LIPA Style

LIPA would have failed miserably during Sandy if Nikola Tesla was the CEO of LIPA and Roger Ailes was the communications director. LIPA is broken because Long Island is broke.

Long Island came face-to-face with an uncomfortable reality during Hurricane Sandy. Our utility infrastructure is outmoded and unsustainable. Beyond the political posturing and the finger-pointing, the situation remains unchanged from the days prior to Sandy to now.

Blaming the current administration of the Long Island Power Authority for its inability to respond to a storm of this magnitude amounts to nothing more than scapegoating. Newsday’s recent editorial tirades against LIPA, the politicians calling for heads to roll at the authority and the public’s roiling anger are easy and obvious. Fixing the problem is much more complicated and expensive.

In a crisis like this one, everyone becomes an expert. WFAN’s Mike Francesa suspended his coverage of sports and launched into endless harangues against LIPA, which no doubt gave the NY Jets’ hapless management a momentary reprieve. Even my 9-year-old daughter knew the words to WBLI’s parody, “LIPA Style.” Putting aside the histrionics for a moment, it’s clear that we are no closer to a solution than we were three weeks ago, or 30 years ago for that matter.

So let’s boil it down. LIPA is a management company, not a utility company like National Grid. They are responsible for purchasing power, updating technology, tracking outages, communicating with customers and generally maintaining the grid. But even these important responsibilities are ancillary functions to the main purpose behind LIPA: managing debt.

LIPA was formed from the ashes of LILCO and the abandoned Shoreham nuclear plant, an all-too-familiar story to Long Islanders. It was created as an energy management company hybrid that was dead on arrival due to the overwhelming debt that the defunct Shoreham project carried along. Any attempts to chip away at the debt through aggressive power purchase agreements or renewable technology investments amounted to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Even though only about half of the outstanding $7 billion in LIPA debt can still be attributed to the albatross that was Shoreham, the total outstanding obligation hasn’t budged because borrowing without increased revenue begets more borrowing.

Still the cries for change at LIPA come from every direction. Why can’t we bury the lines? Because this isn’t Texas. We have neither the land nor the money to start digging new trenches and burying wires. Not to mention there are other things hanging from those poles (ahem, Cablevision), which further complicates the impossible. Why didn’t they upgrade the system like other places? Because it costs money to replace poles and wires that can withstand downed trees and high winds, and money equals rate increases.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo should be lauded on the one hand for his swift and tireless efforts in the wake of the storm. On the other hand, it must be said that his initial criticisms of LIPA sound somewhat hollow. For 22 months, the standard answer to questions regarding the vacant leadership post at LIPA and the vacant board seats has been: “We’re waiting to hear from the second floor.”

This is government-speak for “It’s up to the governor.” LIPA wasn’t even authorized to fund vacancies in the communications department. So for the governor to criticize LIPA for its lack of leadership and communication during the crisis is disingenuous at best. This doesn’t alter the fact that LIPA would have failed miserably during Sandy if Nikola Tesla was the CEO of LIPA and Roger Ailes was the communications director. 

LIPA is broken because Long Island is broke.

As a result, Michael Hervey has tendered his resignation from LIPA. He’s the fall guy and I get it. But this is not something to cheer. Hervey has three things going for him that all other leaders before him did not: experience, the admiration of his team and an engineering degree. I’m not saying he should remain as head of the authority, but losing him is a setback.

Please don’t mistake me for a LIPA apologist. There is no question LIPA was overwhelmed by the storm and therefore ineffective in its response. Furthermore, its communication with the public was awful. Better communication would have eased tensions in the same way a sign on the Long Island Expressway that tells you how long it will take you to get to the Midtown Tunnel does; it doesn’t make the trip faster, it just manages your expectations in the hopes of reducing road rage. You can bet that if Richie Kessel was still at the helm that everyone would have know what was going on, even if he had to knock on every door. Whether anything else would have been different is anyone’s guess.

With that said, there is a simple and extraordinarily unpopular answer to what ails us: We have no choice but to pay down LIPA’s debt.

We can talk about wind farms and solar arrays on top of parking lots until we’re blue in the face, but nothing will mitigate our financial mess until this debt is eradicated. Either we pay now, or our kids pay later. (Assuming they’re still here.) Any talk of funds to upgrade the system or of nationwide executive searches is meaningless unless and until we get serious about putting Shoreham behind us once and for all.

Any plan moving forward must seek to sunset LIPA altogether by combining federal money and local rate increases to aggressively pay down a significant portion of the debt and sell Long Island’s power infrastructure and remaining debt to a public utility. Anything less is just shouting at the rain.

Dead Addicts Don’t Get Better

More than 350 Long Islanders lost their lives to accidental overdose last year – about one per day. Nationwide, someone dies of an overdose every 19 minutes and countless others survive, but suffer irreversible brain damage.

Last Friday was International Overdose Prevention Day, but if today is like every other day in recent memory, at least one Long Island family will begin making funeral plans for a loved one whose untreated addiction to prescription painkillers, heroin, methadone, cocaine, Xanax or some combination of drugs and alcohol claimed their life. More than 350 Long Islanders lost their lives to accidental overdose last year – about one per day. Nationwide, someone dies of an overdose every 19 minutes and countless others survive, but suffer irreversible brain damage.

Overdose fatalities involving prescription painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet and Fentanyl are three times what they were a decade ago. The misuse of these and a few other medications were responsible for 15,000 US deaths in 2008 and 475,000 emergency department visits in 2009. A whopping 12 million Americans reported using prescription painkillers non-medically in 2010 and an estimated two million more people will join their ranks in 2012.

