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County seeks more oversight for 'regional planning board'

A government watchdog’s concerns about financial losses and administrative control at a “regional planning board” has led Warren County to request more oversight of the organization.

The Lake Champlain-Lake George Regional Planning Board’s operations drew the attention of Queensbury resident Travis Whitehead after police concluded that David Decker, the former director of Lake George Watershed Coalition, had defrauded the planning board as part of a wide-ranging theft scheme.

Whitehead said he found that some members of the planning board’s board of directors said they had missed meetings, with one having to inform the board, after two years, that he was a member. Also, board minutes and audits were not readily available. The board was not subject to the same state financial oversight as state authorities or other economic development groups, because it is a council and not a corporation.

Whitehead’s questions led the county Board of Supervisors to hold off last month on a $7,000 payment to the board.

While the Lake George-based planning board assists five counties, its director and employees are considered Warren County employees, and Whitehead said its financial reports showed "allowances" for losses on loans of $488,000 in 2015 and $532,000 in 2016. The board had another $1.8 million in outstanding loans as of the end of 2016. 

His questions led to the organization’s director coming to a county Board of Supervisors Finance Committee meeting on Thursday to explain what the organization does and to whom it is accountable.

Director Walter Young said the board is an economic development agency that operates a revolving loan fund and also provides assistance to municipalities and other organizations. It is also “host agency” for the Adirondack/Glens Falls Transportation Council.

He said its books are audited annually with no problems found. As an agency trying to spur economic development, it’s loan portfolio and its grants are overseen by the agencies that provide them funding.

Each of the counties that is part of the board’s region, which include Warren, Washington, Essex, Hamilton and Clinton, pay annually for its operation, but Young said the board’s budget has not increased since 1981.

“You guys should be happy with that,” he said.

Several Warren County supervisors said they wanted to see if there was a way for other counties to contribute to retirement costs for the planning board’s employees and to be better apprised of its activities.

“We just don’t know enough,” Queensbury at-Large Supervisor Doug Beaty said. “I don’t want another Dave Decker coming down the pike to us.”

Lake George Supervisor Dennis Dickinson defended the organization, which led to a nasty exchange between he and Beaty during the meeting.

“The town of Lake George uses the planning board a lot,” Dickinson said. “They have been a real asset for us. They are there, they are available.”

At the request of county supervisors, Young agreed to attend monthly Warren County Economic Development Committee meetings to keep county supervisors better informed.

“I’d love to hear about all of the things you are doing,” Glens Falls 3rd Ward Supervisor Claudia Braymer told him.

Charges against Decker are still pending, and he has pleaded not guilty. He was accused of fraudulently receiving nearly $70,000 from the Lake Champlain-Lake George Regional Planning Board as part of a watershed protection project and faces 20 charges in all, alleging he stole $169,156.

Bruce Squiers, Special to The Post-Star  

Argyle artist Erik Johnsen, left, on Saturday encouraged youngsters, such as 10-year-old Liam Carmel of Cohoes, to ride his creations at the Saratoga Home and Lifestyle Show, which was held over the weekend at the City Center in Saratoga Springs. Johnsen, a self-described nonconformist who works out of his Fantasy Workshop studio, has also recently made appearances in area schools.

Warren County getting in the drone business

Warren County does not have any licensed drone pilots among its county employees, but the county Office of Emergency Services plans to change that and work with Washington County to share drone capability in emergency situations.

Brian LaFlure, Warren County’s director of emergency services, said he plans to become licensed as a drone pilot, and his office plans to work with the Washington County Department of Public Safety to share pilot services and equipment when needed. The Washington County agency has access to a drone owned by an employee and has at least one pilot, he said.

LaFlure said his agency plans to use drones, also known as “unmanned aerial vehicles,” when needed in emergency situations. He said Warren County’s response to recent Hudson River ice jams was helped tremendously by a drone from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which could track how the ice was changing and water was flowing.

The equipment has gotten less expensive and more useful, LaFlure said. In addition to allowing safe observation from above of emergency scenes, they can be equipped with sensors that can take air samples for checking in the event of contamination or a spill.

“Drones we have determined are very important and useful,” LaFlure told county supervisors last week. “Not everyone has to go out and spend a ton of money.”

He said state grant money is available for drone programs to help agencies with the costs.

Glen Gosnell, Washington County’s public safety director, said the county’s program is in its “infancy” and policies are still being developed. The goal is to share the effort with Warren County and the regional hazardous material consortium.

