Thursday, September 5, 2013

11 county school districts agree to subsidize proposed community college

Despite assertions that property tax revenues won’t be used to support the controversial community college proposed by County Executive Barry Grossman, eleven school districts within the county which pay for the operation of the Erie County Technical School from local school district property tax revenues have agreed to subsidize the proposed community college should it materialize.

The technical school has agreed to donate rent-free 35,000 sq. feet of its classroom, lab and welding instruction space worth more than half a million dollars annually for five years, thus circumventing Erie County council‘s prohibition against the use of tax revenues to support the project.

The technical school operating committee, which consists of a board member from each of the participating schools throughout the county, entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Grossman providing for the rent subsidy at its regular monthly meeting Thursday. The specific details remain to be worked out in a lease agreement, according to the unsigned MOU outlined in the agenda for Thursday’s meeting.

The eleven participating school districts include Wattsburg, Harborcreek, North East, Iroquois (Lawrence Park/Wesleyville), Girard, Fairview, Fort LeBouef, General McLane, Millcreek, Union City and Northwestern.

In a resolution adopted at its meeting Thursday night, the technical school's operating committee resolved that it fully supports the establishment of a county community college and the donation of rent-free space to it, even though the 11 school districts its members represent are strapped for operating funds, drastically cutting both personnel and programs to meet budgetary cutbacks.

There was no indication whether the 11 school boards have been consulted or voted on the subsidy, or whether the technical school operating committee members acted on their own without their various boards' knowledge or express consent.

Erie Times-News unveils another community college propagandist

The Erie Times-News and its stepchild, Rethink Erie, the elitest group behind the controversial tax-supported community college proposed by one-term County Executive Barry Grossman, trotted out their latest propagandist to reiterate their talking points, an obscure businessman from Fairview whose op-ed column in Sunday's newspaper reeks of naivete.

In a typically misleading headline over his column, the Times-News lamely mis-characterized Andrew Foyle as an "educator" simply because he is a citizen who sits on the Fairview school board, and represents that board on the board of the Erie County Technical Institute, presumably to try to qualify him as a credible advocate for a community college, a futile ploy. Nowhere in his dissertation does Mr. Foyle betray any evidence of expertise as an educator, rather the contrary.

In a specious apples and oranges exercise, Mr. Foyle wrote in the Times-News that the position of the three county council members who oppose using property tax revenues to fund the proposed community college is morally inconsistent with their recent objections to a proposal to privatize the two county-owned and operated nursing homes.

"It's unfortunate," Mr. Foyle piously wrote, "that the slim majority of council doesn't feel the same 'moral obligation' to help educate our young people who are also in need of financial assistance."

That's an inane statement that underscores Mr. Foyle's fundamental misunderstanding of both higher education and subsidized health care. The latter is mandated by federal and state law, the former is not. Morality has nothing to do with it.

Whether the county nursing homes continue to be run by government or are given over to the private sector to operate, the vast bulk of patients' costs will continue to be paid from the same public sources, medicare, medicaid and their various permutations. And the private sector is certain to operate them more efficiently, providing the same or higher level of services for less cost, a plus for both the patients and taxpayers.

With supreme arrogance and utter disdain for the facts, Mr. Foyle wrote: "Inarguably (Inarguably?), an educational gap exists in our region between secondary education and affordable postsecondary education and/or the existing for-profit business and trade schools. With far too many families in our community living at or below the poverty level, demand exists for affordable education."

For one thing, there are numerous public and private sources of post-secondary funding for disadvantaged students which help to level the financial playing field, so the "gap" is not as foreboding as Mr. Foyle implies.

Second, why should county taxpayers have to pay for the specialized vocational training of prospective employees whom manufacturers and industrialists like Mr. Foyle require to operate their for-profit businesses, when they should be providing the training themselves out of their profits as a cost of doing business?

Is it any wonder that, as Mr. Foyle asserts, "Many of the leading employers in this community have been quite vocal in their support of a community college because of a growing demand for skilled workers." Who wouldn't rather have someone else pay for some of their costs of doing business, rather than paying for it themselves? It's the American way.

So, as we can see, Mr. Foyle, GE and other employers who support a tax-funded community college are just as guilty of seeking to avoid certain costs as the vast majority of the county's property taxpayers are reluctant, indeed unable, to finance a community college. His and his cohorts' position isn't the altruistic conceit he attempts to portray it as.

Mr. Foyle says what bothers him most is that the county pays out millions of dollars towards social services, but "Unfortunately, our county government doesn't make the connection that an investment in education today will lead to a decreased demand for social services tomorrow." If Mr. Foyle or anyone else thinks investment in a community college will diminish the entrenched social services bureaucracy in any way, they are self-delusional. The historic experience dictates that it will grow bigger.

Mr. Foyle writes in the Times-News: "Without a community college, or other affordable alternative, many high school graduates from lower-income families can't afford the education necessary to gain these skills. Without a skilled local labor force, how long do you think these companies will stay in Erie?"

Is Mr. Foyle deaf, dumb and blind? Doesn't he know that Erie businesses are leaving Erie in droves for greener pastures offshore like Mexico and elsewhere, not because there aren't skilled workers here, but because there are skilled workers there who will work for much lower wages in venues where taxation, utilities and other key cost factors are a fraction of those here in Pennsylvania. Here a dominant source of industrial energy is electricity, the cost of which will nearly double next year, thanks to the dismal legacy of former governor Tom Ridge's disastrous deregulation initiative back in the mid-90s.

Mr. Foyle says "I applaud Grossman for his vision in continuing to champion a community college." Here we find him at his most naive. Would Mr. Foyle turn over his business to the county government to run? I don't think so. County government has consistently failed in its higher educational initiatives. As Keith Farnham has repeatedly pointed out, county taxpayers are still nearly a million dollars in debt to the state for the county's last failed attempt at post-secondary ed, CamTech. It isn't "vision" that's driving the county executive's pipedream, it's blindness to economic reality.

If County executive Grossman, Mr. Foyle, the Times-News,Rethink Erie and other proponents of a county community college would get behind the promising but aborted effort to align with the highly successful Butler County Community College to provide a proven community college environment here in Erie at much less cost than is proposed for Grossman's boondoggle, Erie County's disadvantaged youth would have their affordable education.

But affordable education isn't really what the county executive, the Times-News, Rethink Erie and their sycophants are really interested in. What they're really interested in are empire building, self-aggrandizement and power-broking at any cost to the taxpayers.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Pat Howard's hysteria, histrionics and the community college

In his hysterical advocacy for an Erie County community college opposed, according to his own newspaper's survey, by nearly 90 percent of readers, Erie Times-News Managing Editor Pat Howard, in typically prolix prose, resorted to prevarication and half-truths, even urging an elected public official to disobey state ethics law.

These combined with an array of factual errors in last Sunday's vituperative column denigrating two county councilmen who have displayed the courage of their convictions, undermines what little credibility Howard may have as a putative journalist, none in my estimation.

It would take more time and space than his epistolary histrionics are worth to disprove all of Howard's fanciful notions about the role of two of the four council members - Lyle Foust and Joseph Giles - who, along with two other council colleagues, have bravely withstood the gross falsehoods and misrepresentations published almost daily in the monopoly Erie Times-News by Howard and his cohorts, so I'll just address a few of the most glaring ones.

It begins with the headline Howard wrote over his Sunday column: "Foust's decision to abstain not as clear-cut as he portrays it.", an assertion so at odds with reality it boggles the mind. Foust took his principled stand to abstain from voting on the community college issue based upon a thorough legal analysis by county council's own attorney, Thomas Talarico. He concluded it would be a clear conflict of interest and violation of state law for Foust to vote on the community college question whether he voted yea or nay. It doesn't get more clear-cut than that.

Nevertheless, Howard wrote that Foust should "push" what Howard misperceives as "the legal limits of the gray area," and vote in favor of a community college, but which a rational person would see as a black and white legal admonition against voting either for or against it. In other words, according to Howard, break the law.