The National Health Center for Health Statistics recently found that drug overdose has edged out car crashes to become the leading cause of accidental death in the US. If only there were something like say, seatbelts, or airbags or anti-lock brakes that could save someone who is careening through the pitch black tunnel of an overdose death. There is.

It’s a drug called called Naloxone, which is distributed under the brand name “Narcan.” Developed in the late 1960’s, Narcan immediately reverses opiate overdoses by blocking key brain receptors and counteracting life-threatening central nervous system and respiratory depression. The generic drug, which can be administered via a nasal spray or injection is not prone to abuse because it doesn’t get you high (in fact, it does just the opposite) and has no major side effects if administered in error. Addicts in the throes of overdose who get the drug will likely suffer significant withdrawal symptoms and they’re frequently pissed rather than thankful, but they’ll live to see another day.

Emergency departments and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) have dispensed Narcan for decades, but too many folks are dying waiting for an ambulance to arrive and in many cases, the 911 call happens long after the person has expired. Few non-medical people know about Narcan and it’s only available via prescription, though the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held a hearing earlier this year to explore over-the-counter availability.  It costs less than $20 per dose.

Community access to Narcan happens now through a limited number of overdose prevention programs that train drug users and their families to recognize the signs of overdose, underscore the importance of immediately calling for medical help and equip them with life-saving Narcan kits. In February, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released results from a survey of 48 such programs nationwide that detailed 10,000 overdose revivals since 1996. The New York State Department of Health has approved about 75 Opioid Overdose Prevention Programs to date, including one run by the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (LICADD), which so far has trained in excess of 300 community members, including two dozen residents of the Shinnecock Indian Reservation.

Those efforts got a boost in recent weeks as the Suffolk County Police Department kicked off a pilot program that put Narcan nasal sprays in the hands of 300 cops in the 4th, 6th and 7th Precincts. Sector cars often arrive on the scene well before ambulances and during a medical emergency, every second counts. The early results are mind-blowing: cops have revived three people in as many weeks. Those three people likely got the wake-up call of their lives and their families can arrange drug treatment, rather than a funeral.

Suffolk lawmakers led by Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who voted unanimously to create the pilot program, should immediately expand it to include every sector car in the county. Nassau should do the same. School nurses across Long Island – particularly those working in high schools where prescription drug abuse is rampant – should be trained and given Narcan kits. Parents of addicted kids need access more than anyone else and drug users should be trained and equipped to help their friends.

Seventy percent of people who abuse prescription painkillers say they get them from family, friends or straight out of the medicine cabinet. Shouldn’t an overdose antidote like Narcan, which is safe, cheap and proven to save lives, be as easy to obtain? Why isn’t Narcan included in every first aid kit distributed across America?

New York has been pretty progressive on this issue. State lawmakers approved a bill in 2006 that allows non-medical folks to administer Narcan and extends good samaritan protections to those who use the drug in good faith. The Legislature also approved a measure last year that provides for limited immunity from prosecution for certain drug offenses when someone calls for help during an overdose.

We’re also beginning see an awakening at a national level. Even Obama’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, who as a former police chief is a law-and-order kind of guy, recently spoke out in favor of increased access to Narcan. “The Administration supports the use of naloxone by public health and law enforcement professionals because we have seen how effective the drug can be,” he told a group in North Carolina last week.

So, with questions about potential liability, safety and costs handily addressed, what’s the hold-up? It’s apathy more than opposition, though a few naysayers have suggested that educating drug users about overdose and giving them Narcan will leave them a false sense of security and encourage them to use more drugs. That’s the same mindset that allowed HIV/AIDS to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans as we bickered about whether a piece of latex would encourage people to become promiscuous. Think about it. We don’t all drive faster because our cars are equipped with airbags, nor do we eat more Ring Dings because there’s an automated external defibrillator (AED) bolted to the wall in our corporate cafeteria.

Potentially avoiding death doesn’t encourage drug use any more than the fear of death stops it.  Addiction is an inherently irrational brain disease, but it’s also treatable and needn’t prove fatal. Too many families are losing the race against time as they beg, plead, and try to cajole their loved one into treatment for a disease whose calling card is massive denial. Too many young people never make it through the doors of a treatment center, never come face-to-face with a counselor and never get a shot at experiencing the miracle of recovery.

Given the enormity of the opiate crisis and recent advances in substance abuse prevention and addiction treatment, it’s easy to wonder whether getting an addict breathing again is the best we can do. Nope, but it’s certainly the least we can do.

Meeting The Media

I hope journalists have faith that their best judgment merits attention. It’s not elitist to expect people to have minds worth stretching.

The Huntington Chamber of Commerce held a “Meet the Media” breakfast where Long Island and metro-area journalists talked about the year’s biggest story, the least reported story, and how to get a press release seen as a story. This was interesting. What got me, though, was when they wrestled with what they must do to be relevant themselves.  This is what I’d encourage:

Important Over Popular. I realize advertisers probably put undue emphasis on social media, but please let’s not have the peanut gallery dictate what’s covered.  I have Facebook, LinkedIn, and friends who forward things inspiring, appalling or fun to argue with. I dig Digg. I even have Twitter followers, though I’ve yet to tweet. We cherry pick and pontificate, yielding finely niched popularity contests, personal statements, and less than civil, questionably educated debate. Should journalists participate? Sure. It’s a good place to connect and study people. This isn’t journalism, though. It’s the public square.