“We are still working on getting our drone program squared away,” he said.

Drones are also becoming an important law enforcement tool, but Warren County Sheriff Bud York said his department has not had cause to use one and does not have plans to bring one on.

“We haven’t needed one as yet,” York said. “If I need one, I would call (Albany County Sheriff) Craig Apple — his department has a great drone program — or the State Police.”

Trump's boasts aside, trade wars typically leave no victors

WASHINGTON — Trade wars generate no medals, monuments or military parades. But they do tend to leave a lot of economic wreckage, often hurt the very people they’re meant to help and can fracture diplomatic relations among allies.

After announcing plans last week to slap taxes on imported aluminum and steel, President Donald Trump called trade wars “good” and breezily forecast an “easy” victory for the United States.

Economists see it rather differently. Starting a fight with trading partners has mostly proved to be self-defeating, they note.

“Usually, all sides lose in a trade war,” says Douglas Irwin, a Dartmouth College economist and author of the just-published “Clashing Over Commerce: A History of U.S. Trade Policy.” ‘’Trade shrinks as countries pile on barriers in an effort to remedy some grievance, with consumers paying the price.”

Wall Street clearly agrees. Stocks sank Thursday and Friday after Trump announced plans to slap tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum imports, effectively threatening to wage commercial war on U.S. trading partners from Brasilia to Berlin to Beijing.

Shares of some of America’s biggest exporters — Boeing, Deere, Caterpillar — fell hardest on fears that other countries would retaliate against U.S. products.

The term “trade war” is usually tossed around when countries spar over commerce, often without a clear sense of what it is. Eswar Prasad, professor of trade policy at Cornell University, defines it as a series of “escalating tit-for-tat trade barriers imposed on each other by two or more countries.”

Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the world hasn’t endured a full-blown trade war since the 1930s. But globally, war drums are beating again.

Europeans have threatened to retaliate against Trump’s metals tariffs by targeting American blue jeans, bourbon and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. It may not be a coincidence that Harleys are produced in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Wisconsin and bourbon in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky. Trump has met Europe’s threat of retaliation with a piled-on threat of his own: To slap tariffs on European autos.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, which stands to suffer most from Trump’s proposed steel and aluminum tariffs, warned that he was prepared to “defend Canadian industry” from the tariffs.

China has responded to earlier Trump-imposed trade sanctions — tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines — by launching an anti-dumping investigation into U.S. sorghum exports, a move seen as a warning shot at American farmers who depend heavily on trade.

China, after all, consumes a third of the soybeans American farmers produce. John Heisdorffer, president of the American Soybean Association, warned that a Chinese retaliation to Trump’s tariffs “would be devastating to U.S. soy growers. Our competitors in Brazil and Argentina are all too happy to pick up supplying the Chinese market.”

Though full-blown trade wars are mostly destined to fail, countries can sometimes pressure their trading partners to change their ways, Alden says. With U.S. automakers reeling from Japanese competition in the 1980s, the Reagan administration strong-armed Japan into agreeing to “voluntary export restraints” on car shipments. Japanese automakers ended up moving factories to the United States to avoid the limits.

But shielding one domestic industry from foreign competition can hurt others by driving up prices. A study by NERA Economic Consulting found that a 7 percent aluminum tariff — less than what the administration is planning — would save 1,000 jobs annually in the aluminum industry but wipe out 22,600 other jobs across the U.S. economy.

In 2002, President George W. Bush imposed tariffs on Chinese steel. The move allowed U.S. steel producers to increase prices, raising costs for companies that buy steel and pressuring them to cut back elsewhere. But the tariffs are thought to have cost significant U.S. job losses.

Or consider the “Rubber Chicken” dispute of 2009. The Obama administration slapped tariffs on Chinese tires, charging that a surge in imports was hurting the U.S. tire industry. Beijing counterpunched: It imposed a tax of up to 105 percent on U.S. chicken feet — a throw-away item in the U.S. that’s considered a delicacy in China. The Peterson Institute for International Economics calculated that the tariffs probably saved 1,200 American tire jobs — but consumers paid over $900,000 in higher tire prices for each job saved.

To justify its proposed tariffs, the Trump administration invoked a section of U.S. law to declare that metals imports threatened America’s industrial base and national security — even though the Pentagon says the military needs just 3 percent of U.S. aluminum and steel production.