Howard claims Foust "advocated" (Howard's word, not Foust's) in favor of an Erie county community college when two years ago he wrote in the Meadville newspaper that it was "an opportunity that northwest Pennsylvania must seize if it is to make progress in the challenging years ahead."

Howard fails to note that was long before first (and quite likely one) term County Executive Barry Grossman was elected to that position and "advocated" that the community college's unknown but considerable costs should be financed by Erie County's already heavily-burdened property taxpayers. That provision is at the very root of Councilman Giles' opposition to the community college proposal advanced by the dissembling county executive.

The most pernicious aspect of Howard's and his newspaper's relentless campaign on behalf of a community college is their abject failure to give not merely equal, but ANY time and space to opponents. Instead they publish slanted news stories, editorials and op-ed columns on its behalf almost daily, but none in opposition, while printing every letter to the editor favoring their pet project, but only one in ten of those opposed to it, despite their pious editorial pronouncements proclaiming freedom of speech and the press. It underscores the cynical truism that "A free press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Grape expectations

Each year, as grape harvest season rolls around in rural Erie County and neighboring communities, and the fragrance of ripening grapes permeates the countryside, the Erie Times-News trots out one of its reporters to produce a formualic article on the prospects for this year's harvest - its size, volume, quality and value.

An unusual aspect of this year's crop is that the remarkably hot summer days in July and August have ripened the grapes sooner than normal, and harvesting is scheduled to begin in about a week, one to two weeks earlier than usual.

The ritual typically consists of interviews with a couple grape growers, invariably one from North East, the heart of the lake shore grape-growing district; the fellow out at the Lake Erie Regional Grape Research Lab on North Cemetary Rd,John Griggs, a knowledgeable and dedicated grape expert, and a Welch Foods spokesperson whose company processes most of the non-vinifera grapes grown in Erie County and neighboring New York and Ohio vineyards at its North East plant, the biggest in the world.

Rarely, if ever, do the reporters have the slightest knowledge of the grape farming industry, and their articles betray their ignorance. For example, in this year's article, the reporter fails to identify the predominant grape under harvest, the famous Concord grape whose juice finds its way into millions of jelly, jam, preserves and beverage containers marketed by Welch and others around the world.

But later in the article, he writes: "The region's Niagara harvest, which began in 2009 on Sept. 25, is likely to begin before Labor Day, Griggs said."
Clearly the writer doesn't know the difference between Concords, which are purple, and Niagaras, which are white.Typically, local grape growers harvest their Concords first, then when finished with that variety, begin harvesting the Niagaras.

However, this year, a new harvest strategy is being implemented by the National Grape Cooperative members in which some of the Niagaras will be harvested earlier, followed by the Concord harvest, after which harvest of the Niagaras will be completed, one prominent local grape grower told me.

Had the reporter done a modicum of homework, he would have known the Concords are the predominent variety by far, while the Niagaras represent only a tiny percent of the annual harvest locally.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Grossman / community college / Erie Times-News / Flowers axis

Erie Times-News Reporter Kevin Flowers, who seems to be County Executive Barry Grossman’s personal propagandist for his beleaguered community college proposal, authored yet another polemic in Sunday’s newspaper anticipating Grossman’s planned trip to Harrisburg to confer with state officials on his pet project’s diminishing prospects.

The article presents, ad nauseum, all of Grossman’s pat and discredited arguments in favor of his proposal, a paroxysm of contradictions, circular illogic, pyramiding assumptions, mis-truths, half-truths and outright lies, many of which may be found verbatim in the editorials of the Erie rag.

I suspect Flowers has a “SEND” key on his computer programmed to transmit with robotic precision reconfigured versions of Grossman’s cliché-ridden litany of community college rhetoric on a pre-set schedule without having to apply additional thought.

Penning his article in advance of Grossman’s trip to the commonwealth’s capital provides two more redundant opportunities for the Times-News to reiterate the county executive’s tiresome fabrications disguised as news stories, typically adorned with a mug shot of the snowy-bearded solon: another while he is in Harrisburg, yet another upon his return.

Flowers quotes Grossman as saying: “"I'm not going to lie to them. I'm going to tell them (state officials)exactly what the situation is here…" Why would Grossman have to disclaim any intent to prevaricate, unless it’s part and parcel of his mind-set? Indeed, it’s a matter of public record that the county executive has not always told the truth, on the one hand pledging publicly that county property taxes would not be needed to finance his pipedream, but on the other privately pursuing strategies to acquire them precisely for that purpose.

Grossman is also quoted by his personal publicist as saying that “I want them (state officials) to understand that we have the vast majority of our business community asking for this college. That we have financial support already. We have support from labor, and the minority community, and a lot of the nonprofit groups.”

But what he undoubtedly WON'T tell them about is the vast opposition throughout the county to his hare-brained scheme, which two informal media surveys, one of them by the Times-News, have measured at more than 80 percent.

Reporter /publicist Flowers wrote in the article: “Grossman also said that pursuing a partnership with an existing community college could be possible, but county officials prefer to start their own school to maintain local control over curriculum.”

To which county officials would he be referring besides himself, as there are no others on record to that effect? In any event, that’s a red herring, because any model of that configuration would provide for a local advisory board to set local community college curricula.

Flowers also wrote: “Grossman has said that the Erie region could be one of the largest areas in the country without direct access to a community college.” Another falsehood. For example, Butler County Community College just to the south of us has already announced plans to provide a college credit tourism training course for Edinboro University students, and has for years provided first-class training for firemen from Erie County communities.

Although more than three-fourth’s of Flowers’ lengthy Sunday article consisted of Grossman’s previously-publicized and readily rebuttable rationalizations in favor of the community college, and very little about opponents' arguments against it, Flowers did note at one point buried deep within the story, that “County Council's Tuesday night vote drew cheers from many community college opponents in the area, who have long argued that Erie has adequate higher-education options, and that both the county and state government cannot afford a community college.” Amen.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Erie Times-News: Spinning the facts, twisting the truth

The lengths to which Erie Times-News editorialists will go to twist the truth and spin the facts in its all-out, unprincipled campaign for a proposed Erie County community college was graphically demonstrated in an editorial last week in which it launched an ad hominem attack at two county councilmen who oppose the college, one on groundsthat county taxpayers do not support using property tax levies for it, Joseph Giles; the other, on conflict of interest grounds, Kyle Foust.

For example, in a cheap attempt to discredit Foust, the editorial stated: “On Feb. 1, 2008, Foust wrote an Op-Ed column for the Meadville Tribune, saying that ‘there is no doubt that the long-term economic prospects for northwest Pennsylvania will be greatly enhanced by the creation of a community college.’ Foust, who works for Mercyhurst College, now claims that voting on the college represents a conflict of interest.”

The editorial falsely implies there’s a contradiction in the two positions attributed to Foust by the editorial when, in fact, there is none. One may laud prospects for a community college, but still justifiably vote against it on conflict of interest grounds, as Foust honorably and legally did.

As Foust has conclusively demonstrated, it would be a direct violation of state conflict of interest statutes for him to vote in favor of the government-subsidized non-profit community college while working for a competing for-profit higher educational institution, to wit, Mercyhurst College. Were he to do so, Foust could be prosecuted for official misfeasance and misconduct, notwithstanding a far-fetched and hysterical rebuttal in Sunday’s newspaper by its managing editor and columnist Pat Howard, the Times Publishing Co.’s chief lobbyist for the community college.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Community college boosters: Hoist on their own petard

The sponsors of a proposed Erie County community college have been, to paraphrase Shakespeare and Hamlet, embarrassingly hoist on their own petard. Their dubious proposal is broadly based on hypothetical grounds that a community college would serve as an engine for economic development in Erie’s depressed economy and jobless environment by training workers for new jobs in a transformational workplace.