One local newspaperman pointed this out to his fellows, and I hope others will agree: You are the journalists. You are trained to uncover truth, draw attention, and provide context. Be savvy, but don’t pander to lowest common denominators or outspoken niches. Rise above, shine a light, and lift rocks where no one has looked. Wield your critical thinking skills, access to information, experience and judgment. Connect the dots, break it all down and serve up what you think people need to know. The masses will follow.  

Good News and Bad News. We count on journalists to administer bad news. However, many otherwise intelligent people willfully ignore the media because time with it leaves the impression that the world is fully corrupted and likely a lost cause. Why? Editors know train wrecks sell.

One journalist made a point about this that was sharpened by the silence that struck before people realized his example was hypothetical: Were it revealed that the homeless girl from Brentwood stole her Intel-Semi-Finalist Winning Project from some kid in Jericho that would draw huge response. If that happened, journalists should burst our collective bubble. Thank God, it hasn’t.

Fortunately, the journalist’s point was dual. His example also showed the value and occasional front-page caliber of good news. Despite the lack of a gallows draw, everyone knew exactly who he was talking about. It was Samantha Garvey who, in the face of disheartening adversity, had the support and initiative to succeed. It is the best thing I’ve read in a while. Following the story as it brightened, I purchased a “real” newspaper to hug.  It was at least as important as ever-impending doom and gloom. Samantha moved people to reach further and open wider. Some found faith in humanity, which can be hard to come by. Others found faith in themselves. Some stepped up to help that girl and her family, generating stories of their own.

Headlines and Detail. It’s true. Few can afford to pay attention. Even those with a capacity to focus have lots to keep track of. I don’t just read local media. I like regional stuff, and world stuff, and diverse trade stuff. I’m an existentialist egghead seeking to cover all perspectives. Sometimes you’ll even catch me reading tabloids and pondering overexposed life. Mostly, I’m striving to reconcile competing worldviews in search of my own piece of truth. That’s a lot of news. I have a full life to live around that. Often I’m limited to headlines and first paragraphs, grateful for whoever invented the inverted pyramid.

This doesn’t mean I only want one paragraph. Rather, it makes me even more reliant on journalists who get the full scoop. Those who at least link source material come across as open, educated, and respectful of intelligence. Maybe you don’t see too many stats showing people clicking through long articles, but I suspect those who do use them fully, and cite the heck out of them to others. These diehards are your experts, teachers, advocates and students. They include a critical minority that leads thought, and gets things done. A journalist who can fill a few pages well has probably also got a better grasp on what those first paragraphs should say.

If paper’s too expensive for that many words, fine, and even poets like me don’t want journalists wasting space with flowery nothings. Arrange front pages to facilitate skimming and conserve words elegantly, but please don’t cut to fit shrinking attention spans. We’re dumbed down to the bone already, thanks. Give us substance.

Bottom line? I hope journalists have faith that their best judgment merits attention. It’s not elitist to expect people to have minds worth stretching. We don’t need news based on what we already think we know, what the average blowhard’s willing to compute, or what will freeze attention in shocked stares. Yes, there are liars, thieves, fools and fouler things. We shouldn’t whitewash that, or minimize the media’s watchdog role. However, striving heroes and successes need spotlights too, preferably in a balance that mirrors reality. We must be warned, but also educated and inspired.

It’s unfortunate that news seems to be weighted on scales used for entertainment more than those used for academic contribution. Yes, great teachers employ both – and journalists ARE the ultimate continuing education machine — but shouldn’t we lean just a little bit more toward the latter? I think so.

Shirley, You Must Be Joking

Unfortunately, wherever there is bullying there is a good chance the ball has been dropped by a parent or parents in terms of either teaching their child how to behave or not being there in the first place.

I would have thought raising a generation of Americans on “Barney and Friends,” et al, would have precluded us from having to discuss the bullying problem for the same reason that so many of us no longer smoke cigarettes: We know it’s bad and we know others don’t like it so we don’t do it.

 (Read LI Press story about Daphne Melin, pictured right, who was arrested for encouraging a fight between two 12 year-old girls in Shirley)

 And yet the other night, as I went to use the water fountain (yes, they still exist) in the grade school where a bunch of local dads play basketball, I noticed that the walls were plastered with bromides about the need to treat each other with respect and dignity. I imagine similar scenarios are played out in grade schools across the Island, and yet the news is still rife with stories about kids bullying kids.

I can tell you there were no bromides on the walls of St. Williams in Seaford, where I went to grammar school in the late 1960s. It was survival of the fittest, and the bigger kids ruled. It was either fight or flight and given my propensity for seeing every comment as a slight, I often opted for the former.

As crazy as things got back then, however, I did not have to deal with the Internet. It’s one thing to have to battle the known enemy during lunch or after school. It’s a whole ‘nother fight when the enemy – or enemies – have technological weapons at their disposal that can do their damage at the push of a key and in the blink of an eye. Hiding behind a keyboard emboldens today’s bullies, too, because they can commit their cowardly actions with an utter lack of fear of physical retribution. I’m not saying I kicked anybody’s butt, but if you picked on me you were going to get dirty and possibly even bloodied because I was never afraid to fight. Surely that had to discourage more than one bully from piling on.

