issue. It may be an issue about the systems in which we vest our greatest authority — the courts themselves.”

And it all caught fire when a grand jury in New York failed to hand down an indictment in a case in which a black man died at the hands of police who were trying to arrest him for selling cigarettes on the street.

If you thought Ferguson was bad, the incident on State Island was worse. A handful of police surrounded Eric Garner and wrestled him to the ground as a bystander with a cellphone filmed the entire event.

Mr. Garner could be heard rasping “I can’t breathe,” as one officer applied a chokehold that, everyone agrees, is in violation of New York City police rules of procedure. Mr. Garner died, and his death was there on a digital file for all to see.

The failure of the grand jury to indict in the Garner case has hit a collective raw nerve in this country. The officer who applied the fatal chokehold is easily identifiable on the recording.

There are no conflicting witnesses. It did not happen under the cloak of darkness on a quiet suburban street. It happened in one of the great cities of the world, in a country that prides itself on following the rule of law.

Now the rule of law appears to be bent nearly to the point of breaking. From the Brooklyn Bridge to the Golden Gate, white and black and Hispanic and Asian Americans protested a system that denies someone life for nothing more than selling cigarettes or walking in the roadway.

This has gone way past the question of how the white power structure treats the nation’s minorities — although that is still part of the equation. It has become a searing look at the way we have stretched the limits, pushed the boundaries, of police power in this country.

As with nearly any vocation, the majority of police are honest, worthy citizens just trying to do a difficult job in the best possible way. And as with nearly every vocation, there are officers who are in some way deficient.

Unfortunately, a carpenter who isn’t that good at his job has very little potential to kill anyone. And an accountant who becomes crazed by power can’t send an innocent person to jail for life. The police and the prosecutors of this country, however, wield awesome power, and strong checks and balances are needed to limit damage they can cause and to weed out the bad apples.

Now with two men dead and a pall on the land, public officials are crying for reform and new policies to prevent such events. Unfortunately, public officials always cry for reform after these type of events.

And even if “reforms” are enacted, they are usually so bureaucratically flawed that they don’t achieve any effect. How do we avoid that?

First, we have to temper our automatic respect for authority to hold respect for authority properly exercised. And we have to demand, as citizens, that innate rights are not sacrificed to excessive authority.

Next, we have to neutralize color or national origin as a cause of action. Police have to see everyone in the same shade of red, white and blue.

This has been our challenge for 250 years, and it remains our challenge today. When YOU stop seeing white and black and brown, we will have at least a fighting chance to achieve practical equality.

Finally, we have to stop sacrificing freedoms for security. It has never worked; it’s not working now; it will never work in the future.

All it will do is give up a little privacy here, a little self-determination there, until we’ve lost all right to privacy and self-determination. Freedom does exist on a slippery slope, and we all have to work to keep it from sliding down to oblivion.

We should not countenance the intrusions from the federal government that have been made in the name of national security. We should not allow to go without protest the government’s intrusion into our private lives. We should not forgo “Give me liberty or give me death!” in favor of “America — love it or leave it.”

Our most patriotic act will be to demand that we live in a society where authority responds to the citizens — not the other way around.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

VIEW ARTICLE PAGE GO TO COMMENTS

For hospitals, the past could pave the road to the future

First published: November 30, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: November 26, 2014 at 2:20 pm

Institutional memory is one of the great things about newspapers.

Unlike broadcast media, the historical record provided by newspapers stretches back, in some cases, a century or more. And the people who spend a long time at a given newspaper develop a historical perspective that is hard to match.

So when I edited the story Tuesday about River Hospital and Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center forming an affiliation, it occurred to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Here’s the lead from a story, datelined Alexandria Bar, by Times reporter M.B. Pell that ran on Oct. 12, 2002:

“Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center in Ogdensburg is helping to draft a proposal to keep Edward John Noble Hospital open and plans to develop a partnership with that hospital’s new board if the hospital is not closed in the upcoming months.”

Huh. Imagine that. Rural hospitals in the north country realizing that some level of sharing of services is necessary for them to survive is not such a new concept after all.

But wait — there’s more! Guess when the story that supplied this lead ran:

“A radical restructuring of health care in the north country which would see Watertown’s two hospitals merging and outlying facilities reduced to little more than emergency room clinics was discussed in a hushed-up meeting Saturday.”

This decade? Last decade? Sometime in the 1990s? Nope — this was written in October 1989.

Clearly, the crisis in rural health care is no new problem. As early as 1982, E.J. Noble Hospital in Alexandria Bay was in dire financial straits, borrowing money at interest rates — 17 percent in a couple of instances — that would put today’s borrowers in a complete swoon.

The six hospitals that were considered in the Fort Drum service area — Carthage Area Hospital, Samaritan and Mercy in Watertown, the E.J. Noble hospitals in Alexandria Bay, and Gouverneur and Lewis County General hospitals — lost a collective $4 million in 1987. And at the time, $4 million was a more significant figure than it might be today.

