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Looking for ideas

I'd like to hear from you if you have suggestions on how low-cost Niagara hydropower can be put to better use to promote economic development in the region.

I'm following up the "Power Failure" investigation with a story examining ways that Niagara power can be used to help revitalize the local economy. I've solicited suggestions from a number of experts and  now want to cast a wider net.

Readers can sumit their ideas by posting a comment on this blog or by sending an e-mail to jheaney@buffnews.com

I'd like to hear from readers by Wednesday.

The story in my series that speaks most directly to the issue can be read by clicking here.

Business as usual

The Power Authority made six more allocations of low-cost Niagara hydropower the other day, which only served to underscore the inefficiency of the status quo. Click here for complete story.

Long story short, the discounts will save the companies an estimated $3.6 million over the next five years. The firms agree to create 79 jobs, which works out to about $45,000 per job. The going rate for job creation tends to top out at about $35,000, which means NYPA is once again paying a premium.

Click here a chart on the six power allocations.

NYPA, in its press release, noted: <i>The Western New York Advisory Group (WNAG), consisting of NYPA, National Grid, Empire State Development Corp., the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, and the Niagara County Department of Economic Development, recommended Tuesday’s allocations. The WNAG was established in 2003 to help identify qualified companies for available industrial power from the Niagara project. </i>

To what degree did these organizations review these allocations, and are any of them prepared to press for a change in the state criteria by which Niagara hydropower is allocated? Tom Kucharski, head of BNE, is on record as saying the criteria are outdated.

Finally, an audio interview with Greg LeRoy, an expert on economic subsidies, is available by clicking here. He's a knowledgeable fellow.

A radio interview with the author

Click here for a radio interview I did Wednesday on the Power Failure series. The interview was conducted by Bob Confer, who hosts a weekly program for WNYM Radio, an Internet station. The interview is streamed and available as a download, and lasts an hour.

Not quite yet

Three organizations staging a last-ditch battle to deny the Power Authority a 50-year license to operate the Niagara Power Project got some good news this week from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

FERC gave itself more time to consider challenges to its order of March 15 which granted the license. Absent that extension, FERC's order granting the license would have been final as of Wednesday. Attorney Steve Pigeon, who represents one of the challengers, the Niagara Improvement Association, sees significance in the extension because of that. Power authority officials seem to be taking the ruling in stride and give no outward appearances of undue concern.

A full version of the story appears in Thursday's print and online edition of The News.

Here are a few relevant links:

Appeal filed by Eastern Coalition and Public Power Coalition

Appeal filed by Niagara Improvement Association

   

The continuing power failure

   The beef: Not enough low-cost electricity generated at the Niagara Power Project remains in Western New York.

   The opportunity: About 15 percent of the plant's power is up for grabs this summer, the first time in years, perhaps decades, that so much of the facility's dirt-cheap electricity has been in play.

   The reality: Local officials, starting with the delegation that represents Western New York in the state Legislature, are doing little to seize the opportunity.

   My story in today's Buffalo News details the problem. Read the story. The upshot is that this community's leadership is once again failing to rise to the occasion.  I focus on the local delegation, but the problem is wider. As a community, we have not prepared for this opportunity. We did the same thing during relicensing. 

   Will yet another opportunity pass us by?

   

How does he really feel?

State Sen. George Maziarz gave me a quote that I used to close the Power Failure series:

"We got screwed."

It summed up the way many people felt about the deal the community received from the Power Authority in exchange for supporting its federal application to operate the Niagara Power Project for another 50 years.

The quote prompted several political insiders to call me to express everything from amusement to irritation over the senator's words. In each case, they questioned Maziarz's sincerity.

These callers noted that little goes on in Niagara County politics that Maziarz isn't aware of, if not managing behind the scenes. He is widely regarded as the county's No. 1 political force.

Beyond that, GOP fingerprints can be found all over the deal.

Mark Zito, who negotiated the Niagara County portion of the deal, is a Maziarz guy from way back; served briefly on his staff, in fact. While Zito was running the show, the coalition he headed dumped an aggressive, knowledgeable D.C. attorney in favor of a lobbying outfit and law firm that both had close GOP ties.

The party also made life difficult a few years back for a couple of Republicans serving on the Lewiston Town Council who were pressing for a better deal.

When I interviewed Maziarz while working on the story, he said he had been vocal for some time in his opinions regarding the relicensing deal. I took him at his word and went with the quote.