I’m not suggesting fighting fire with fire. I am simply pointing out that one of the reasons why bullying seems so rampant now is because it is so much easier to be a bully. You even get the glory of media attention, thanks to the youtubification of every little thing that goes on in our society. (I can only imagine how intriguing it would be to watch a videotape of one of my schoolyard scraps).

So how do we end bullying? Unfortunately, wherever there is bullying there is a good chance the ball has been dropped by  a parent or parents in terms of either teaching their child how to behave or not being there in the first place. So it falls on our schools to continue the anti-bullying campaigns and have responsible adults intervene whenever possible.

I know that worked in my case. It was Sister Jean, who took over as school principal late in my St. Williams career, who set me straight. When I was in seventh grade I figured it was my turn to inflict rather than receive. After doing so (verbally, not physically) at the bus stop one morning, I was called down to Sr. Jean’s office. It seems the recipient of my obnoxiousness did not embrace the philosophy that being bullied was a rite of passage, even in a parochial school, and complained to the principal. Sr. Jean asked me why I was picking on a younger student who had done me no harm. I explained that that’s the way I was treated when I was younger. She asked me how it felt. Lousy, I said. “So why would you want to inflict that kind of pain on somebody else?”

I wanted to say “where the hell were you when I was eating the dirt at recess”, but I didn’t. I knew she was right. I didn’t want other kids to go through what I went through.

Bullies need to be confronted and challenged, with compassion if possible. Get to the root of why he or she is behaving in that manner and get the bully to understand the pain he or she is inflicting, and unless you are dealing with psychotic you will put an end to the problem.

What A Disaster

Nature may have disrupted our lives, but the communication disaster surrounding Tropical Storm Irene was purely man made. By 12 noon on Sunday, Aug. 28, it became clear LIPA, the media and local government all failed the public.

Of course, LIPA gets the lion’s share of the blame, and rightly so. When the utility dusted off a decades old, decentralized restoration plan, it failed to realize what a monumental communication strategy it would need. Not only would LIPA need the manpower and the connectivity to simultaneously monitor decentralized operations across the Island, it would need to create channels for feeding its own news — successes, works in progress, and problems — back to headquarters.

Instead, the new guy at the helm, came forth and announced he had nothing to say, and no way to find out in a timely manner. That’s the moment when media and government should have seized control.

To be fair to Michael Hervey, he’s new at this. And he got clobbered by one seriously angry woman. But let him be a case study for all CEOs on this Island: If communicating is not among your major priorities, if the need for publicly providing leadership and reassurance escapes your attention, then step down. Or, be smart enough to surround yourself with people who get it, before your own personal version of Irene takes hold and takes over.

A media savvy CEO would’ve made the world of a difference in this instance.

Say what you will about former LIPA head Richard Kessel, but the man is a master communicator. And, as all CEOs set the internal culture of a company, LIPA’s former senior management took communication duties with serious intent and obligation. Jumping out of the shower to take a reporter’s call — as opposed to finishing up, drying off and calling back, and possibly missing a deadline — was commonplace.

If Kessel (pictured right) had been there, it would have been a weekend of Kessel on over drive. Always on the radio. Pictured in the newspapers and online sources, giving interviews from sites of devastation — and providing plenty of photo ops, probably in that horizontal-striped polo shirt, bringing Dunkin’ Donuts to working crews, and donning a helmet and going up in a cherry picker, just to convey the image of no detail too small for the person in charge of cleaning up such a mess. Behind him, communication staff would be issuing new statements and, in today’s realm of technological wonders, tweeting, blogging and Facebooking news on a 24/7 basis. Would the power have been restored faster? Hard to say. But communication would have been fast and furious.

Instead, today’s LIPA took to fielding angry calls and, in return, offered sympathy. That’s no strategy. Occasional tweets and Facebook messages illustrated how out of touch the utility — like many local companies here — is with our rapidly changing local news landscape and its impact.

The truth of the matter is, with Newsday weakened by serious cutbacks and so few local reporters left to comb the Island, Hervey had a golden opportunity to feed the media whatever story he wanted. Lord knows there’s not enough experienced reporters around who would have verified the facts during a natural disaster. Thirty years ago, when radio and print reporters roamed our streets and could bear witness to events, companies wouldn’t be able to get away with what I am suggesting. Today, it’s a different ballgame.
Which brings us to the media, which was clearly so reliant on LIPA spoon feeding them information that, in the hours after the storm, we heard plenty of songs on the radio, but little news. In those fleeting moments when some news became available, all news sources — print and radio — referred the public to check web sites. Problem was, most of us were in the dark, with no connectivity to go to websites. Without power, television news is a mute point. WALK and JVC hooked up, which was progress, but they could’ve capitalized on their combined ability to continually deliver news and information to a desperate public. Barnstable streaming News12 — something I had advocated for long ago — offered news to people who were unable to access it any other way.

Long Island has always lacked enough news gatherers, but what’s happened now is that they are using technology they haven’t quite come to grips with. The lack of education of those running newsrooms never shone more brightly than this past week, when they tried to drive an unconnected public to online news sites for necessary information.

While the media should’ve hunted and haunted LIPA into finding ways to get information out faster, it’s puzzling why local government — with their own emergency management formulas — didn’t step in to help. Prior to the storm, politicians were laudably proactive in protecting the public interest. Perhaps after the storm, they realized their emergency communication plans were not as effective as they thought? Like those reverse311 plans, which call the public to alert them of special situations, such as blocked roads and downed trees. Problem? Many are tied to calling only landlines, and less than one in four U.S. households currently has a land line.

