Process is important when it comes to problem-solving

It’s time to ask ourselves the following question: What is the best way to accomplish our goals?

Too often “best” is used to describe the most idealistic solution to the problem of the day. As a society, we’ve turned to that problem-solving methodology more and more. The truth is that we need large doses of reality. When we weigh solutions to problems, we can’t exclusively view them through the idealistic lens that our problems all are solvable.

Many of the greatest problem solvers in human history set out to improve something, then grappled with solving a problem outright. It highlights the process attached to any size change. Since it’s graduation season, think about this through the lens of an essay assignment in high school or a research paper in college.

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In both cases, the student has a paper to write. It makes the finished product the “solution.” Before the author can get there, though, he or she must answer fundamental questions. What is the assignment asking me? What will I need to determine in order to write this paper? Then, research happens, if applicable. Finally, much later in the process — after notes have been taken, theories tested, etc. — a paper is written. That paper then goes through the editing process.

The teacher or professor sees the solution: A complete paper, filled with all the necessary information, references, and documents to corroborate whatever points the student made. That is the best way to go about successfully writing a paper. It’s tried and true.

It’s ironic that educators often spend the entirety of their careers preaching about process, perseverance, and adherence to standards and practices to assure a positive outcome for each student. It’s ironic because people, for decades, have been looking at society’s biggest problems and saying, “Well, if we just do this, everything will be fixed!”

I’m not talking about big, national issues, either. Local stakeholders take the same approach to fixing systemic problems in our region. “If we just infuse this much money into the community everything will turn around!” or “If there were more bus stops people wouldn’t have as hard a time getting around!”

Both have been argued for years. Yet neither have resulted in significantly improved circumstances in communities around the Finger Lakes. The first example highlights the flawed idea that injecting millions of dollars into a community without the proper structures and systemic supports in place will result in growing communities, an increased tax base, and general economic viability. It can help, but it doesn’t solve the problem outright. The second is indicative of the idea that by adding bus stops, the region’s most-rural communities will somehow become well-connected, thriving metropolises.

A bus stop won’t solve our transportation problem. But what if the region came together, embraced a public-private solution, and made transportation in the Finger Lakes better for everyone? It doesn’t have to mean more buses, or specific bus stops. What if the solution incorporated the convenience of ride sharing, and regularity of scheduled stops and routes? It’s something that would start small, be manageable (if the interest were present among elected officials) and could scale larger as opportunity and popularity increased.

Perhaps the biggest difference between problem solvers of yesterday and those of today is the lack of interest in long-term planning. People didn’t set out to solve problems. They set out to answer questions, gather information, and make the places they called home better. If there’s something to be critical of those problem solvers of the last 20-30 years, it’s that they have embraced the thirst for instant gratification, instead of appreciating the process to get there.

Good planning has paid off in Newark; other communities should take notice

Newark Mayor Jonathan Taylor is proud of his community, and there isn’t any reason why he shouldn’t be.

If you’ve traveled to Newark in the last year, you know what’s happening downtown: A lot.

There’s the reconstruction — or resurrection — of Main Street, which is happening even though Newark did not win last year’s round of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative.

A significant sewer overhaul, which happened thanks to years of collaboration between village officials and regional representatives.

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And the village is working on new ways to take advantage of canal-front property, which will draw new visitors downtown.

Then consider the thousands of jobs in Newark. Unlike a lot of other communities, which are struggling to lure or keep employers, Newark is thriving as developers look for ways to enter or expand in the village.

Newark’s ability to focus on long-term planning might be unparalleled in the Finger Lakes. It’s hard to name a community whose elected leaders can point to studies conducted in the mid-2000s and show specific ways that millions in new investment is happening as result, more than a decade later.

“The whole South Main Street reconstruction really started back in 2007,” Taylor said. “Traffic and parking studies that were done at the time to secure funding that would allow for the reconstruction of all of Main Street.”

Then in 2012, as the funding became possible, Taylor says a lot of dollars were pulled to help with Hurricane Sandy relief. That didn’t matter to the then-Village Board or the current leadership team.

They just kept moving forward.

