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This Week in New York State Government

Governor:

Governor Cuomo Announces Passage of Emergency Regulations Targeting the Sale of Synthetic Marijuana

Governor Cuomo announced the passage of emergency Health Department regulations combatting the sale of synthetic cannabinoids in New York State. The tougher regulations expand the existing list of banned substances to include new chemical compounds that drug producers have been making since Governor Cuomo first targeted so-called synthetic marijuana in 2012. These actions are in response to a dramatic and dangerous increase in medical emergencies across New York State this summer.

Between June 7 and August 1, New York State experienced a tenfold increase over the same times last year in emergency department visits (more than 2,300) and poison control center calls (more than 300) from adverse health effects due to synthetic marijuana. Nationally, there have been 15 related deaths reported to poison control centers during January through May 2015. No deaths have yet occurred in New York State.

The emergency measures add two additional classes of compounds to the banned substances list, which potentially include hundreds of different hazardous chemicals. They were unanimously approved by the Public Health and Health Planning Council, which maintains a broad array of advisory and decision-making responsibilities with respect to New York State’s public health and health care delivery system.

The new regulations are the latest in a series of efforts by the Governor to combat the widespread and deadly use of synthetic marijuana. The sale and possession of dozens of synthetic cannabinoids and bath salts were banned by the Department of Health at the urging of Governor Cuomo in August of 2012 and since then, the producers of synthetic cannabinoids have been attempting to skirt New York’s strict regulations by developing new chemicals not specifically identified in existing regulations.

Governor Cuomo Announces Free Legionella Testing For Eligible Buildings Across New York State

Governor Cuomo announced the New York State Department of Health is providing free Legionella testing for building owners, operators, managers and landlords of buildings with cooling towers or evaporative condenser units that can be sources of the bacteria. Testing will be done free of charge through the Department’s Wadsworth Center Laboratory. This service will be available until October, when the hot summer temperatures that may contribute to the growth of Legionella bacteria have moderated.

Governor Cuomo has also made State phone lines available in order to further facilitate Legionella testing by State Health officials. Trained operators will be available Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 4:30pm. These lines are designed to support sample collection, as described below, which will facilitate testing by the Department of Health. If you require medical attention, call your health care provider or 9-1-1 immediately.

Coinciding with this announcement, the Governor also deployed State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker to the Bronx to examine multiple sites found to have high concentrations of Legionella. Dr. Zucker will also be working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do a full briefing with State and local officials on the outbreak in New York City next week.

Governor Cuomo Announces Six New Patrol Boats to Enhance Safe Boating Across New York

Governor Cuomo announced six new patrol boats that will assist local law enforcement agencies across the state with keeping waterways safe. View photo.

The new Brunswick Justice patrol vessels are assigned to:

  • Babylon Police Department (Suffolk County)
  • Irvington Police Department (Westchester County)
  • Lewis County Sheriff’s Department
  • Livingston County Sheriff’s Department
  • Orleans County Sheriff’s Department
  • Port Chester Police Department (Westchester County)

The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation purchased these vessels, which range in value from $70,000 to nearly $130,000. The transaction was made possible through the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, administered by the U.S. Coast Guard, which provides funding to states to assist with recreational boating safety. Local police agencies will use the patrol vessels to enhance recreational boater safety and enforce New York State Navigation Laws.

Governor Cuomo Announces Modern Marketing Concepts, Inc. to Expand and Create Nearly 600 New Jobs in Binghamton

Governor Cuomo announced that Modern Marketing Concepts, Inc., a global sales optimization company providing marketing, technology, sales and fulfillment services, is significantly expanding its operations and workforce in Binghamton, Broome County. Through this expansion, the company will create at least 592 new, full-time jobs over the next five years, while also retaining 310 existing jobs.

The company plans to invest approximately $17 million to acquire a predominately vacant, 426,000 square foot industrial structure and redevelop it into Link Park – a multi-use and multi-tenant facility to accommodate its expansion, as well as attract additional businesses and jobs. Construction is slated to begin later this month, and will be completed in early 2017.

“From cutting taxes to helping business expand and thrive, is proof positive that our administration’s formula for growing the economy works,” Governor Cuomo said. “This expansion project is another step forward for the local community, and it is one that will help Binghamton and the surrounding areas become the kinds of places where our young people come and stay to find their future in the new economy. We were pleased to do our part on the state side to make this possible, and I want to thank and congratulate County Executive Preston and Mr. Babcock for their roles as well. This is a very exciting day for the Upstate economy, and it’s a reminder that the best truly is yet to come.”