But, as my callers noted, the quote begs the question as to whether Maziarz doth protest too much, given his likely involvement.

Coming to a radio near you

I'm scheduled to appear on Tom Bauerle's radio talk show tomorrow (Thursday) to talk about my Power Failure series.  He's on WBEN, 930 AM. I'm on from 9 to 11 a.m.

Looking for leadership

Neil Young has a song on his latest studio album titled "Looking for a Leader." Perhaps it should be Western New York's new theme song.

Power Failure detailed how leadership failed the community during the relicensing process. But there are a lot of related issues that can still be tackled. The question is, by who?

Donn Esmonde's column today deals with the issue of leadership. He writes:

"We can change things through Albany and Washington. The settlement did not settle everything."

Donn quotes Paul Dyster, a very sharp activist in Niagara County, as saying "A lot of these issues were  not part of the relicensing agreement. We still have a chance to make this thing better."

"Putting our cheap power to the best use is not happening," added Mark Mitskovski, who was Erie County's point man until Joel Giambra laid him off at a key juncture in relicensing negotiations.

The obvious question is "Who will step forward?"

In reality, it will take more than one person. What's needed is a critical mass of leaders who are willing to tackle a very complicated issue, both on a technical and political front. There's a lot of collective knowledge out there, the challenge is to assemble it in a team that can rise above the parochial politics that marred the relicensing negotiations.

So, readers, who do you think is up to it?

In response

A number of readers have posted comments on this blog, and an even greater number have sent e-mails with their thoughts. Some beg for a response, so here goes.

Many readers have expressed frustration and asked: "Is there anything that can be done?"

Yes, many things can be done. The relicensing process is over, but it dealt with only some of the relevant issues. Most of the core issues -- where the power is allocated and the criteria for industrial users, for example -- are rooted in federal or state laws or authority policy.

I'm working on a story that details the options.

Donn Esmonde, meanwhile, will weigh in with a column in Friday's paper and The News editorial board has something to say on Sunday

As for the handful of readers upset that we published the salaries of individual authority employees, I want to say first that they are employed by a public authority and paid with public funds and are in the very sense of the word public employees. We debated  whether to publish the list and decided the information was relevant, given that one-fifth of the staff makes more than $100,000 and more than 250 made over$10,000 in overtime in 2005, the year we studied. The list provided interesting details of issues raised in the story

Another reader or two asked what the big deal was about the price of electricity, as the actual cost of power represents only a couple of dollars of a monthly bill. That's wrong. Power accounts for about half of the typical electric bill, and with energy prices soaring, that share can only go up

Finally, several readers asked a very legitimate question regarding the timing of the Power Failure series. Their query: Where was The News three or four years ago, when such reporting could have impacted the outcome of negotiations.

The News has published hundreds of stories about relicensing over the past decade. Many covered the process, others were enterprise stories done by some of our finest reporters, including Jerry Zremski, Mike Beebe and Phil Fairbanks. The stories did not necessarily deal with some of the issues my series did, but keep in mind it took me over a year to do what I did, and some of what I reported could not have been covered until the relicensing process had played itself out.

Looking back, we should have, and yes, if we had, it probably would have influenced the outcome of negotiations. The relicensing is just one chapter, however, albeit a big one. Many of the problems highlighted in the series can be addressed through legislation or changes in public policy. In fact, they are the only ways many of the problems can be addressed

So, yes, the paper's timing could and should have been better, but the game is far from over, and we're on the case for the duration.

The first volley

Congressman Brian Higgins, no fan of the Power Authority, has wasted no time calling for reform. He no doubt won't be the last.

On Tuesday, he called for the resignations of the authority's seven trustees and the senior staff, which is populated with long-time associates of former Gov. George Pataki. He also called for a review into the way the authority sprinkled around money to local governments and organizations in a position to influence relicensing negotiations. Seems like something up the state comptroller's alley.

Higgins floated several other ideas, including the possible relocation of authority headquarters from White Plains to Western New York.

Word has it that reform of the Power Authority is high on Spitzer's "to do list." The authority is loaded with Pataki people and has long been the subject of criticism. Moreover, changes in how the power and profits of the Niagara Power Project are used could help Spitzer make good on his pledge to help the upstate economy, while also bolstering his credentials as a reformer.

Share your thoughts by posting a comment below.

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