It ignores the reality that key existing employers are laying off workers right and left, and/or relocating to other venues, like Mexico, where business and industrial costs are much lower. Who’s to say there will be jobs here for prospective community college grads to fill? Quite the opposite. Proponents have coated their advocacy with a slick façade of spun rhetoric while omitting any contrary viewpoints, giving their enterprise a false aura of legitimacy.

The move for development of a community college in Erie, one of 38 of the state’s 52 counties without one, has been spearheaded by a self-anointed group called Rethink Erie. It consists of various special interests including the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership and its chief officer, Jim Dible, retired publisher of the Erie Times-News. Though the proposal is controversial within the community, you’d never know it based on what you read in the Times-News, which studiously ignores the widespread opposition in its one-sided coverage.

Institutional proponents - a laundry list of the area’s leading elitests, including the Times Publishing Co. and its political weapon, the Times-News - have contended from the outset that community college costs, whatever they may be, will be met without burdening the county’s taxpayers. That has become their mantra of sorts.

For example, in an editorial published March 28, 2010, The Times-News opined: “With its due diligence to develop a ‘pro forma’ on projected enrollments, revenues and expenses, Rethink Erie has the necessary numbers to persuade Erie County Council and Erie County's school districts to join as partners to sponsor the college, with no burden on taxpayers (my emphasis).

And First Term County Executive Barry Grossman, in lockstep with Rethink Erie and the Times-News, who has made the community college his administration’s signature symbol, has echoed that enticing but dubious promise. He was quoted by the Times-News as saying that “… gaming revenue, endowment money, tuition, scholarships and state and federal grants will pay for the college; taxes won't be raised, he pledges.”

Even longtime retiring Schools Superintendent James Barker has opted in. Under state law, the school district is a potential co-sponsor of the community college along with the county. Barker was quoted as saying that “The need for a community college isn't in question, the cost is…But it's clear that if we do this right, it will add no burden on our taxpayers." (Barker denies having any interest in a job with the prospective community college. Judith Miller, hired recently by Rethink Erie to serve as coordinator for the proposed community college, may be a candidate for the top job there. She retired in June as superintendent of the North East School District).

But once the “pro forma” was tested, proponents have had to back off that key no-tax claim, as discussed below. And therein lies their embarrassment and dilemma.

Typically, the cost of maintaining and operating a community college in Pennsylvania derives from a three-way split: one-third, from the students via tuition; one third from the coffers of the principal sponsor, the county (and, possibly, one or more school districts); and the final third from the state.
Since the Erie County’s budget is already perennially overcommitted, any additional revenues would have to come from increased property taxes.

Unless the first two funding sources convince the third source - the state - that they can uphold their end of the financial plan, the state, represented by the state board of education, won’t approve the required application for establishing a community college here, thus negating the state’s one-third share of funding.

The key to moving Rethink Erie’s proposal forward earlier this year was approval by county council of the application to the state for establishing a community college in Erie County. That question came to a critical vote before council in late June. The outcome was in serious doubt because at least three of the council’s seven members (one abstained on conflict grounds, a no-vote under parliamentary rules) weren’t willing to entertain even the remote possibility of saddling taxpayers with any part of funding for the proposed two-year institution. They were justifiably skeptical of proponents’ claim that county property taxpayers would not be exploited.

But that wouldn’t seem to be a problem, because proponents of the community college, mostly stakeholders who stand to profit financially or personally - directly or indirectly - have argued, as shown above, that local costs of establishing and maintaining a community college can be magically met through non-tax revenues.

These include a share of gambling proceeds from the Presque Isle Casino estimated at $1.5 - $2 million annually, a one-time grant of $1 million from the Erie Community Foundation, and other lesser sources. Taxpayers, they have claimed from the outset, need not apply. Based on these sources, they assert, the county’s annual one-third share would approximate a manageable $1.5 million, sufficient to support the college. But that’s obviously unrealistically low.

For example, with a student load of around 700, close to that estimated for Erie County, Butler County provides its highly successful community college, the oldest one in western PA, with a $4 ½ million subsidy from property taxpayers each year to keep the institution going, spokesman Bill O’Brien told me, about which more below.

Co-incidentally, on the eve of the county council vote last June, the prolix propagandists at the Erie Times-News shifted into high gear, disgorging a barrage of articles and editorials attesting prospectively to the dire consequences should council fail to authorize the application seeking permission to establish a community college. One of the editorials ended on this ominous note: “If council rejects the community college, remember whose votes torpedoed Erie's future.”

Shoving journalistic ethics and balanced and fair coverage out the door, the Times-News has lavishly promoted the community college in its news and editorial columns, while ignoring the vast reservoir of suppressed opposition to it within the county. Ironically, in June, the online version of the Times-News - - featured a running survey on its editorial page asking readers to vote on whether or not they agreed with the paper’s position on the community college. The last time I looked, just before the survey was yanked from the web site, the vote was 83 percent of respondents opposed to the Times-News position and the community college, 17 percent agreed!

To ensure that proponents’ claim that county property taxpayers wouldn’t be burdened with having to pay perpetual operational and life cycle maintenance costs of the community college, if established, Councilman Joseph Giles offered an amendment to the proposal at the June council meeting. It expressly provided that property tax revenues would not be raised for those purposes. As amended by Giles, the proposition, which may otherwise have been narrowly defeated, was approved by county council with near-unanimity.

Since the county council’s action putatively met the non-property tax criterion of Rethink Erie and its various sycophants, one would assume they would have applauded it. But not so. Instead, they condemned Giles’s amendment. That betrayed their true intention of railroading the community college through the approval process, then subsequently seeking to impose property tax increases to help fund the county’s one-third share.

County Executive Grossman admitted as much when, in an astonishingly obtuse move, he went before the Erie school board on June 30, hat in hand, to beg for a healthy chunk of school funds to help finance the community college. He sought a commitment to contribute $250,000 each year for the next ten years. Asked by a board member whether that meant county council would reverse itself and rescind the Giles amendment prohibiting the use of county property tax money for the community college, Grossman, according to a report in the Times-News, replied: “I have to be frank with you. I'm trying to use you people as leverage."

And in an interview the following day with the Times-News, Grossman let the cat irretrievably out of the bag. He was quoted as saying that “if school districts, private businesses and others throw their financial support behind the community college, it could make it harder for County Council to maintain its position regarding county tax dollars.” Nevertheless, the school board politely but firmly rebuffed Grossman. He told the Times-News he would ask all the other school districts in the county for contributions as well, but the prospects there are even less promising.

While previously maintaining the pretense that county tax money would not be used to support the community college, Grossman has now made it clear he intends to renege on that “pledge.” Indeed, he has already done so by supporting a $29,800 grant from the county to Rethink Erie. That group, in turn, is using the taxpayer money to contract with a consulting firm to prepare an economic impact study needed for state-mandated approval of the community college. It was, in effect, a sole source, non-competitive no-bid contract; not illegal, but under the circumstances, highly questionable.

In a column following county council’s June vote, Pat Howard, managing editor of the Times-News and lead tenor in the community college choir, dismayed by the turn of events, bewailed council’s adoption of the Giles amendment. In its aftermath, he warbled a convoluted recitative: “With an assist from state Sen. Jane Earll, who led the push to attach some gambling money to the project, and from the folks at Rethink Erie, who commissioned new research on the subject,” Howard wrote, “ Grossman, the county executive managed to lower projections for the local tax share to a nice round number. Zero (my emphasis).”

However, Howard added, “The gambling revenue the college is banking on is likely to remain relatively static over time, or could even drop in the face of expanded competition in the gambling business, while the local share of community college costs will be subject to the normal cycle of inflation...As things stand now,” Howard wrote, “a community college at some point would either have to cut costs or find new, sustainable sources of revenue other than taxes if the gambling cash doesn't cover its nut." Nut?