Governor Cuomo Announces More than $4.5 Million in Outdoor Recreation Improvement Projects in the Thousand Islands Region

Governor Cuomo announced that $4.5 million projects will enhance outdoor recreation for people of all ages and abilities in the Thousand Islands Region. A roughly $3.6 million project to improve the beachfront and campgrounds of Wellesley Island and Grass Point State Parks is now complete, making the parks more attractive to visitors to these popular destinations on the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands region. In addition, construction is now underway on a $1 million accessible trail at Wilson Hill Wildlife Management Area in St. Lawrence County.

“From fishing, swimming and boating to camping out under the stars, the Thousand Islands offer a wealth of recreational experiences for visitors from across the state and beyond,” said Governor Cuomo. “To know the North Country is to love the North Country and with these important projects, we’re investing in some of the region’s best assets. I encourage everyone to pay the Thousand Islands a visit and see what you’ve been missing.”

Governor Cuomo Announces $6.2 Million in Grants for Historic Properties Damaged by Superstorm Sandy

Governor Cuomo announced more than $6.2 million in grant awards to help 16 historically significant properties repair severe damage from Superstorm Sandy in 2012. This is the second round of funding announced by the Governor to rehabilitate historic landmarks damaged in the storm.

The grants will aid in the recovery of some of the region’s most significant historic properties, including the Fraunces Tavern, a gathering place for Revolutionary War-era patriots such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams that is now a popular historic museum in Manhattan and Old Westbury Gardens in Westbury, a premier example of a Long Island “Gold Coast” country estate and a leading Long Island heritage tourism destination. The scenic Evergeens and Green-Wood Cemeteries in Brooklyn are the final resting places of numerous prominent New Yorkers including composer Leonard Bernstein, journalist Horace Greeley, abolitionist Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, artist Jean Michel Basquiat, cartoonist Walt Kelly and eight victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Grants are being made available to properties that are on or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, owned by municipalities or not-for profit organizations and located in one of 13 FEMA-designated counties. Work must meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment of Historic Properties and be pre-approved by the State Historic Preservation Office. The program isfunded by the National Park Service and administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The projects are the second round of funding under the program. Last year, Governor Cuomo announced more than $5 million was awarded to 14 historically significant properties that suffered severe damage from Superstorm Sandy.

Governor Cuomo Announces Expansion of Free WI-FI to Robert Moses State Park

Governor Cuomo announced that free Wi-Fi is now available at Robert Moses State Park, a popular Long Island beach with over 3.4 million visitors each year. The free wireless service, which was installed at Fields 2, 3, 4 and 5, is in thanks to a partnership between the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Toyota, and American Park Network, and builds on the free Wi-Fi installed last year at Jones Beach, Niagara Falls, Saratoga Spa and East River State Park.

The service, called “Oh, Ranger!” Wi-Fi, is part of a program made possible through the support of Toyota: Let’s Go Places, with the equipment, installation, maintenance and monitoring being provided at no cost to taxpayers. Visitors at the participating parks access the Wi-Fi in two easy steps: users simply select Oh, Ranger! Wi-Fi under available Wi-Fi networks on their device, accept the standard terms and conditions, and will then be on their way to free Internet access.

In addition to providing free connectivity for the millions of visitors, Oh, Ranger! Wi-Fi also can identify park visitation patterns, generate awareness of upcoming programs and events, promote volunteerism and support parks friends groups like the Natural Heritage Trust, which supports New York State Parks. Oh, Ranger! also produces the annual New York State Parks Guide.

Governor Cuomo Announces $5.7 Million in State Awards to Research Institutions to Treat and Cure Spinal Cord Injuries

Governor Cuomo announced $5.7 million in awards to nine research teams at institutions across the state for the development of treatments and cures for various forms and effects of spinal cord injuries. Each year, approximately 1,000 New York residents suffer traumatic spinal cord injuries, joining the nearly 276,000 people living in the United States with paralysis. This funding will help researchers build on the scientific advancements already made by the State’s research community. Since 2001, at least 22 spinal cord injury-related patent applications have been filed by New York State researchers.