What is abundantly clear is this: All of the so-called emergency communication plans on this Island need to be revamped. Why LIPA let a year-old, notification-via-text plan fall by the wayside is unconscionable. But again, not everyone texts nor has a cell phone, so one method of communication is hardly the answer. Recent history, however, underscores the need for the outlying areas of the United States — places such as New Orleans, Hawaii and now, Long Island — to be required to have superior emergency management plans in place, to protect the public.

This is an issue that all of Long Island has a vested in, and it’s paramount to ensuring the success of what Long Island is to become in the future. If you’re interested in change for the better, count me in.

Our Addicted Island Hits Rock Bottom

The seeds of addiction have been sewn into the Long Island community and its roots have firmly taken hold. At a time when Long Island as a whole could use an intervention, funding for critical programs is being cut. LICADD Director Jeffrey Reynolds examines needed policy changes to put our Island on the road to recovery.

If four people being shot dead in a pharmacy isn’t hitting rock bottom, I don’t know what is. As the victims – Jaime Taccetta, Raymond Ferguson, Jennifer Mejia, and Bryon Sheffield – are laid to rest, they join Courtney Sipes and Rebecca Twain Wright and countless others who are also victims of Long Island’s drug crisis.

Sipes was run down on Main Street in Smithtown in November, 2009 by a driver allegedly high on heroin. Wright was gardening in her Hempstead front lawn when she was mowed down by Kayla Gerdes who was allegedly high on Xanax. Factor in all the others who each year, are killed by drunk or high drivers, in workplace accidents, assaults and other incidents and the collateral damage associated with unfettered and untreated addiction becomes absolutely stunning.

Indeed, addiction has always torn apart families, disrupted workplaces, ruined lives and given its progressive nature, often proves fatal to the one with the disease. But now it seems that the wreckage can’t be contained behind closed doors where families quietly and privately suffer the consequences – and is spilling out into the public domain, sweeping unsuspecting folks into its path.

How bad has Long Island’s addiction gotten when you can’t even pick up a prescription, cross a street or walk out your front door without being in danger? Or better yet, how bad does it need to get before we do something?

Pretty bad, it seems. After all, we’ve been talking about Long Island’s heroin crisis for years and the connection to prescription meds has been clear from day one. Addicts make the move to heroin from more expensive prescription meds once they figure out that 80mg of OxyContin costs $40-$50 on the street, while heroin runs just $10 per bag. Despite the media attention, school-sponsored parent workshops, legislative forums, educational campaigns and ambitious policy recommendations from blue ribbon panels like the Suffolk County Heroin and Opiate Task Force, not much has changed.

Arrests and overdoses continue to climb and the pain in our community is palpable, ironically due in large part to the misuse and diversion of prescription meds. That’s not to say that we should restrict access to medications that give chronic pain sufferers some relief and increased quality of life. As our population ages, we needn’t go back to dark ages, but we do need to get serious about a drug crisis that is claiming far too many lives. Here’s how:

  • Opiates are controlled substances. Control them. Prosecute the bad doctors that sell prescriptions and run pill mills. Convict them, take their licenses and sentence them like street drug dealers.
  • Educate, train and support the other 99.9% of doctors and physician assistants who try to do the right thing, but are often fooled by addicts who are charming, demanding and laser-focused on getting their fix.
  • Limit doctor shopping and pharmacy hopping by strengthening the prescription drug monitoring database to include real-time updates and give access to pharmacists. This database already exists, but is updated just monthly and only physicians – with limited time on their hands – have access to the information.
  • It’s time to reign-in the burgeoning pain management industry. The good guys will tell you that they can spot drug-seeking behavior a mile away, are willing to turn patients away, even if police intervention is required and they perform routine drug testing of patients. If you’ve been given a thirty-day supply of Vicodin and a quick urine test reveals that you’ve got none in your system or other drugs are present, then it’s time for a conversation.
  • National surveys suggest that 77% of those under the age of 25 get their first taste of prescription painkillers from their parents’ medicine cabinet, a friend or relative. How about we enforce state law requiring pharmacists to counsel patients picking-up prescriptions about the proper use and storage of medications? As consumers, we waive counseling when we sign that log at the pharmacy desk. A simple question from a pharmacist or pharmacy tech about whether there are teenagers in the home, along with a sentence or two about the addictive properties of opiate painkillers could go a long way.
  • OxyContin, Vicodin and other opioids are used to treat pain and are quickly replacing alcohol and marijuana as the drug of choice among adolescents. Being a teen has never been easy and kids have always done unsafe, unhealthy things, but we need to figure out why adolescence has become so damn difficult that our young people are turning to the strongest painkillers known to man to relieve the suffering. And by the way, how about we stop allowing pharmaceutical companies to promote expensive pills as a solution for everything from impotence to anxiety to difficulty urinating? 
  • Just as substance abuse is 100% preventable, addiction is treatable. Despite all the attention to heroin, drug treatment slots have not grown in recent years. In fact, they’re shrinking thanks to state budget cuts and an unprecedented demand for assistance. The Baldwin Council Against Drug Abuse, for example, is in the process of shutting down and two other drug treatment providers in Nassau will likely suffer the same fate before Summer’s end. Surviving agencies report long waiting lists and an unprecedented demand for help. We need to make treatment on demand a reality.

Without intervention and treatment, addiction is a progressive disease that often proves fatal. It gets worse as time goes on. It deepens and becomes more intractable. The risks to health, safety and well-being multiply and the consequences worsen. That’s where we are here on Long Island right now.