The dilemma emerging from Rethink Erie’s and County Executive Barry Grossman’s untenable proposition is that (one) there are no “new sustainable sources of revenue” available; (two) politicians and bureaucrats are congenitally incapable of cutting costs from their pork buffets, and (three), by Howard’s own admission, gambling revenues are certain to be insufficient. That leaves property taxes to foot the community college tab a certainty, an outcome its proponents have publicly ruled out, but privately endorsed, until Grossman allowed the feline to escape. And that’s the petard of their own devise on which they are hoist.

Community colleges are a positive force wherever they exist, and would prove to be so in Erie. But the threshhold consideration here is whether this county’s property taxpayers can afford the one proposed by the Rethink Erie cabal given the uncertainty of its purported utility and the inhospitable socio-economic circumstances prevailing here.

That combined with the proliferation of other unique higher and alternative education options available in the county, both technical and academic, renders their proposal based upon its inevitable burden on taxpayers redundant. And the overriding taxpayer sentiment in Erie County is a resounding “No!” There are too many other higher needs and priorities clamoring for finite county resources.

Lost amid clouds of effluvia generated by Rethink Erie, the Times-News and their single-minded cohorts, are other more realistic and palatable options. These include a promising one which was briefly explored locally but summarily rejected by the county’s control barons aiming for a power grab. They prefer a puppet institution readily susceptible to various forms of insider manipulation.

This option stems from an impressive presentation made in Erie earlier this summer by Butler County’s widely-respected community college system (not covered by the Times-News) offering to establish a satellite college in Erie like those highly successful ones it has already placed in Lawrence and Mercer counties. Those are in addition to five more it is in the process of installing throughout the region.

Under the Butler model, the set-up, operational and maintenance costs by an operator with proven competence and success would be far less than establishing one in Erie County from scratch. It would also genuinely, not falsely, eschew the need for property tax revenues. The non-tax sources cited by the Rethink Erie axis such as casino revenues, Erie Community Foundation and other private grants and donations would truly suffice to cover all costs, given the efficiencies obtainable within the established and highly qualified Butler system, negating any need to use county property taxes.

Butler Community College has already made impressive inroads by establishing partnerships with a handful of institutions outside its geographical bounds in western Pa. like the one proposed with Erie County, including Edinboro University, and in western New York. But in yet another one-sided news article in the Erie Times-News, a Rethink Erie spokesperson blithely dismissed these key developments, and others like them, as irrelevant to the higher need for a community college.

The facile rejection by Rethink Erie, County Executive Grossman and the Times-News of the superior Butler model demonstrates that they are more concerned with incestuous empire building at taxpayers’ expense, than they are with providing affordable higher vocational education for lower income residents aimed at bestirring an economic and industrial renaissance, and reversing joblessness in Erie County.

As of this writing, several weeks before this article was published, the resolution of this issue was still very much in doubt. Would the state approve the county application if county council remains steadfast in its stand against the use of property taxes? Or would council ultimately bend under the high voltage pressure applied by Rethink Erie and its principal lobbyist, the Erie Times-News, and concede to the tax pushers? Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

More community college bias from the Erie Times-News

True to its one-sided assault in favor of a community college,the Erie Times-News gave a non-entity named Steve Wilson about 30-column inches Sunday to rant against those who don't support or have raised questions about the proposed facility.

Unfortunately Mr. Wilson provides none of the answers. That makes about 300 column inches the biased newspaper has devoted to its campaign to ramrod the community college through, versus about 30 inches in total letters to the editor opposed to it. But who's counting?

All Wilson does is repeat the talking points prescribed by the self-appointed cabal which calls itself Rethink Erie, a step-child of the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership headed by Times-News usta-be Jim Dible, which in turn heads a rag-tag collection of special interests interested mostly in the personal and financial gains they see for themselves in the establishment of a county-run - more likely mis-run - community college, rather than the public interest. Whatchu bucking for Steve, a posh six-figure job at the public trough compared to the lesser taxpayer-paid state job you already have?

Launching ad hominen attacks on those few brave souls who have dared to oppose the college in letters to the editor, and who get three or four column inches to have their say, Wilson amply demonstrates that he is guilty of the same "disinformation, mis-direction, faulty logic, ignorance and inexplicable vitriol" he hurls at opponents of the community college. Plus, add irretrievably naive.Don't bet the Times-News will allow a critic equal space in the paper, because you'd lose.

Each of Wilson's talking points in easily refutable. For example, Wilson says "Letter writer Keith Farnham wants us to believe that because Eriez Magnetics Chief Executive Timothy Shuttleworth didn't specifically mention the need for a community college when writing recently about Pennsylvania's poor business climate, we obviously don't need one."

That's only the first of Wilson's intellectually corrupt arguments, since Farnham's letter cited more than just that as a basis for his position. Wilson goes on to say that "Farnham cites as further 'evidence' that the president of the Manufacturer & Business Association has challenged the need for a community college. So, apparently, the guy running a nonprofit membership organization is more credible than major for-profit employers who support the community college, such as GE Transportation, the region's biggest employer, and Scott Enterprises."

Of course Steve, these for-profit guys would much rather have the taxpayers pay for the special training or re-training they should be providing to their new hires or laid-off employees at company expense.

Wilson says 'Farnham also states without any substantiation that 'the Erie area is considered to have a quality work force.' Really, by whom? Certainly not GE Transportation or Scott Enterprises.

I don't know about Scott Enterprises, as its' contribution to the local economy is negligible, but why would GE want more workers to enter the local workplace when it's already laying off workers by the thousands, and outsourcing their work, not because the local labor force is unqualified, but because GE can get a lot cheaper labor without union representation offshore in places like Mexico, China, Thailand and Afghanistan.

And one should remember that GE's local here-today-gone-tomorrow whiz-kid, barely dry behind the ears,will be gone to greener pastures in another year or two, to be replaced by another equally oblivious to the local labor picture.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

And the beat goes on: The runway to nowhere

My previous post here dealt with yet another article by Times-News Reporter Tim Hahn, who seems to have been delegated the task of fulfilling the Times Publishing Company's editorial policy in favor of the $80.5 million runway extension at the Erie airport in its news columns.

In the previous post, I referred to Hahn's reporting as "typical of the sloppy, superficial, incomplete and biased reporting one has come to expect from the monopoly daily, which raises more questions than it answers."

In Sunday's edition, Hahn surpassed those characteristics with an article headlined "Erie airport breaks ground on runway extension," in which he enshrined the Times Publishing Co.'s editorial policy in the very first sentence - what newspaper folks call the "lede" - with this moronic observation: "A 7,500 foot-long main runway has been a DESIRED (my emphasis) feature for the Erie International Airport since it was first documented in the facility's 1974 master plan."

Desired by whom? It's proponents, certainly, like those attending the ground breaking ceremony Saturday for the runway extension project. But how about it's many detractors, for whom the project is anathama, such as the homeowners who were forced willy-nilly to abandon their long-established homes inconveniently in the path of the runway extension, as well as those remaining residents who must suffer endlessly the roar of jets in their homes and yards day and night for the foreseeable future.
The certainly don't desire it.

And how about those who believe the runway extension is not only unnecessary, but counterproductive, a drag on limited county finances and tax revenues desperately needed for other core county services such as human and social services, always underfunded and unmet.

But where the Times Publishing Co. is concerned, those folks don't count. It's only those who "desire" the runway extension whose voices are heard and heeded, like the "large number of federal, state, county and local officials who spoke of the project's history and the benefits that are expected to come from it," according to Hahn, who seems to be prepping for a spot on the editorial page staff.

Hahn quoted comments made at the groundbreaking by Lou Porreco, past president of the airport authority who said: "When this expansion is completed, we will be opening the door here for more aircraft operations with greater range, capacity and safety than we have ever enjoyed in the past,"..."before sinking his shovel into the brown earth." "That will be extremely important for the future of this region."

