“Ulster County has recently been designated by the federal government as a high-intensity drug trafficking area,” state senator George Amedore told an audience at Saugerties High School last Wednesday evening. When Amedore and assemblymember Pete Lopez took questions from the audience, the question of drug and substance abuse came up again. “My wife and I watched a movie, The Hungry Heart [winner of the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s 2015 Media Award], and it shows how pervasive the drug and substance abuse problem is, and discusses proven strategies to deal with it. It’s not just a problem, it’s a crisis,” said Lopez.
Both incumbent Republicans are involved in the state’s programs to deal with substance abuse. Amedore is co-chair of the task force on heroin and opioid addiction. On its one-house budget proposal, the state senate is proposing to add $167 million in funding to strengthen prevention, treatment, recovery and education services, an increase of $26 million over the executive budget proposal: $10 million for transitional housing, $6.5 million for additional recovery services, $3.85 million for additional recovery community centers, $2 million for school prevention efforts, a million dollars to fund ten family support navigators (plus an additional $200,000 for training), and $450,000 for opioid drug addiction, prevention and treatment programs.
Amedore believes all are essential. When he talked with residents at Hope House in Albany on a tour, he said, many told him they can’t go home after treatment services because they would be returning to the circle of people who hooked them onto drugs in the first place. With eleven more recovery community centers as proposed, there would be a total of 20 throughout the state.
Lopez is a member of his house’s committee on alcoholism and drug abuse, which has oversight over the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS). His committee is also advocating for an increase in resources for the prevention, treatment and recovery services addicts need, as well as for information and training opportunities for those who provide services to them and their families.
The issue of heroin and opioid abuse was one of at least 20 subjects raised by residents at the wide-ranging forum. During a lengthy question-and-answer period, the elected officials responded to resident concerns ranging from infrastructure, water quality and education to Internet gambling, The Safe Act, election fraud and safe staffing for nurses.
Both legislators favored more local support to the education budget. They said, a 2% tax cap was needed to give taxpayers relief, and they favored parental rights to allow their children to opt out of Common Core testing. “School boards,” said Amedore, “are in a difficult position and need proper support. The Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) [was] stripped money from upstate schools, and $1.1 million is still owed to Saugerties by the state. The first areas to have the GEA eliminated were the cities, and we need to address the GEA once and for all. The state needs to ante up, and the senate has drawn a line in the sand to have the GEA eliminated this year in its entirety.”
Lopez criticized the state’s annual performance review (APPR) as “a top-down approach, and we should get rid of it. It should be a peer-review model. When you have students in a classroom who are struggling – maybe they live in a home with domestic violence or don’t have enough food to eat – how can [the state] grade a teacher’s performance?” The NYS United Teachers Union (NYSUT) also favors a return to local control for teacher evaluations.
Infrastructure and disaster preparedness
In response to an audience query about New York State’s water and quality assurance, Lopez, who studied environmental studies while an undergraduate and once worked with a water-systems company, said, “The focus has to be holistic, from contamination of the source to deficiencies in the delivery system.” He regularly tests his own water at home. The Department of Health and other government entities are charged with turning mandated analysis into action like boil-water notices. “We’re blessed, and we’re vulnerable,” Lopez said. “Where I live, there are disappearing streams, sinkholes and more, and we need to have an understanding of our source of water, how to effectively protect it from septic systems, and to monitor it over time.”
Amedore said that upstate New York needed parity with the MTA in transportation and infrastructure funding and priorities. The MTA has an ambitious $26 billion, five-year capital improvement plan. The legislators would like to see an equal amount spent on transportation upstate.
Train transport of crude oil, and related insurance costs and the potential for major accidents, was discussed toward the end of the session. Lopez is a co-sponsor of a pending bill related to financial liability for major facilities, vessels and railroads and specifically focused on insurance and major accidents. He seeks higher standards for accountability and a lower number of railroad cars to transport. Amedore said simply that there may be some problematic language in the bill.
Later, three related questions were posed: Why is the Sawkill Bridge going to be closed for seven months? Will the railroad extend MetroNorth to Rhinecliff? Why is more money being proposed as an allocation to the Thruway Authority?
Both legislators answered, “Don’t know” in reply to the first two queries. Regarding the possible additional funding for the Thruway Authority, Amedore said, “Because the Tappan Zee Bridge is the governor’s pet project.” Lopez said simply, “They shouldn’t.”
New York State offers two-hour training courses to give residents tools and resources to prepare for, respond to and recover from floods, storms or man-made disasters. In our region, a NYS Citizen Preparedness Corps training will be held in Poughkeepsie on April 12 (visit https://www.dhses.ny.gov/aware-prepare/nysprepare/ to register). National Guard instructors will help educate residents about plans of action, household staples, and, as Lopez said, “give people ownership and direction so maybe they can assist others, too.”
Hands together against Pilgrim
Citizens in the audience applauded, twice, in support of both officials’ stated opposition to the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline. “The Pilgrim Pipeline is of no benefit to us in the 46th Senate District, and I absolutely support the opposition. Locals know best,” said Amedore.
“When do we stop being the crossroads?” said Lopez and — local advocates take note — added, “If it’s helpful to have a signed statement from me, I’m happy to provide one.”
Raise in minimum wage
Governor Andrew Cuomo has raised the minimum wage for New Yorkers to $9 an hour. In early January, Cuomo vowed to increase the minimum wage for 28,000 State University of New York workers gradually to $15 an hour, beginning his legislative push to apply higher rates to all state workers. An estimated three million New Yorkers would be affected by the rate increase, which the governor says is necessary because minimum wage is about $18,000 a year or what he termed ‘subsistence level’ in his January announcement. Though many support a gradual increase of the rate, including U.S. Department of Labor analysts who say that low-wage workers would spend their additional earnings on housing, food, gas, goods and services, these two local legislators were not in the ‘yea’ camp.
Raising the minimum wage in New York State from $9 to $15 per hour within three years is the linchpin of the governor’s budget, said Amedore. He called the proposal “devastating.” Lopez used the word “disaster.”
As vice president of Amedore Homes, a home construction business in Schenectady County founded in 1974 by his father, the senator is a businessman with a large private payroll. “I love New York but I cannot afford New York. It sounds good to help people in need, but the burden placed on business owners by the state would be extremely expensive.”
Amedore pointed out such agencies as ARCs, non-profits, nursing homes, hospitals and park services don’t have the funds in their budgets to pay for the increase. He sees the proposal as yet another unfunded mandate to schools, business owners, law enforcement agencies and others.
Lopez added, “The governor has pitted neighbors against neighbors to launch something that hasn’t been thought through well. It’s a disconnect between a living wage and minimum wage. Minimum wage jobs are meant,” Lopez said, “to bring someone into the work place, teach them how to work, and to set the stage for skills training, education and development of skills so their quality of life can improve.”
His father was a subsistence Puerto Rican farmer,” he added, “and farmers don’t set market prices. Milk production costs are higher than what they receive for their products, but the market forces them to sell milk at a loss. I predict this proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour will be the reason why the budget won’t be approved. It would have a $15-billion impact on employers by the end of rollout.”
The end of the line
When the forum, originally scheduled for 90 minutes, had stretched into two hours, a “lightning round” of questions was staged.
Should outdoor burning be determined based on population density rather than absolute numbers? Lopez said approvals should focus on efficient technologies that reduce emissions, like catalytic converters on wood burners, and that people need to “talk with their neighbors.”
Amedore took a more folksy approach: “It’s also common sense … just another way to have our liberty stripped from us. If people want to have a clean burner to heat with or, gosh darn it, to have a campfire and sit around it with your kids, they should be able to do it.”