This funding, administered by New York State Spinal Cord Injury Research program (SCIRB), is the first round of competitive awards since funding was re-instated for the program in 2013. Since its inception, the Spinal Cord Injury Research Board has recommended more than $71 million in research awards to some of New York State’s finest research teams.

This round of funding includes two- and three-year awards made for Collaborations to Accelerate Research Translation (CART) and Innovative, Developmental and Exploratory Activities (IDEA) in Spinal Cord Injury Research. CART awards support and advance current research, while IDEA awards help get new research started. All recipients are researching advancements in either rehabilitation or cellular regeneration and therapeutics.

Governor Cuomo Announces Groundbreaking for National Comedy Center

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced the new National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York has officially broken ground. The $45 million center celebrates the history of comedy, the craft, and its contributors. To celebrate the start of construction, more than 40 events this weekend will include comedy greats such as Jerry Seinfeld, Melissa Rivers, Regis Philbin, Nick Offerman, Kelly Carlin, the family of Harold Ramis, and many others.

“New York is proud to be home to many legends in entertainment, and building the new National Comedy Center in the hometown of Lucille Ball is a great honor that will bring both visitors and economic growth,” Governor Cuomo said. “This administration and the Regional Economic Development Council is committed to moving Western New York forward, and we’re proud to help fund and host this incredible new attraction.” ‎

The National Comedy Center project includes the renovation of two historic buildings as well as the construction of a new building. It is expected to attract over 114,000 visitors each year and give a $23 million boost to the local economy annually, while also sparking further economic development and helping to improve the economic environment in the region. The National Comedy Center is anticipated to generate 218 jobs and $6.5 million in wages per year in the three counties of Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, & Erie.

Comptroller:

Comptroller DiNapoli: New York City’s Budget Benefits from Strong Economic Growth

New York City’s budget is balanced for fiscal year (FY) 2016 and the out-year budget gaps are manageable under current economic conditions, according to an analysis released by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli at the annual meeting of the Financial Control Board.

The city projects budget gaps of $1.5 billion in FY 2017 and $1.9 billion in FY 2018, which are smaller than projected one year ago. The city also expects a gap of $2.9 billion for FY 2019. The gaps are relatively small, ranging from 2.5 percent to 4.5 percent of city fund revenue. Moreover, the budgets for these years include a general reserve of $1 billion, which could be used to help close the budget gaps.

In FY 2015, tax collections reached a record $51.7 billion, $3.1 billion more than the city’s forecast at the beginning of the year, contributing to a $3.6 billion surplus. The surplus was used to increase reserves and to help balance the FY 2016 budget.

Over the years, the city’s conservative approach to forecasting tax revenues has served it well, helping to close projected budget gaps and cushioning the impact of adverse developments. The city’s current four-year financial plan continues this practice. The city forecasts only a small increase in tax revenues in FY 2016, even though the economy continues to grow at a steady pace.

While tax collections are likely to be higher than projected by the city under current economic conditions, there is the possibility of an economic setback during the financial plan period. The city has experienced five years of job growth, and the city’s financial plan assumes uninterrupted growth for another five years, which would be the longest expansion in 60 years. While the economy shows no signs of weakening, external events, such as recent developments in Greece and China, and changes in federal monetary policy, could impact the city’s economy.

Over the past two years, the city has taken steps to increase its reserves. Officials increased the annual general reserve to $1 billion, the largest amount ever, and have set aside $500 million to create a Capital Stabilization Reserve, which could be used to insulate the capital program from budget cuts or to help balance the operating budget.

The city also added $1.8 billion to the Retiree Health Benefits Trust, raising the balance in the trust to a record $3.3 billion. The trust was established to help fund post-employment benefits other than pensions, but the city has used the trust in the past as a rainy-day fund. While the record-high balance is a positive development, the city’s unfunded Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) liability remains high at $89.5 billion.