A study commissioned by these hospitals recommended a significant restructuring, with Samaritan merging with Mercy and the other four ceasing most complex health care procedures and acute care services in favor of urgent care and clinical functions. That series of recommendations was immediately rejected by five of the hospitals (Samaritan had no reason to complain). And another recommendation, that Lewis County General Hospital be converted to a private nonprofit was rejected by county officials as being, well, just silly.

More than 25 years have passed since that report was kicked to the curb, and where are we?

Mercy Hospital has been demolished. River Hospital’s financial struggles continue and it is now joining hands with Claxton-Hepburn in Ogdensburg. Carthage Area Hospital has closed most of its outlying clinics and formed a management agreement with Samaritan just to keep its doors open. E.J. Noble Hospital of Gouverneur no longer exists; the hospital that occupies its former spot, Gouverneur Hospital, is under the control of Canton-Potsdam Hospital. And Lewis County General Hospital has reached a crisis point in its continued municipal hospital status because it cannot wean itself from the state retirement system and its burgeoning costs.

Hospital administrators come and go; doctors come and go; services come and go. Medical technology marches on, and with it the costs of health care race ahead. Patient treatments advance, and the needs to provide those treatments take more and more resources to obtain.

The financial straits of small hospitals is a constant, however. Third-party payments continue to shrink while salaries and benefits rise.

Efficiency has become not just important but critical. Many believe the best path to efficiency and sustainability is through consolidation and shared services.

But then, many believed that a quarter-century ago. We lose sight of the past because, no matter what, we live day to day. It is easy to forget the struggles of the past because we are so busy struggling in the present.

There are some small glimmers that maybe this time the long-term solutions to rural health care needs are within reach. Affiliations and alliances are a healthy first step. We can only hope that the parochial pretenses of the past will be overcome to keep rural health care services available to all.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

VIEW ARTICLE PAGE GO TO COMMENTS

When buy, buy, buy turns into bye-bye

First published: November 21, 2014 at 11:44 am
Last modified: November 21, 2014 at 2:01 pm

A story in Monday’s Times by Alan Rizzo gave a thoughtful look at a series of recent business closings in St. Lawrence County, and Alan’s reporting found this: St. Lawrence County is not setting a standard for a stagnant economy.

Instead, the businesses that closed, including a music and video store, a handful of restaurants, an office supply store and the Sears store at St. Lawrence Centre Mall, all were victims of circumstances largely beyond their immediate control.

The closing of the Sears store is a result of a shifting retail economy that has favored steeply discounted brick-and-mortar operations like Walmart over traditional department stores like Sears and J.C. Penney. Most of the old retail giants are either gone or deeply retrenched; Sears, which tried to reinvent itself, then bought out the Kmart chain and then tried to reinvent itself again, has hung on but barely. And to stay alive, the chain has maintained a trend of periodically closing poorly performing stores.

The St. Lawrence Centre store was a victim of that policy, but it fell into the paradigm because it has been a long time since the promise of St. Lawrence Centre has been realized.

People in Massena speak fondly of the boom years when the mall was buzzing and there were people spending money in and around Massena. Some of them either can’t see or won’t recognize, however, that an era closed for the town and much of northern St. Lawrence County when GM, then Reynolds, bowed out.

What was once a bustling industrial center that employed several thousand workers became an Alcoa town with a few hundred workers. When those high-wage, secure union jobs started to disappear, the ripple effect began to build.

Now, what were institutions in Massena are gone. Along with Sears, the village has lost Violi’s Restaurant, Ponderosa Steakhouse and Guy’s Restaurant. The Office Max is also closed.

Restaurants are a tough business. The three that closed in Massena are iconic; one is part of a highly successful chain.

But the food business is fickle. And more than almost any other, it is at the mercy of the economy as a whole.

People who can barely buy groceries and gas are unlikely to be going out to eat. In a place the size of Massena, it doesn’t take a lot of changed dining habits to make a once profitable restaurant find itself gasping for air.

The general downturn of the U.S. economy five years ago has led to an unfortunate circumstance for rural regions: The recovery from that recession has been urban-centric, at the expense of small cities and towns. In New York state, for example, pockets of prosperity appear in metropolitan New York, in the Albany region and in Buffalo. Elsewhere, jobs continue to be lost; the north country joins Central New York, the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes as areas that have not substantially recovered from the loss of jobs and wages that have now stretched across half a decade. And there is very little relief in sight.

Add into this mix the fundamental shifts in consumerism that have hit the world’s economy, and more pain accrues. Both Office Max and Northern Music and Video, and to a lesser extent Sears, are largely victims of a new world of mercantilism driven by technology.

Amazon.com has put the squeeze on everything from music stores to bookstores to department stores. There is virtually nothing you cannot order through Amazon. And its use of cookies and the storage of customer information presents an insidious push to buy more and more of what you need through the online behemoth.

If I sign on to Amazon from any computer on which I’ve visited it before, it welcomes me by my login and encourages me by pushing before me items similar to things I’ve purchased — from cameras to books by my favorite authors. Amazon truly understands a key element of online purchasing: the more automatic you make it, the easier it can be done, the more compelling it is to buy, buy, buy.

With just about every album, CD and DVD ever recorded available through Amazon, with an easy-peasy ordering regimen, with delivery right to the front door — how does a Northern Music and Video compete? Indeed, how does a Borders compete?