While accused Medford gunman David Laffer and his wife Melinda Brady have denied that they’re addicts, the storyline sounds far-fetched and may change at trial. Struggling with dependency, though, doesn’t earn them a free pass and if convicted they should be punished accordingly. The Medford murders do, however, remind us that our continued denial and collective failure to adequately address what has become Long Island’s top public health problem places each and every one of us at risk.

Solar’s Time Is Now

Introduced by our own Long Island Assembly Member, Steve Englebright (D-East Setauket), the Solar Jobs Act will help offset what is currently the most expensive and polluting slice of New York’s electricity mix, peak generation, with reliable power from the sun.

The calendar says summer isn’t even officially here and Long Islanders are already looking for relief. From the heat, sure, but also from those jaw-dropping summer electric bills that are starting to come in the mail.

The market cost of electricity is continuing its relentless upward trend, which doesn’t bode well for Long Island, where we already pay some of the highest utility rates in the nation. Those bills are particularly high in the summertime, since many of us rely on air conditioners to cool our homes and offices. And adding insult to injury, energy costs nearly double on the hottest days when LIPA switches on those more expensive “peaker” power plants to meet the increased demand.

Who pays? All of Long Island – businesses, residents and government. High energy costs are a serious concern for our fragile economic recovery, and they will only continue to rise unless New York State gets serious about a smarter long-term strategy. Fortunately, there is a solution all around us in the form of clean and abundant solar energy – if only Albany would give the green light.

Right now, our state legislators are weighing a major initiative, called the Solar Industry Development and Jobs Act, that will finally make good on our state’s solar potential. It’s a simple, market-driven proposal that calls on utility companies to gradually increase the amount of solar energy they purchase over time. The goal is to install 5,000 megawatts of solar capacity by 2025, enough to power more than 500,000 homes and get the Empire State back on top.

Introduced by our own Long Island Assembly Member, Steve Englebright (D-East Setauket), the Solar Jobs Act will help offset what is currently the most expensive and polluting slice of New York’s electricity mix, peak generation, with reliable power from the sun. Furthermore, by keeping energy dollars invested in the state, this legislation will have significant immediate and long-term benefits for our economy. It will create 22,000 new local jobs across a broad range of skill levels and generate an estimated $20 billion in economic activity. 

For Long Island, that means more jobs at local companies like KPS Solar. And by drawing on lessons learned in other states, the Solar Industry Development and Jobs Act is designed to deliver those high economic returns at a low cost to ratepayers.

Perhaps most importantly, this legislation will finally give solar energy the policy foundations needed to build a strong, self-sustaining local market. All across the country, states that have effective solar policies are seeing lower energy costs – which, in turn, drives additional demand for solar that lowers its cost even further (what economists call a “virtuous cycle”). In those states, utilities are already signing contracts for solar power that are at or below the price of natural gas. The Solar Jobs Act would effectively move New York’s solar industry beyond one-off projects by steadily building a robust new energy economy.

This solar initiative is far from pie in the sky. In fact, just look next door to see how well it is working. New Jersey implemented exactly the kind of solar program we are contemplating right now, and as a result, the Garden State installed more solar capacity last year than the Empire State has in its entire history. New Jersey now generates more than six times as much solar energy as New York. And because it has a first-to-market advantage, New Jersey has one of the most robust clean-energy sectors on the East Coast – including all those green jobs that should be ours.

The clean-energy future that Long Islanders have wanted for years could be a reality before legislators break for the summer. The Solar Jobs Act has bipartisan support in the Assembly and Senate, and is sponsored by 17 members of Long Island’s delegation (3 Senate, 14 Assembly). Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) will play a critical role in its passage, and he has been supportive in recent discussions. The Solar Jobs Act also fits perfectly within Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign promise to help create a thriving innovation economy.

In other words, there is no good reason New York can’t get this bill done in June. The Solar Jobs Act opens the door to a smarter, safer and more economical future. If Long Island continues to rely on fossil fuels, electric bills will only go up and up with each passing summer. The sun, on the other hand, is NOT raising its rates this year; sunlight will always be free and solar energy is getting cheaper all the time.

Kevin MacLeod, president of KPS Solar based in Bay Shore and staunch advocate for alternative energy, contributed to this article.

Karl Rove and Weapons of Mass Destruction in Nassau

Nassau County remains one of the most segregated counties in the country. This disgusting move by the Nassau County Republicans ensures that racism is alive and kicking in Nassau and that people even in this day and age have to continue to fight for voting rights.

Karl RoveAs I sit at the hearing on redistricting in Nassau County, the tactics of Karl Rove and the perpetration of the fictions of “weapons of mass destruction” come to mind. It is no secret that the Republicans are worried about keeping their majority due to Ed Mangano’s poor leadership as county executive. Rather than win an election fairly, the Republicans want to steal it through redistricting.

Using flawed rationale regarding the county charter and census, the Republicans are using the minority community as the reason they have to redistrict quickly. Their argument is that there are too many people in one of the minority districts and they must immediately fix it. This is the “weapons of mass destruction” simile because the fear is all make believe. They are right that the problem needs to be fixed, but through a real process with community involvement and consensus building. The real impact of this action will actually dilute the existing minority districts. It splits Hempstead into three districts which makes absolutely no sense. It combines Elmont with a religious Jewish community which makes absolutely no sense. And they basically Gerrymandered lines creating discontinuous district lines which is not constitutional.