DiNapoli’s report also made the following observations:

  • Over the past year, the city has made targeted investments in education, public safety and other programs, which have increased agency spending by nearly $1.6 billion annually.
  • The city has proposed an ambitious ten-year capital strategy, valued at $83.8 billion through 2025. Debt service would reach $7.5 billion by FY 2019 and would account for 13.4 percent of tax revenue in that year.
  • The city has reached new labor agreements with 80 percent of its workforce, but has yet to reach new agreements with the unions that represent the city’s police officers, firefighters and correction officers.
  • The city is working with its unions to hold down the growth in health insurance costs. The city reports that it achieved health insurance savings of $400 million in FY 2015 and has nearly achieved the FY 2016 savings target of $700 million. Meeting the higher targets for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 will be a greater challenge, but substantial progress has already been made.
  • The city has resumed (after a two-year hiatus) the process of scrutinizing agency operations for savings, but the results so far have been modest. In a separate effort, the city has outlined a plan to reduce overtime costs in the uniformed agencies, which reached a record of nearly $1.4 billion in FY 2015.
  • The city added a record 120,000 jobs during calendar year 2014 and is on track to add more than 100,000 jobs during 2015. Since the end of 2009, the city has added more than half a million jobs, four times as many as were lost during the recession.
  • Although the city’s fiscal outlook continues to improve, the Health and Hospitals Corporation and the New York City Housing Authority face significant fiscal challenges, which have required greater financial assistance from the city.

Read the Review of the Financial Plan of the City of New York for more details.

Comptroller DiNapoli Releases Municipal Audits

New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli announced his office completed the following audits:

Niskayuna No. 2 Fire District – Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP) (Schenectady County)
The district did not award accurate LOSAP credits because officials did not grant the appropriate number of points to volunteers for participation in department responses nor accurately record volunteer activities.

Northville Public Library – Cash Disbursements (Fulton County)
The board did not audit and approve any cash disbursements made from the library’s checking account before payments were made. In addition, the director had sole access to the library savings and money market bank accounts and withdrew more than $37,000 from these accounts. The board did not audit or otherwise authorize these withdrawals and the director did not record them in the accounting records.

Town of North Norwich – Budgeting (Chenango County)
The adopted budgets for the highway fund were not structurally balanced, as they used non-recurring revenues to fund recurring expenditures. In the general fund, the board also used non-recurring mortgage tax revenues to fund recurring expenditures, as well as to fund non-recurring expenditures and to build fund balance.

Town of Phelps – Financial Management (Ontario County)
Officials have not developed adequate policies and procedures or financial plans to govern budgeting practices. The town has four reserve funds, but the purpose and funding levels of the reserves have not been established. Finally, the board has not formally established a multiyear financial plan.

Comptroller DiNapoli Releases School Audits

New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli announced his office completed the following audits:

Bethpage Union Free School District – Leave Accruals (Nassau County)
District employees only used leave time to which they were entitled and unused leave payouts were generally made in accordance with collective bargaining agreements and individual employment contracts. However, record keeping procedures could be improved to reduce the risk of leave time being used or paid out for which employees are not entitled.

Commack Union Free School District – Financial Condition and Fuel Inventory (Suffolk County)
Over the past three years, district officials’ appropriated a total of nearly $24 million of fund balance, which should have resulted in planned operating deficits each year. However, because the district overestimated expenditures in its adopted budgets, it experienced large operating surpluses in 2011-12 and 2012-13 and did not use the appropriated fund balance to finance operations. In addition, district officials did not maintain complete and adequate fuel inventory records to safeguard fuel.

Plainview-Bethpage Central School District – Financial Condition (Nassau County)
District officials consistently presented, and the board approved, budgets with significantly overestimated appropriations. The overestimated expenditures totaled $36.5 million over the five-year period July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2014, an average of about $7.3 million per year. Also, because district officials did not include the funding of reserves in the annual budget, the district’s use of taxpayer money was not sufficiently transparent.

Attorney General:

Attorney General Schneiderman Announces Indictments Against 20 Capital Area Residents, Including Former Watervliet Police Officer, in “Operation Trojan Horse” Drug Bust

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced the indictments against 20 alleged members and associates of a Troy-based gang on charges they operated a high-volume drug trafficking ring. During the year-long investigation, investigators seized more than 1,000 grams of cocaine with an approximate street value of $100,000 and more than 100 bags of heroin and more than an ounce of raw heroin with an approximate street value of $14,000, according to the 249 counts in the felony indictments unsealed in Rensselaer Supreme Court.

