SLVEC: Effectiveness through knowledge, diversity and passion: May, 2010 Update to Members

The St. Lawrence Valley Environmental Coalition (SLVEC) has, through its Steering Committee, been an advocate for the environment  in the on-going deliberations concerning $16 million leftover from the St. Lawrence Aquarium & Ecological Center.  The major players in these deliberations are the Local Government Task Force, the County Industrial Development Agency (IDA), and the New York Power Authority (NYPA).  Our involvement dates back to late last spring, when we first requested an open and inclusive process for deciding how the Aquarium money will be allocated once it is released by NYPA.  Since then we've advanced sensible ideas, like a comprehensive Greenway Planning process, which would allow all the stakeholders to identify the best opportunities for improving the local economy while protecting the local environment.  We recommended an on-going role for the County Environmental Management Council in the review of projects proposed to be funded with the Aquarium money.  We proposed that an endowment be established that would help finance worthy projects in perpetuity.  We questioned the plan to give the IDA $300K to administer the Aquarium funds, and to spend  $7.5 million on a 'super' industrial park.  We criticized the IDA's plan to exclude educational projects and assistance to farm-based businesses from the allocation program.  We opposed giving the IDA the power to veto any projects it didn't like. Our concerns have fallen on deaf ears. 

No Agreement Yet; $ Millions Lost.  Deliberations over the $16 million have been going on for at least four years, yet the Local Government Task Force is still without an agreement with NYPA that will enable release of the Aquarium money.  Each year these negotiations drag on, St. Lawrence County loses roughly a million dollars in interest alone, money that could help fund worthy local projects, leverage more money into the local economy, and create needed local jobs.  It's not possible to know exactly why the negotiations have failed so far.  Over the months and years there's been a lot of political in-fighting over how the Aquarium money should be allocated, and NYPA has a disincentive to agree since they get to keep the interest until there's an acceptable agreement.  We offered the Task Force our support, in exchange for transparency and other reasonable requests, asserting that joining forces with a well thought out plan would be a winner.  Unfortunately, the Task Force has not yet taken us up on our offer.   

Closed Process; No Transparency, No Public Input. The main reason it's impossible  to know why negotiations with NYPA have failed so far has to do with secrecy.  Since the Environmental Coalition's entry into this debate last spring, all the local strategizing and negotiating has been done by a small handful of Task Force and IDA politicians, behind closed doors.  We and others have repeatedly pushed for greater transparency and public involvement.  Unfortunately, the Task Force response to such recommendations and the Coalition's offer of support has been slow and non-committal.  In previous communication, however, County Treasurer Bob McNeil, who is also Chair of the Local Government Task Force, said he'd like to sit down with us and discuss our offer - we're still waiting.
$ for Community Improvement including Environmental Projects.  One definite bright spot in the deliberations is language that was inserted into a recent agreement proposed by NYPA to the Task Force.  It states that up to $1 million would be available annually  for "community development and improvement projects including environmental-related projects."  Clearly, the addition of this language results from our efforts.  Sooner or later the Aquarium money will be released, and some groups and organizations are already planning to propose projects.  Focusing on projects in the towns of Lisbon, Waddington, Louisville and Massena would probably have the greatest chance of success, along with projects that leverage additional money into the region.  Coalition members would be wise to also start thinking about possible collaborative projects.  An example of a collaborative project might be a habitat protection project that also includes an environmental education component and improved recreational access to the water. 

Waddington & Massena Not Pleased; New Directions Planned. Local citizens are not the only ones displeased with the way deliberations for the $16 million are going.  Local officials in Waddington and Massena are also frustrated, and recently argued that the affected communities should have representation at the negotiations with NYPA.  Presently, negotiations are being handled solely by Bob McNeil and a representative of the County IDA.  Is this just another example of more local in-fighting, or is it a move toward new and better leadership?  Waddington Supervisor Mark Scott is formulating a 'green' plan that integrates economic development and environmental and energy conservation.  In Massena, a "fishing summit" was organized by Massena Town Supervisor Joseph Gray.  The supervisor sees the event as a stepping stone to improving local fisheries and fishing-based tourism.  These officials are taking the initiative to promote a kind of thinking that transcends the traditional heavy industrial development mentality that has dominated local economic development efforts.  The outcome could be community improvement proposals that put the Aquarium money to work for our economy and the environment. 

NYPA: Friend or Foe? The Coalition's recommendations continue to get positive feedback from NYPA President and CEO Richard Kessel.  Some skeptics have suggested that Kessel is merely saying what we want to hear.  We do know he's trying to change NYPA's public image, from an arrogant power broker to a 'green' community growth partner that is sensitive to public opinion.  At the very least, his encouragement has given us the message that our recommendations are not falling on deaf ears.  Letters to Kessel from Coalition members and other local citizens, endorsing our recommendations, have been helpful to secure his support. 

Recent Public meeting in Lowville: The meeting was like the weather outside - confused.  This long drawn out issue (getting $ from NYPA) seems no closer to closure than it did six months ago when officials said they were aiming to get it on the December meeting agenda of the NYPA Trustees. Bob McNeil and Eric Gustafson are doing their best to hold the group together, but Massena and Waddington reps are very uneasy about the deal.  Each river town and village must approve the agreement with NYPA, and thanks in large part to input from Pete Skomsky, there will be public input at the local level before it's voted on.  There was a lot of uncertainty about the whole deal in the room.  The IDA's role again came under fire, and NYPA's desire to keep all the interest earned on the $16M during the past 27 months did not sit well with anyone.  The vague and undefined role of the RVRDA, whose main function is to keep a watchful eye on the IDA, was questioned.  Another hot topic was the need for an entity with the legal authority to sell electricity.  Without such an entity we can't get the 20MW that are part of the deal.  Still, the Task Force had no choice but to approve the Agreement and send it to the local governments involved, even though these fundamental questions linger. The IDA's premier role is the worst aspect of the deal. The public wonders how the County can sign a contract whose major player is SLVRDA, when the SLVRDA doesn't yet legally exist. Task Force members appear weary, understandably.  Perhaps, in the end, without public support, the whole deal may once again self-destruct.

New Coalition Members Welcome.
While many people are appalled at what is going on with this agreement they have no platform from which to express their concerns. The SLVEC is trying to be that platform. Please tell your environmentally conscious friends about the Coalition and what we are doing to ensure a healthy and beautiful place to live and raise our families.  Direct them to our website and suggest that they join. Send us your feedback, thoughts and concerns. Write to your local town officials so they can act on your behalf!



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