These tactics are so shaky that Republicans are willing to revisit the issue  in two years and acknowledge that the districts will be changed again. The cost of running the elections and having the Board of Elections make the necessary changes with the new voting machines is enormous and  might even be prohibitive. What about the candidates who are planning to run?  They do not even know what district they are in.

Nassau County remains one of the most segregated counties in the country. This disgusting move by the Nassau County Republicans ensures that racism is alive and kicking in Nassau and that people even in this day and age have to continue to fight for voting rights. This issue can really be weapons of mass destruction to the minority community. We will go back to the old days where only white people can be elected in Nassau County.

Not So Fast, 2012

While the national debate rages on through 2012 here at home there are local issues playing out that will have a significant impact on shaping Long Island. Including the lighthouse project, an island based casino, legacy village in Yaphank and Wolkoff’s mini-city in Brentwood to name a few.

Gearing up for 2012, Long Island let’s not forget about 2011.
Gop Candidate FieldThe heroic mission of the U.S Navy Seals to rid the world of the face of terrorism has created a new paradigm for the 2012 elections. Before this global event consumed the national political headlines the term “birther” was rekindled by Donald Trump’s potential bid for the Country’s CEO job which monopolized weeks of national broadcasts, only to have POTUS Obama hold a live news conference to finally provide his birth certificate after two years of countless debate, articles and even books on the topic. The seriousness of the global threats facing our nation weighed against such previous headlines certainly re-shifts the current debate played out in the news cycle.

Over the last several weeks we’ve had former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty announce their exploratory committees and GOP power broker Haley Barbour surprisingly bow out of running. Shortly we’ll see if former Utah Governor John Huntsman, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Congresswoman Michelle Bachman officially declare their intentions to run for President.

On the Hill there was a fierce budget debate with clocks ticking down on cable news of a looming government shut down. Next up on the docket the debt ceiling vote. Get ready.

Now Democrat operatives are staging protests at Republican House Members town hall meetings across the Country using Congressman Paul Ryan’s forward looking budget as a wedge issue for 2012. A recent Rasmussen Poll shows those aware of the plan 51% of Republicans favor Ryan’s budget plan and 52% of Democrats oppose it. But a plurality of voters not affiliated with either party have no opinion. Again a classic example of party line support with the battleground being the independent voter’s support.

Without a doubt there are substantial issues that must be addressed in order for our Country to prosper. Sustaining isn’t good enough, growth should be our objective. Social Security, Medicare, cutting the deficit, sound job creation and pension reform are of all hallmark concerns.

While the national debate rages on through 2012 here at home there are local issues playing out that will have a significant impact on shaping Long Island. Including the lighthouse project, an island based casino, legacy village in Yaphank and Wolkoff’s mini-city in Brentwood to name a few. Oh, and while it is not significant to the “shaping of Long Island” I do predict very localized, heated debate on the zoning of Sonic fast food joints springing up on the Island. We’ll have to see if resident’s craving for burgers and roller skates will outweigh the traffic jams that may snarl local roads.

When you look at voter participation of national elections to local elections here on the Island the numbers are quite far apart. Let’s turn to Suffolk County as an illustration. The 2008 Presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain had 75.18% of registered voters come to the polls. That’s substantially higher than the 61% national average from that year. The last off year election in Suffolk County was in 2009 where a mere 20.81% turned out county wide. Go back to 2003 with the race for Suffolk County Executive between Ed Romaine and Steve Levy to see a somewhat respectable 32.38% turnout.

Political strategists have spent campaign dollars trying to drive out presidential year voters in off years with limited success.

There are many root causes of voter apathy at the local level. One reason is that there is substantially less television coverage of local races with Long Island’s news market dominated by New York City based and national cable news. Secondly there is not enough public awareness demonstrating the importance of local elected offices. An extreme few can actually describe the job function of a County Comptroller, but yet they’re asked to vote for that office in an election. Don’t dare to ask your average registered voter to name both their Assemblyman AND County Legislator. Yikes. (No offense to all my friends in those offices).

Some thought needs to go into New York’s stiffer voting rules compared to other states. Many states in the Union have more convenient absentee voting rules and gives the electorate the ability before election day to cast their ballots through early voting. Giving people more flexibility to vote with today’s more demanding work and home environments should be studied further outlining its pro’s and con’s for such a reform.

What out of the box ideas can “electrify” the electorate to fill in a circle on their paper ballots for County Executive, Town Supervisor and local Legislator this year?

All the snazzy mail put out by these candidates won’t do the trick. Long Island’s media; Newsday, News12, TV55, the Long Island Press, the Patch and weeklies do an admirable job touting local elections, but we need a wider net to cast in more voter interest.

One idea in the true spirit of bi-partisanship is to have all the Presidential, U.S Senate and House candidates who are running in 2012 join together, along with the main stream media to promote a “vote local” initiative this fall urging everyone to vote in their local elections. At least then we’d have a new, high profile delivery method to bring more voters to the polls this year. Well call that idea very unlikely.

We then need to consider a wide-spread “calling of the guard” for Long Island based stake holders and media to join together to create our own non partisan “vote local in 2011” initiative. We have many groups with substantial monetary and human capital where through the use of PSA type outreach can connect with every Long Islander multiple times with an important, yet simple, education campaign on why it is important to vote in your local elections. If groups like the Long Island Association, HIA, Execuleaders, Melville Chamber, Hispanic Chamber, ABLI, Long Island Angels, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, our higher educational institutions such as Hofstra and Dowling along with our many trade unions pooled resources for a “vote Long Island” campaign, the message would certainly drive voter participation higher in local election years, including 2011.