That's a lot like what Porreco's counterparts in Pittsburgh said a couple decades ago when they abandoned the old Pittsburgh airport and built a brand new one costing hundreds of millions more to accommodate "more aircraft operations" in that transportation hub. Problem is, it never materialized, and today the new Pittsburgh airport is a ghost city, with most of its terminals shuttered due to the lack of demand for transport services there. Here's how the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described it several months ago.

Airport traffic declined again last year
Friday, February 12, 2010
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Passenger traffic dropped another 7.8 percent at Pittsburgh International Airport last year, continuing a trend that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has yet to abate.

Overall, eight million travelers used the airport in 2009, compared to 8.7 million in 2008. That's only about a third of the 20.7 million passengers that used the airport in 1997, its record year, when it was a major hub for US Airways.

The Allegheny County Airport Authority attributed the latest decline to a 20 percent decline in passengers posted by US Airways, which eliminated its Pittsburgh hub in 2004 but still is the region's dominant carrier with nearly 29 percent of the traffic.

AirTran Airways posted a 24.8 percent gain in 2009 and Southwest Airlines, the airport's second largest carrier, showed a three percent increase, but neither was enough to offset the US Airways losses.

And here's a blog I first posted a year or so ago pertaining to the "desired" airport feature.

Mob hysteria fuels runway project

A contagious mob hysteria has overtaken Erie county council and executive Mark DiVecchio, egged on by the development-at-any cost crowd and its mouthpiece, the Times Publishing Co., as they bind taxpayers to superfluous runway expansion at the Erie airport to expand services already underutilized by Erie’s anemic air passenger market,which should be directed towards more traditional and critical county needs.

All county residents must pay one way or another for the runway project, despite the fact that nearly half the county’s residents outside city and Millcreek/Summit boundaries will derive little or no benefit from it. Most of the relatively few who use air passenger services at all, prefer to drive to Buffalo, Cleveland or Pittsburgh where a more convenient and timely array of flights await to serve them.

Any benefit to them from this wasteful expenditure is negligible or non-existent.While all council members share in the political depravity inherent in the airport runway scheme, the principal culprit is the county executive who is pandering to Times-News editorialists and their sycophants.

Proponents claim the runway project is needed to fuel future economic growth which will enhance the entire county. But no one has produced a single credible survey or study to support their contention, nor anything resembling a cost-benefit analysis. Rather, county officials are flying, so to speak, by the seat of their pants

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Today's article in the Times-News by Reporter Tim Hahn on the award of a construction contract for a controversial runway extension at the Erie airport is typical of the sloppy, superficial, incomplete and biased reporting one has come to expect from the monopoly daily, which raises more questions than it answers.

To put the article in context, one needs to know that the Times Publishing Co. is rabidly in favor of the runway project as a matter of editorial policy, as it is of most expenditures of public funds, whether they're needed or not (although The Times is notoriously skinflintish when it comes to paying adequate salaries for competent reporting, editing and editorial management at its newspaper: ergo, its generally sub-standard journalism).

Consequently, any Times-News article on the runway project is predictably sharply slanted in its favor, even though there's significant opposition to it within the county, which is rarely or never mentioned in the Times-News coverage, such as Hahn's article.

According to the article, there were only two bids for the first of three phases of project construction whose total cost is estimated at about $80 1/2 Million. Evidencing a dire need for some grammar school tutoring, Hahn wrote: "The company's bid (for Phase One )was the lowest (sic) of two that airport officials received in May." (It was actually the "lower" of the two.)

Hahn said it was about $1.5 million lower than the airport authority's original estimate, or $10,620,000. (Elsewhere in the story, he says the lower bid added up to $10,519,500, indicating he needs some help with his math too). The only other bid was significantly higher than both, about $15,775,575.

Hahn's, and the newspaper's bias comes into play early in his lead paragraph. He writes: "Erie International Airport officials have officially found a BARGAIN (my emphasis) in the first phase of their $80.5 million runway-extension project."

There 's nothing in the story's factual presentation to indicate the contract is a "bargain." And even if there were, that's an opinion which belongs in an editorial, not in a news story, unless it's attributed to a knowledgeable outside source. Just because the low bid is lower than the authority's estimate and the only other bid, doesn't necessarily mean it's a bargain.

It's more likely an indication that the authority's project cost estimating competence is lacking and it simply over-estimated the cost of Phase One. Or it could indicate that the lower bidder deliberately underbid in order to position itself for advantageous bidding on the two subsequent project phases.

Alternatively, it could suggest a ploy common to construction contracting, which is to bid low deliberately to get the job, then when work is well underway, to come in with a change order needed to complete the project, materially raising the cost,leaving the authority with no option but to comply or litigate at an even higher cost.

In any case it's incumbent upon the reporter to determine WHY the low bid was so much lower than the other, as well as the authority's estimate. For starters, Hahn should have contacted the high bidder to inquire why there was such a disparity between the two bids.

Realistically, the low bidder's bid should have been higher because that contracter is from Ohio, and would have to move his equipment and workforce farther to the job site than the high bidder, which is located in Erie. That alone should raise a flag for any competent reporter, but Hahn ignored it.

Hahn quoted Airport Director Chris Rodgers as saying "that the first phase of construction is expected to result in 329 jobs and about $6.7 million in payroll paid out, all impacting the local economy."

In fact, neither Hahn nor Rodgers has any idea how many, if any, of the 329 jobs will go to Erie workers. Many if not most of them are likely jobs held by Ohioans who work for the Ohio contractor, and won't be available for local hire. But exaggerating the local job impact better serves the Times-News editorial bias.

For more on the airport runway extension fiasco see my blog archive at Feb. 2, 2010.

Monday, June 7, 2010


In a Good Morning column today entitled "Thankfully a Light shines on", Times-News Reporter Ed Pallatella regaled us with a beguiling narrative of a small weekly newspaper for which he once worked on the West Coast as an intern known as the Point Reyes Light.
Like most small newspapers, existence for the Light was and is a constant and precarious struggle, surviving through two changes of ownership despite the fact that it was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize. According to Pallatella, it's now owned by a non-profit.
"The Light's future is far from settled;" he wrote: "the paper likely will need grants to stay in business over time. For now, the Light is still burning, an example of newspaper's bond with its community...Its story, to the relief of its readers (and one former intern) has not ended."
Ed's story reminds me of the fate of half a dozen weekly newspapers here in Erie County which weren't so lucky. Once known as the Brown-Thompson Newspapers, they were the information and advertising lifelines of communities like North East, Edinboro, Girard, Union City and others.
Their lights were snuffed out by Ed's employer, the Times Publishing Co., which bought them several years ago, then within a few years, predictably terminated their existence which in one case had lasted about one hundred years, my hometown newspaper, The North East Breeze.
Seems the Times's owners didn't want the weeklies, whose advertising rates were roughly half those of its flagship daily, The Erie Times-News, competing for the various communities' advertising dollars with the daily newspaper. So they shut them down, leaving the small communities without a voice, forcing their small businesses and governing bodies to pay big city rates for advertising space in the Times-News.
At the time, The Times promised the communities would not suffer for want of local news because the Times-News would publish a community page each week devoted exclusively to news in the newspaperless towns. But that promise was soon extinguished.
Sadly, in this case, thanks to the Times Publishing Co., the lights have gone out.

Friday, May 21, 2010


The following blog appeared in the current issue of FolioMagazine, which covers the national magazine trade. It was written by Executive Editor Matt Kinsman

Cutthroat Competition: Breaking into a Monopoly
Two regional titles show just how vicious local publishing can be.

By Matt Kinsman

Every highly competitive magazine market is used to trash talk, undercut rates and the occasional sneaky gambit from rivals (remember the Pub Exec publisher trying to get the lowdown on FOLIO: newsletters by pretending to be a prospective advertiser?)