The answer is, they don’t. If an operation as big as Borders is overwhelmed, what chance does a small store in an upstate village have?

At 72nd Street and Broadway in New York City, on a corner next to a bustling subway stop, there was for years a Tower Records store. I had friends who lived on the Upper West Side. And when I visited them, I always browsed through the three floors of records, tapes and CDs that ranged from oratorios to the Manhattan String Quartet to Madonna.

Today, that space is occupied by an Urban Outfitters store. Tower Records, once an industry giant, is no more — at least as a physical presence.

It was bought out of bankruptcy after all the stores closed and is now run, by new owners, as Tower.com. Thank Jeff Bezos and Amazon for that.

Northern Music and Video could not compete with the warehousing and distribution genius of Amazon, the ease of music downloads from the Apple Store or the scores of other online sources that are out there, fulfilling consumers’ dreams through data stored in your own computer and the speed of UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service.

Believe me when I say those of us in the newspaper business are aware of the rush of change through technology. Digital gurus tell us every day, “Adapt or die.”

We are scrambling to do that. We may succeed because there is no real alternative to journalism, but it is no sure thing.

For Northern Music and Video, selling common commercial items, no matter how arcane bassoon reeds may be, there was no way to adapt. And that is just a shame.

Perry White is the snow-weary managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

VIEW ARTICLE PAGE GO TO COMMENTS

Thank God! I can use my snowblower again

First published: November 16, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: November 14, 2014 at 5:25 pm

That’s better.

Thursday’s little reminder of what the north country serves up for winter was a needed kick in the teeth for what has been, by and large, a glorious fall.

At my house, when I got home about 5:15 p.m., my Subaru sedan clawed its way into the driveway and bucked a little but still got me into the garage. It wasn’t automatic, though, because the frame of the car was almost up on top of the heavy, wet snow.

While the scanner buzzed with scores of mostly lesser road mishaps, folks in our newsroom attributed it to “First Snow Syndrome” — that frequent collective memory lapse in which people have somehow forgotten, since last March, that snow makes the road slippery. If you were one of those whose car slid off the road, got stuck in the mouth of your driveway or had some other mishap requiring a tow, you’ll get better at this as the season progresses. Or at least, most of you will.

I had been enjoying the fall. It was mostly warm, mostly dry, more often than not shirtsleeves or light jacket weather. I can remember more than one year when I had to get the snowblower out in October. So all in all, going this long is probably like living on borrowed time.

The heavy, wet snows of early in the season are a great test of your snow-clearing process. It will definitely give that snowblower a workout. And if you’re like me, I’d like that test drive to come at a time that, if there is a problem, there’s ample time to get it fixed before the season starts in earnest. If you have decided that you’re going to save the money you paid to that plowing service last year, it will also give your cardiovascular system and your possibly atrophied digging muscles the kind of test that can tell you if you made such a wise choice in trying to save a few bucks.

And an early snow even tests your plowing contractor; if he’s a no-show now, you may want to resume your search for a reliable plow man or dig the snowblower out and tune it up.

Last winter tested everyone’s resolve. At one point, I had to blow my driveway and walk clear eight times in five days. And during that 48-inch monster snowfall (yeah, I know — it was 9 feet at the Rodman post office), my snowblower wouldn’t start and I was forced to borrow my neighbor’s machine to get enough space cleared in the driveway to get to work (and to haul my cursed machine to the small-engine shop).

Well, you may say, you chose to live in Adams. And that, of course, is true. The 10 inches of snow I got at my house yesterday was down to a couple of inches just past Adams Center; being at the base of the Tug Hill Plateau has its winter challenges. Although, to be fair, Mannsville has it worse ...

But if things go well over the next few weeks, and by well, I mean if the sale of our home goes through at the same time that the purchase of a new home in Watertown is successful, we’ll be moving from Latitude 43 degrees, 48 minutes, 35.75 seconds to Latitude 43 degrees, 57 minutes, 59.10 seconds. Doesn’t sound like much, I know, but it can make a world of difference to the Lake Effect Gods.

There are some other benefits as well. The proposed new house has a driveway that is no more than 30 feet long and 8 feet wide. The driveway I’ve been clearing lo, these many winters, is 80 feet long and 30 feet wide at its widest point. The sidewalk in front of the new abode less than 50 feet long; in Adams, I have 125 feet of sidewalk.

You see where I’m going here. Winter doesn’t have to be as hard as I’ve made it. And let’s be honest: Winter is a young man’s game. I’m ready to retire my Team Adams snowblowing jersey (well, it’s really a heavy snow parka) and enjoy winter as a spectator sport.

If you see me there in February, yet again blowing the driveway clear, well, best not to stop to chat.

Perry White is the snow-weary managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

VIEW ARTICLE PAGE GO TO COMMENTS
Giveaway
Syracuse Football Tickets Giveaway
Connect with Us
WDT News FeedsWDT on FacebookWDT on TwitterWDT on InstagramWDT for iOS: iPad, iPhone, and iPod touchWDT for Android
Showcase of Homes
Showcase of Homes