Unfortunately the Sonic debates, the chants to keep the Islanders here and the potential for winning the slots at a local casino won’t be enough to drive out presidential year voters en masse this November. But hopefully Long Island pulling together can far eclipse recent off year voter turnout by educating the public on why 2011 is just as important as 2012.

Charitable Choices

Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds gives tough love to colleagues in the nonprofit sector telling them, “Times are going to get tougher and there’s less money to go around. Some nonprofits will not survive the recession and perhaps they shouldn’t. We need to stop playing the victim and get into the game.”

Jeffrey Reynolds Jed Morey
AP Photo courtesy of the Long Island Press

The sky is falling. Again. The state budget deal approved last month contained significant budget cuts disproportionately aimed at education, health and human services, as did the recent federal budget deal that helped avert yet another government shutdown.  At the county level, youth organizations are fighting for their lives in Nassau where continued funding is being tied to red light camera revenues.  Suffolk County is facing a $127 million deficit that will only deepen as we head into the fall budget season.  And if you think this is bad, just know that by all accounts, 2012 is going to be even uglier.

For most of Long Island’s nonprofits, this is just the latest series of body blows. Foundations with declining major gifts and lower investment returns are naturally making fewer grants. Companies don’t make corporate contributions when their revenues are in the toilet and they’re laying-off staff; only LIPA does that. For the average Long Islander struggling to pay their bills, well, charity begins at home.  And at the same time, record numbers of volunteers and contributors are becoming clients looking for a helping hand from local charities instead of giving one. Requests for assistance have skyrocketed, creating the proverbial “perfect storm.”

Some charities are weathering the storm better than others, but it’s tough for even the best managed, well-established, resourceful and leanest organizations to meet the growing demand for services in this environment. That’s in part because there are more than 3,000 non-profits on Long Island. While some are quickly-incorporated non-functioning entities that never quite got up and running, at least half are going concerns whose biggest challenge these days is staying in business.

There are lots of nonprofit executive directors laying awake at night these days trying to figure out how to reduce client waiting lists, keep the lights on and make payroll. Business owners do that all the time; it goes with the territory. But there’s got to be a better way.

Nancy Lublin who runs DoSomething.org, argued in the December 2010 issue of  Fast Company that charities – especially those that have achieved their missions – should have an expiration date.  “For-profits go out of business all the time, for reasons good and bad, from fierce competition to poor management to an inability to adapt. Lehman Brothers. Circuit City. Linens ‘n Things. All dead!” she writes, before issuing this challenge: “Now try to name a closed nonprofit.”

Of course, the work of many organizations isn’t done. We haven’t yet conquered poverty, homelessness, hunger, addiction, youth violence, sexual assault, AIDS, or cancer and the likelihood that we’ll eradicate these plagues anytime soon is pretty nil. Maybe that says something , too.

As an alternative to just closing up shop, the non-profit world and its funders have talked about “consolidation” and “mergers” for years, especially as times have gotten tougher. We all agree it needs to happen, but it hasn’t.  Merger discussions between regional nonprofits haven’t panned out for one reason or another – boards or management teams were incompatible, the programs weren’t a good mix or it “just didn’t feel right.”

Here’s the problem, though: Each of Long Island’s roughly 1,500 operational nonprofits has its own board of directors, an executive director or CEO, office rental costs and overhead expenses. Each one receives tax breaks, collects community contributions, enjoys the goodwill of volunteers and a fair amount get government grants.  Each one competes with the other for charitable dollars and at the end of the day we all have less money to spend on services. Our dream of actually achieving our agency mission, solving some problems and moving on becomes ever more elusive.

But faced with yet another round of budget cuts, we hold press conferences and rallies, wave placards, give fiery speeches, launch Facebook campaigns, and encourage our clients to call, write and hound our elected officials. We use words like “draconian” and “irresponsible” to characterize proposed reductions. We threaten to close programs, turn folks away and promise to send them en masse into the offices of elected officials. Nobody particularly wants a waiting room full of homeless, hungry, disabled or sick folks, so we often get our way and win at least partial funding restorations. Until now, this well-rehearsed strategy has worked pretty well, but all of us hate doing it and it’s simply not sustainable. It’s exhausting and the need to ratchet-up the rhetoric with each proposed round of cuts undermines our credibility.

Times are going to get tougher and there’s less money to go around. Some nonprofits will not survive the recession and perhaps they shouldn’t. Digging our heels in and desperately repeating our “no cuts” mantra leaves us out of some important conversations where our intelligence and experience could help reshape the non-profit sector in a way that preserves decades worth of investments. We need to stop playing the victim and get into the game. We know which nonprofits are high performers and which ones aren’t. We know which programs work and which ones don’t. So do our clients. Government – as the largest purchaser of health and services – is beginning to figure it out, too. 

The general public, though, doesn’t care. They want government to spend less so that they in turn, will pay fewer taxes and be able to support their families. They want it to happen now and they don’t care if the cuts are across-the-board, rather than strategic, surgical and well-considered. So far, most of the public pressure for change has been focused on school districts and the messages have been clear: Consolidate. Eliminate waste. Stop spending money we don’t have. Become more transparent, efficient and stop clinging to the outdated, implausible notion that any funding reductions will result in the end of civilization as we know it.  The message to nonprofits, though not yet as explicit, is exactly the same.