In the city and regional category, where barriers to entry are fairly low yet the clash for the limited dollars of local advertisers can be a life and death struggle week in and week out, competition can get especially cutthroat, particularly when a newcomer enters a highly concentrated market.

In 2008, Rena Tran founded Erie Life Magazine, located an hour and a half from Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo. Today, the magazine (which has changed its name to Great Lakes Life) generates between $500,000 and $1 million in ad revenue and is sold on more than 600 newsstands in three states and Canada.

Erie Life/Great Lakes Life faced many of the typical startup challenges (particularly as it launched just as the bottom was falling out of the magazine market). But it also ran up against what some observers have called a near-media monopoly in the local newspaper, Erie-Times News. (In 2006, a media watchdog group called The Media and Democracy Coalition protested the FCC considering loosening limits on media ownership, citing the Erie-Times News as one example of a potential problem.)

Erie Life's first marketing efforts included a billboard teaser campaign that said, "Erie Life Magazine. Now There's a Choice." Shortly after Erie Life announced it's impending launch, Erie-Times News announced it was launching its own magazine, Lake Erie Lifestyle.

During Erie Life's first year, former Erie-Times News publisher Jim Dible took over the Erie Chamber of Commerce (Erie Life subsequently quit the Chamber, and in a follow-up meeting, Erie Life vice president and partner Paul Loncharic says that Dible told him that the Erie-Times News saw Erie Life as its "greatest enemy.")

Loncharic says Erie Life ran up against a number of "exclusive partnerships" with Erie-Times News and local media outlets such as the local public television and radio station. Erie-Times News executives also sat on the boards of large hospitals, universities, and arts organizations, such as the Philharmonic, according to Loncharic.

"Some advertising agencies in Erie were even worse," says Loncharic. "They wouldn't risk their relationship with the Times. One agency had told us that if they placed with us they could lose their discounts for their classifieds."

Loncharic claims the Times resorted to huge rate discounts ($700 for a full page versus Erie Life's $2,500 yield for a full page), as well as old tricks such as hiding copies of Erie Life on the newsstand. Even Erie Life's ability to attract writing talent was threatened, according to Loncharic. "We lost freelancers because of intimidation," he says. "It was tough."

Once, the magazine sought expansion money from the local Economic Development Corporation. "They kept begging us to see our financial statements but wouldn't tell us what government loans or grants we were qualified for," says Loncharic. "Months later I was sitting in a meeting with a local businessman who out of the blue asked me, ‘So I heard the Economic Development Corporation wanted to see your books.' I said, ‘How did you know that?' and he said ‘Because the publisher of the Erie-Times News sits on one of their boards and was dying to know what your books looked like. I confronted the EDC about it later and they claimed she wasn't on that board and they are a pillar of confidentiality."

As of this posting, Erie-Times News hadn't returned repeated requests for comment. However, Joe LaRocca, a journalist and author of the blog Erie CounterNewsMedia (whose mission is to "countercheck the Erie news media for inaccuracy, errors of commission or omission, bias, incompetence, arrogance, chutzpah, excessive hubris, and other sins against ethical and professional journalism") says Erie Life's claims don't surprise him.

"Coincidentally, the inaugural edition of a new magazine put out by Marnie Mead Oberle, an heir of the Mead family which owns the Times Publishing Co., made its first appearance in last Sunday's edition of the Times-News," says LaRocca. "It deals with roughly the same subject matter as Erie Life, except that it has more the feel of an advertising supplement. Undoubtedly the Times is trying to force out Erie Life so that its magazine, which currently has the free circulation advantage of the 77,000 Sunday paper's circulation, may take over the field unchallenged. The Times' failure to respond is typical. As a newspaper monopoly, they answer to no one."
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Pat Howard, the dissimulator

I'm reprinting the following post from last September to highlight the Erie Times-News's continuing failure to reinstate online reader's comments appended to news and editorial content appearing in both the online and hard copy editions, exposing Managing Editor Pat Howard's penchant for dissimulating. It's pretty clear, for the reasons I advanced below last year,that the Times-News has no intention of restoring public comment to its online edition, unlike most other intellectually honest newspapers which do. Among other things, the Times-News's glaring omission gives the lie to its frequent and pious but phony editorial assertions championing freedom of speech.


ADDENDUM: This morning, after this blog was posted, I received a response to my query addressed to Managing Editor Pat Howard as to when the Erie Times-News plans to resume online readers' comments. It came from Jeffrey Hileman/Managing Editor/New Media. He replied: "Mr. LaRocca – Pat Howard asked me to respond to your questions. plans to reintroduce reader comments as part of its redesign, though we do not yet have a start date." ____________________________________________________

Until last Spring (2009), the Erie Times-News followed the relatively new practice adopted by most newspapers here and abroad in recent years of enabling readers of their online editions to comment freely on articles and other ediorial content, in writing, by appending a comment box at the bottom of each article.

Then, without warning, The Times-News dropped the highly popular feature, a move which was explained by Managing Editor Pat Howard as a temporary one while the Times-News’s website – know as – was being reprogrammed or redesigned.

Howard promised readers the feature would be resumed soon thereafter. As all regular readers of know, to date it has not been resumed. And since neither Howard nor any Times-News person has revealed in the prolonged interim why it has been discontinued, or whether it will ever be resumed, readers remain gagged and in the dark.

I e-mailed Howard yesterday to ask him why the Times-News has discontinued online readers’ comments, whether it plans to resume them and, if so, when? Not surprisingly, I’ve not received a response from Howard. If I do, I’ll post it later on this blog. (See ADDENDUM above.)

The Times-News is not the only newspaper to discontinue online readers’ comments, but there have been only a handful nationwide.

While not within the rationale provided by Howard at the time the Times-News discontinued readers’ comments, most of the other newspapers which have done so have cited widespread abuse of the feature, primarily by anonymous bloggers who persistently engaged in ad hominem attacks which, if identifiable as to source, could be actionable, obscene language, irrelevant posts and other uncivil practices.

This is a common complaint lodged by virtually every newspaper which allows online readers’ comments. It is mitigated to some extent by some newspapers which attempt to monitor the abusive posts and delete them.
But because they receive hundreds to thousands of readers’ posts each day, depending upon the size of the newspaper, it’s virtually impossible for small newspapers with limited intellectual staff like the Times-News to monitor the comments effectively.

Big metro or national newspapers like the New York Times, USA Today, the LA Times, the Washington Post and others affluent enough to afford them have created staff positions whose exclusive province is to monitor and manage online readers’ comments, because they recognize that in this new era of the worldwide web they must follow the crowd if they are to survive in the fast-changing cyber environment.

In some but not all smaller newspapers, the vast majority of comments which are abusive make it into print. While the newspapers provide standing guidelines demanding civility for readers’ comments, they are almost universally ignored, and the newspapers are in most cases helpless to enforce them.

This leaves them with only two options: Either maintain the status quo and continue to suffer the abusive behavior – an unpleasant option at best - or discontinue the highly popular online readers’ comments altogether, and alienate their spiraling online readership. The latter is the path the Times-News has apparently chosen.

There is, however another option which would almost certainly eliminate most if not all of the abuses pertinent to online readers’ comments: disallow anonymity or psuedonymity, an option which I personally support. (See, for example, New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Maureen Dowd’s recent column on anonymous blogging, “Stung by the Perfect Sting,” Aug. 26, perhaps the only time I’ve ever agreed with her hyperbolic rants).

That aside, there’s an unspoken dynamic at play within this context which I believe is primarily responsible for the Times-News’s discontinuance of online readers’ comments, as opposed to the rationales asserted above.

An inordinate number of the anonymous ad hominem attacks and abuses were directed at the newspaper staff, its erratic news coverage, editorial stances and its ownership, the longstanding Times Publishing Co., a newspaper monopoly which over the years has swallowed up all the competition, both daily and weekly, except for the Corry Journal, throughout its northwestern PA circulation area, as well as parts of surrounding counties in New York and Ohio.