As outlined in the indictments, the narcotics distribution ring was operated out of Troy by a gang called the Young Gunnerz, the largest provider of cocaine, heroin, and illegal prescription drugs in the city. Gang members and their associates allegedly purchased large quantities of drugs from an unknown supplier in the Bronx, and then brought the narcotics back to Troy for distribution throughout Albany County, Rensselaer County, Saratoga County and elsewhere in and outside of New York State.

“We have zero tolerance for drug running and the violence that comes with it,” said Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. “If you deal in drugs in New York, we will come after you with the full force of the law. The year-long Operation Trojan Horse showed how powerful collaboration across multiple law enforcement agencies can be in combatting drug crimes in the Capital Region.”

Attorney General Schneiderman, Nine Other Attorneys General and New York City Send Joint Letter Backing Federal Rules Limiting Climate Change Pollution from Power Plants

Joined by a coalition of nine other attorneys general and the City of New York, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman wrote to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expressing “strong support” for final rules of the Obama Administration that – for the first time – limit emissions of climate change pollution from existing and new fossil fuel-burning power plants. The letter states that the coalition members fully anticipate defending the rules if they are challenged in court.

The finalization of the power plant rules marks the culmination of a decade-long effort by states to require mandatory cuts in the emissions of climate change pollution from fossil fuel burning power plants – the largest source of these emissions in the United States. The rules will control these emissions by setting limits on the amount of climate change pollution that can be released from new and existing plants. The rule for existing plants is expected to eliminate as much climate change pollution as is emitted by more than 160 million cars a year – or 70% of the nation’s passenger cars.

The coalition’s letter emphasizes that the EPA’s power plant rules are “firmly grounded in the law.” The federal Clean Air Act requires the agency to set limits on power plant emissions of climate change pollution. The agency adopted the power plant rules through a multi-year stakeholder process that draws heavily on strategies that states have used to cut power plant emissions, while benefiting their economies. For example, the nine-state Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), of which New York is a partner, has reduced regional carbon dioxide emissions by the electricity sector, by 40 percent from 2005 levels. The program’s first three years saw a $1.3 billion reduction in total energy bills in the nine states, added $1.6 billion to the regional economy and created an estimated 16,000 jobs.

Attorney General Schneiderman Cracks Down on Illegal Toy Guns Sales, Announces Settlements with Amazon, Walmart and Other Major Retailers to Halt Sales of Life-Like Imitation Guns in New York

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced agreements with five major retailers, Amazon.com, Kmart, Sears, Walmart and California-based ACTA, for violating a New York State law that prohibits the sale of “imitation weapons,” which are toy guns that look like real guns. The investigation found that, from 2012 through 2014, these retailers – and third-party sellers operating through Amazon.com and Sears.com – sold more than 6,400 prohibited toy guns in New York without the legally-required distinguishing color markings. The deals require the retailers, most of whom sold the toys online, to apply New York City’s strict appearance standards to all statewide sales. New York City law currently requires any toy gun sold in the five boroughs to be entirely brightly colored; state law is more lenient, requiring markings only along the sides and tip of the gun barrel.

The Attorney General’s Office also sent cease and desist letters to 65 third-party sellers that sold the toys into New York through Amazon, and 2 third-party sellers that sell through Sears.com.

The agreement with Walmart requires the company to pay $225,000 in fines to New York State. Kmart, Amazon.com, Sears and ACTA will pay more than $84,000 in combined fines and costs. The Amazon settlement includes a civil penalty of $7,250 – $50 per online sale – which is paid to New York State, plus $2,000 in costs to the Attorney General’s Office. Kmart has agreed to pay a $64,550 penalty – $50 per online sale and $500 for each in-store sale. It also will pay $2,000 in costs. The settlement with ACTA includes a civil penalty of $7,000, and $2,000 in costs to the Attorney General’s Office.

The fines imposed on Walmart are higher because that company violated a similar 2003 agreement with the Attorney General’s Office, in which it the company agreed to stop selling realistic looking toy guns in New York. While the earlier settlement stemmed from illegal in-store sales of imitation weapons, the current investigation found that those sales had moved to Walmart’s online marketplace.

New York City, New York State and federal laws have long restricted the sale of realistic-looking toy guns because experience has repeatedly demonstrated that these toys endanger both their users and the public. Hundreds of crimes have been committed in New York City with toy guns, and there have been at least 63 shootings in New York State since 1994 as a result of someone holding a toy or imitation weapon. At least eight of those were fatal.

 

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