The administration “stretches the definition of a national security threat to the breaking point,” says Alden at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The World Trade Organization gives member countries leeway to protect their national security interests. But “there’s always been a gentleman’s agreement that you don’t use (a national security pretext) just because you have an industry in trouble,” says Kent Jones, an economist at Babson College. “This is extending the definition of national security for protectionist purposes and, believe me, there’s going to be a big backlash.”

Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press via AP 

A welder fabricates a steel structure Monday at an iron works facility in Ottawa, Ontario. President Donald Trump insisted Monday that he's "not backing down" on his plan to impose stiff tariffs on imported steel and aluminum despite anxious warnings from House Speaker Paul Ryan and other congressional Republicans of a possible trade war.

Should schools be required to tell parents about bullying?

ALBANY — Richard and Christine Taras knew their soft-spoken son had been picked on by a school bus bully. But they were unaware of the more extensive torment Jacobe endured in school hallways until the day the 13-year-old middle schooler killed himself with a rifle.

“Dear Mom and Dad, I’m sorry but I can not live anymore,” Jacobe wrote on a sheet of lined notebook paper in 2015. “I just can’t deal with all the bullies, being called gay ... being told to go kill myself. I’m also done with being pushed, punched, tripped.” He signed off, “I LOVE YOU.”

“We had no idea of the extent or the seriousness of what was going on,” Richard Taras said. “My son didn’t tell me, and the school didn’t pass along the information they had.”

Nearly three years later, Richard and Christine Taras of Moreau are pushing for a New York law that would require schools to notify parents if their child is being bullied. Known as “Jacobe’s Law,” the measure unanimously passed the state Senate last week but has an uncertain fate in the Assembly.

At least eight states currently have laws requiring that schools notify parents when their child is being bullied or is bullying other kids. But such policies have come under attack from LGBT advocates who argue that schools officials could inadvertently be put in the position of outing gay, lesbian or transgender pupils to their parents. And such students may avoid reporting bullying to officials for fear of having their parents told.

“While it’s important for parents to be aware if their children are being bullied in school, it’s also imperative to remember that LGBTQ students may not be out to their family or may not have supportive families,” said Ikaika Regidor, director of education and youth programs for GLSEN, a national organization focused on safe schools for LGBTQ students.

Civil rights groups say it is a violation of students’ privacy rights when authorities disclose their sexual orientation to their parents.

In 2001, a successful wrongful death lawsuit was filed after a Pennsylvania high school football player committed suicide when police officers threatened to tell his family he was gay. A federal court in Philadelphia ruled that the U.S. Constitution prohibits governments from delving into the sexual orientation of Americans.

Those concerns have at least one state rethinking its law.

In New Jersey, known for having some of the strictest anti-bullying statutes in the nation, state education department officials have suggested stepping back from automatic notification and instead requiring schools to consider incidents on a case-by-case basis before contacting parents.

“There are laws that restrict what school officials can tell a parent about anything the official has discovered about the student’s sexual orientation or gender identification,” said Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Where notification might lead into that conversation puts the official into a very difficult spot. We just need to make sure laws are reconciled.”

The Education Commission of the States says many states require that school districts develop policies around parental notification of bullying, but only a few explicitly outline those requirements at the state level.

Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Virginia and Wisconsin have statewide requirements for parental notification of bullying, although timing of notification varies. In Louisiana, a parent must be notified before any student under 18 is interviewed about a report of bullying. In Connecticut, parents must be notified within 48 hours after an investigation of bullying is completed.

Other states require schools to develop local policies on parental notification. They include Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.

In New York, every school district is required to develop a code of conduct addressing bullying and discrimination. It must include provisions setting circumstances and procedures for notifying parents of code violations.

Cynthia Gallagher, an official with the School Administrators Association of New York, said the organization hasn’t taken a position on the proposed parental notification law. “It might seem like an area that should be clear cut, but it’s not for us,” she said, citing the quandary an official faces when bullying is related to sexual orientation.

Richard and Christine Taras contend that the South Glens Falls School District failed to protect their son from bullies who made fun of him for being a Boy Scout, among other things. A year after he died, they filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the district in state Supreme Court in Saratoga County. Since it’s still pending, school officials declined to comment on his case.

Jacobe’s bedroom remains as he left it, filled with things showing his love for the outdoors — a mounted deer head, a tree painted on the wall above the bed, a miniature canoe on the dresser.

“Jacobe was the kindest soul you could meet, with extremely good manners, empathy and people skills,” Richard Taras said. “For someone like that to decide to take his own life, it’s hard on so many levels. You feel like you didn’t protect them.”