Much of the commentary, mostly anonymous, was highly critical in unflattering, indeed embarrassing terms of the Times-News’s news and editorial policies and practices and personnel, which are, with good reason, widely seen as biased, shallow, inaccurate, self-serving, unprofessional and arrogant (I concur). Moreover, its Letters to the Editor section is routinely mismanaged.

I believe the thin-skinned operatives at the Times-News chose to discontinue the feature rather than suffer sustained embarrassment at the hands of merciless bloggers, most of them anonymous.

While I do not post or blog anonymously, but always identify myself by name, I was a frequent online critic of articles published in the Times-News, as well as its overall news and editorial practices. While I am often blunt in my criticism, I pride myself on my civility. I do not presume, however, that the Times-News discontinued online readers’ comments because of my feeble and captious criticism.

The last comment I posted before online readers’ comments were discontinued occurred on April 12 of this year. In response to Howard’s regular Sunday column boasting of the Times-News’s showing at the Pennsylvania Newspaper Assn’s. awards program, I posted a detailed factual analysis showing that The Times-News’s performance was greatly exaggerated by Howard.

For one thing, the Times-News is not in the same competitive category as the Commonwealth’s major newspapers in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia. And several of the newspapers in towns smaller than Erie made a much better showing. (See my April 12, 2009 archive blog at http//

It should be noted that NO privately/corporately-owned newspaper is obliged to provide a forum for online readers and commenters. However, it ill-behooves any newspaper which persistently and piously preaches on behalf of First Amendment freedoms of press and speech, as the Times-News does, to be seen as a censor of populist expressions of opinion from the vast unwashed which the internet now makes readily and universally possible.

The Times-News is already criticized widely for crass rewriting and editing of Letters to the Editor which is tantamount to, if not actual censorship.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Lake Erie Biofuels is no hero

The following letter to the editor appeared in Sunday’s Erie Times-News. I highly recommend it to anyone whos hasn’t already seen it. The author of the letter, Frank M. Gerlach of Harborcreek is to be commended for his perspicacity.

Biodiesel plant an albatross for future generations

"In the Feb. 21 Erie Times-News, a feature story stated that Hero BX, the local biodiesel plant, is feeling the pain because its buyers are losing a $1-per-gallon tax credit. As a result, it is idling the facility and 80 jobs are affected.

"Let's take an objective look at the federal government giveaway. The plant has a capacity of 45 million gallons of biodiesel per year. That is $45 million that we need to borrow from China to pay for this boondoggle.

"But wait, the plant employs about 80 people. About $45 million in tax credits divided by 80 jobs equals $562,500 per job annually (what a deal).

"It is no wonder that this kind of government thinking has been and will continue to make our great nation a second-rate country. If we don't have the money, we borrow it. Our grandchildren and their children will pay for this kind of government thinking. And, by the way, I understand that almost all of the biodiesel provided at this facility is shipped overseas.”

In that same vein, here’s a blog I posted here back on Thursday, September 17, 2009

Energy contradictions at the Erie Times-News

In its blind zeal to promote development at any cost in Erie, the Times-News breathlessly editorialized on behalf of Lake Erie Biofuels Tuesday which has been producing biofuels at the old Hammermill plant site for a year or so now.

Applauding the plant's planned production expansion from 40 million to 70 million gallons annually with the help of a $1.6 million state loan, the editorial ignored the internally inconsistent claim that the company's newly announced expansion will help the nation to achieve "energy independence" despite the fact that virtually all its heavily taxpayer-subsidized product(amounting to about $1 a gallon) will continue to be exported outside the U.S.

The Times-News hailed the fact that the company has changed its name to "Hero X," appropos to nothing in evidence except that "The name change is part of a branding campaign to reach a worldwide market," while boasting that its use, among other raw materials, of vegetable oils would promote environmentally benign goals.

This further ignores the hard lessons of the recent ethanol craze which resulted in a 35 percent increase in the national average consumer cost of foods like bread, cereals, poultry, beef and other foodstuffs dependent primarily upon ethanol feedstocks such as corn and grains.

On one hand, the editorial quoted a company official as saying:"We believe in biodiesel and its role for our country in increasing our energy independence (my emphasis)and improving our environment." But on the other hand it quotes the same official as saying "the plant is strategically located to export(my emphasis)its products using rail, highways and Lake Erie."

Oblivious to the inherent contradiction, the Times-News editorial exulted: "It's exciting to realize that Erie can help lead the way as Americans make good on our decades-old pledge to achieve energy independence."

To date, Erie Biofuels has exported most if not all of its product across the oceans, where there are more lucrative markets. There's no reason to believe that will change anytime soon,if ever. How does that promote national energy independence? Exporting domestic biolfuels and U.S. energy independence are mutually exclusive conceits

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mob hysteria fuels runway project, revisited

I've been a critic of the asinine Erie airport runway expansion project purported to cost about $80 million, but which will inevitably vastly exceed that misleading estimate.

An article in today's Pittsburgh Post Gazette reporting yet another huge decline in traffic at that city's international airport further confirms the waste of public monies here in Erie on this runway to nowhere. Following that is a blog I posted on this topic back in November of 2007.

Airport traffic declined again last year
Friday, February 12, 2010
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Passenger traffic dropped another 7.8 percent at Pittsburgh International Airport last year, continuing a trend that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has yet to abate.

Overall, eight million travelers used the airport in 2009, compared to 8.7 million in 2008. That's only about a third of the 20.7 million passengers that used the airport in 1997, its record year, when it was a major hub for US Airways.

The Allegheny County Airport Authority attributed the latest decline to a 20 percent decline in passengers posted by US Airways, which eliminated its Pittsburgh hub in 2004 but still is the region's dominant carrier with nearly 29 percent of the traffic.

AirTran Airways posted a 24.8 percent gain in 2009 and Southwest Airlines, the airport's second largest carrier, showed a three percent increase, but neither was enough to offset the US Airways losses.

Mob hysteria fuels runway project

A contagious mob hysteria has overtaken Erie county council and executive Mark DiVecchio, egged on by the development-at-any cost crowd and its mouthpiece, the Times Publishing Co., as they bind taxpayers to superfluous runway expansion at the Erie airport to expand services already underutilized by Erie’s anemic air passenger market,which should be directed towards more traditional and critical county needs.

All county residents must pay one way or another for the runway project, despite the fact that nearly half the county’s residents outside city and Millcreek/Summit boundaries will derive little or no benefit from it. Most of the relatively few who use air passenger services at all, prefer to drive to Buffalo, Cleveland or Pittsburgh where a more convenient and timely array of flights await to serve them.

Any benefit to them from this wasteful expenditure is negligible or non-existent.While all council members share in the political depravity inherent in the airport runway scheme, the principal culprit is the county executive who is pandering to Times-News editorialists and their sycophants.

Proponents claim the runway project is needed to fuel future economic growth which will enhance the entire county. But no one has produced a single credible survey or study to support their contention, nor anything resembling a cost-benefit analysis. Rather, county officials are flying, so to speak, by the seat of their pants

The death of community journalism, revisited

Just below is a comment from D. Homan posted about a week ago pertaining to a blog I penned here more than two years ago dealing with the Times Publishing Co.'s, decision to junk the network of weekly newspapers throughout the county once known as the Brown Thompson Newspapers. In defense of this callous money-grubbing move, the Times promised to uphold a commitment to community journalism in those communities by featuring one of them each week in its daily rag, the Erie Times-News. Needless to say, that promise was short-lived, as asserted by Mr. Homan.

D. Homan said...
"It's very disappointing that the Times-News has not kept its promises to have a section for each community to replace their local Brown-Thompson newspapers. This monopoly on the local news should be against the law!Then they make it so hard to submit a comment on the story. No wonder there are no comments!"
February 7, 2010 11:07

Here is a copy of the blog to which his comment pertains, first published here back in October, 2007.

An epitaph for community journalism

This is the story of how the Times Publishing Co, five years ago, killed community journalism in Erie County. In July of 2002, the Times, publisher of the only metropolitan daily newspaper and seven weeklies within Erie County - which it had acquired years ago known as the Brown-Thompson newspapers - confirmed rumors rampant throughout the county for several months that it would close all seven.

They included the North East Breeze, which had been in continuous publication under one name or another for more than 100 years, longer even than the Times’s daily newspaper, as well as papers in Girard, Edinboro, Union City, Millcreek and elsewhere. While I can’t speak for the other communities, what happened in North East was prototypical.

Citing rising costs, the Times said in place of the local coverage hitherto provided by the weeklies, it would incorporate news coverage of each community in a weekly zoned or regional section of its daily newspaper, the Times-News, which it would call "NEIGHBORS."

But the reality which soon emerged was that the new weekly sections in the daily paper were loaded with copy from half dozen other communities, including some just across the PA-NY state line, Ripley, Westfield and Chautauqua. The Times did not explain how it was going to fit all the local news and editorial copy previously contained in seven weeklies - typically running from more than a dozen to several dozen broadsheet or tabloid pages - into a single weekly zoned section, for the obvious reason that it would be impossible.

Most of what the Times’s "Neighbors" section published about North East is what is known in the trade as “fluff:” soft, fleeting, feature and human interest articles which are fun and easy for newspaper writers to write, but which contain little of substance.There’s a place for that kind of newspaper writing, but not at the expense of more relevant and meaningful reporting requiring tough, time-consuming, gritty, dogged digging out of facts, or investigative and analytical reporting, which constitute a newspaper’s principal trade-in-stock.

Soon after the Times had acquired the Breeze and the other weeklies, the only ones within the county, from Brown-Thompson, it proceeded upon a premeditated and cynical long-term voyage of attrition that would ultimately eliminate them as advertising competition to the Times’s flagship daily in Erie.

The Times gradually cut staff, expenses and coverage at the Breeze, reducing the number of pages and its local “news hole,” using countless galleys of stock pages and trivial syndicated filler to flesh it out.

Much of the coverage had little or no relevance to North East readers and subscribers. Weekly inclusion of canned news and events from the other communities was indiscriminately shoveled into the shrinking news hole of the Breeze. It eventually became, in effect, a regional rather than a local weekly covering most of Erie County and parts of Crawford County and Chautauqua County, NY, although it was still called the North East Breeze.

For all these reasons: reduced staff, smaller newshole, irrelevance to local
interests, and non-professional journalism practices, the Breeze soon began losing local reader and advertiser support. Once cherished in the community, the Breeze eventually became an object of contempt among the vast majority of local residents.

By the time it was shuttered by the Times, over-the-counter-sales of the Breeze at the town’s most prominent news stand had dropped from about 60 to 16 copies per week, mirroring its drop in subscriptions, as well as reader and advertiser interest.

Immediately North East, like the other small towns which had been robbed of their local newspapers by the Times, lost its principal community bulletin board and consistent coverage of its local government entities, including the borough council, township board of supervisors, planning and zoning commission, water and sewer authority, and others, from which it has never recovered.

It also lost its only outlet for local advertising. Accustomed to print advertising costs geared to the size of the community and its small mom and pop businesses,local advertisers were suddenly faced with costs apropos to metropolitan Erie, which they could ill afford.

Costs of legal advertising for the local government entities required by law doubled overnight, forcing them to cut back drastically in other budget areas and eliminating critical services and programs.

In the wake of these sobering events, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Erie Times-News. It concluded::

“It's tragic that a faceless and indifferent absentee corporation purportedly dedicated to the freedom of information and press with no ties to or stake in the community, except for its bottom line, has with impunity put an inglorious end to one of this community’s most precious and long-lived assets and institutions, a reflection of its unique culture and heritage, its local newspaper.”

Needless to say, the Times never published my letter.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Newspaper of the Year" - A hollow award

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Assn.'s announcement today it had named the Erie Times-News "Newspaper of the Year" was hailed by itself and its feckless sycophants in the local blogosphere with unbecoming exultation. As a reality check, here's a copy of the blog I wrote when the PNA's foundation announced the annual 2009 press awards last April.


In today’s edition, the Erie Times News announced that “thirteen Erie Times-News writers, photographers and page designers earned 18 top awards” in the Pennsylvania Newspaper Assn’s 2009 Keystone Press Awards statewide competition (By my count, it’s 17, but whose counting?).

In that context, Managing Editor Pat Howard boasted: "These awards reach into all corners of our newsroom to highlight excellence both in print and online. It's well-deserved recognition for the journalists being honored, and a reflection of the talent and commitment our entire staff brings to bear every day in serving our audiences in ways no other news organization in the region can.”

That seems curiously at odds with my longstanding contention that the Times-News’s press credentials are, with a few exceptions, by and large mediocre at best, its news and editorial coverage of issues, people and events important to its Erie readers usually inept, shallow, biased, unprofessional, irrelevant, mis and uninformed.

Unless I'm wrong, how could the Times-News seemingly have scored so lavishly in this year’s press awards competition?

Let’s put that into perspective. The article said that “The Times-News competes in Division II, for newspapers in the 50,000-to-99,999 circulation.” What the article didn’t do is put that distinction in context, which is needed to grasp its implications.

For purposes of the Keystone Awards, the commonwealth’s newspapers are divided into eight divisions. Division I includes Pennsylvania’s most prominent newspapers with the largest circulations. There are only seven of them: the largest, the Philadelphia Inquirer which also publishes the Philadelphia Daily News; the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Allentown Morning Call, the Pittsburgh Tribune, the Harrisburg Patriot-News and - although it’s technically a statewide cooperative news service, not a newspaper - the Associated Press.

Division Two consists of six newspapers: the Erie Times-News, the York Daily Record/Sunday News, the Scranton Times-Tribune, the Reading Eagle, the Bucks County Courier-Times, and the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal/Sunday News. In each division .there are about 40 award categories, with awards being given for first and second place winner, and in a few cases honorable mention. That means there are about 120 different award opportunities available to Division II newspapers, of which the Times-News received awards in 17.

However, less than half the categories deal with the principal news and editorial writing functions, which are the hallmark of any newspaper, and about half of those encompass sports writing, a lesser function in terms of the broad public interest.
In the most important news writing category, investigative reporting, the Times-News did not score, beat out by the York Daily Record/Sunday News and the Scranton Times-Tribune.

In another key function, editorial writing, the Times-News took a second place. In commentary/columns, the Times-News was outwritten by the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal and the York Sunday News. In the spot news category, the Times-News was bested by the York Daily Record and the Reading Eagle. In the ongoing news category, it tanked, losing out to the Bucks County and Scranton newspapers.

The Times-News took a first in the Special Projects category and second place in the “niche” category, whatever that is. It also took a second place in news series writing, firsts in feature and /feature beat writing, a first for a business/consumer story, a first in sports beat reporting, a second in feature photo, first in sports photo and second in online journalistic innovation (the internet). It lost out in News Beat reporting to the Reading and Lancaster papers. Photographer Jack Hanrahan distinguished himself with a top Specialty award in the visual category in competion with all of Pennsylvania’s newspapers, including the Big Seven.

Though the Times-News appears to have won its proportionate share of press awards, the most telling factor is that none of them was in the top most vital news and editorial reporting and writing categories

Another interesting point to note is that all of the Times-News’s A-list reporters, writers and columnists were skunked in the competition, like Howard, Ed Mead, Kevin Cuneo, Kevin Flowers, John Guerriero and Ed Palattella.

Also noteworthy is that most of the top news and editorial writing awards went to newspapers in the more densely populated eastern part of the state, where, unlike the Times-News, they face intense competition from other newspapers, including big metropolitan sheets.