“Our project was kind of put on the back-burner, and in 2016 the Governor notified us that we were getting $6.5 million to fund a reconstruction of South Main Street,” he recounted. Except they weren’t going to be satisfied with simply reconstructing downtown at the surface level. It would’ve been easy to do, but the board had decided that it would be smarter to replace the infrastructure underneath South Main Street. Water, sanitary and storm sewer systems were overhauled.

It becomes a nearly $11 million project with all things included.

If all of that isn’t enough, the Village Board has managed to hold the line on property taxes, too. It’s been several years since taxpayers have seen an increase in their levy — another rare accomplishment for a community that’s seeing millions spent to overhaul a large section of it’s most-heavily trafficked real estate.

There’s the former school on Union Street, which has been torn down to make way for a Byrne Dairy store. Taylor says he likes that Newark is becoming the community that developers and people look to as “seeking progress.”

“They want to see what you can do with the money,” he explained, recounting what he’s learned going through multiple DRI rounds. Newark plans to make a compelling argument for $10 million again, even if to some it might seem like a spoil of riches.

It’s sensible, though, and all roots into the real call to action for all elected officials throughout the region: Come up with a good plan; figure out how to execute that plan; and stick to it, even if there are setbacks.

Newark hasn’t won any DRI funding yet, and not even a hurricane of seemingly biblical proportions could derail its will to stay the course. It’s rare. It’s spectacular. And it’s a hallmark of what is possible in the Finger Lakes.

“I think the state really wants to see a community that’s progressing. They really want to see things happening. They don’t want you to just be there waiting saying, ‘OK, I need $10 million then I’ll do this,’” Taylor said.

They have asked, and more importantly answered, the simple questions: What does our community need? How can we leverage grant opportunities to accomplish those goals? What do we need to accomplish in order to be eligible and successfully obtain those grants that lead to goal completion?

It’s more than a comprehensive plan. It’s will. It’s the genuine desire to make a community better than the way it was found. And it’s something that, sadly, often is lacking in the planning process.

Backfiring on Woodstock 50

The backfire effect: Resistance to evidence or data that conflicts with beliefs or closely-held perceptions of issues.

That idea isn’t all that new or fresh, but it is really important when we’re considering the current state of politics … or life. Last week, organizers and financial backers of Woodstock 50 went back-and-forth about the state of the three-day festival. One major backer said it was off, and less than 24 hours later, organizer and co-founder Michael Lang was “on the record” stating that the landmark, historic event would happen, one way or another.

There has been plenty of discussion — constructive and destructive — surrounding the viability of the festival. Vague generalizations within local communities, despite organizers’ best efforts to educate and communicate actual plans, have ravaged its reputation. Those vague generalizations about the event, its participants, and the crowd that might be attracted by a modern iteration of Woodstock — big or small — are a reflection of those who call the Finger Lakes home and also of the backfire effect.

Let’s be clear: Organizers should not be spared criticism if it’s determined that they are attempting to circumvent process or overlook important issues, such as public safety. Accountability comes later, though, when the collective community has information to support concerns. Simply put, though, there isn’t enough data available at this point to make any such accusations.

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They’re working through the legal processes to obtain permits and working with local and state agencies to ensure that the three-day event would go off without a hitch.

Applying the backfire effect, let’s work through some of the “concerns” that have been raised about Woodstock 50 and put them to rest once-and-for-all.

The modern acts are lousy

This, combined with the notion that the announced lineup isn’t in the spirit of the original Woodstock, is fundamentally flawed. Like many music festivals, there often is a range of performers. The original Woodstock had a diverse, unique lineup. Some of those who lived through it remember the acts they choose to recall, based on their own interests and taste in music. The modern lineup is reflective of the same, not a substantive decline in caliber or quality of performers.

Drugs will ruin the festival

Drug use is profound in communities across the region, state, and country. To suggest that because of substance abuse, a landmark event should not be held in our region — thereby keeping the influx of tens of thousands of fans and their money away, too — is profoundly incomplete. Would we ever stop pharmacies and/or doctor’s offices from functioning because of the heroin epidemic? We like to assume that poverty and/or laziness is the bridge to substance-use disorders, but that’s simply an inaccurate generalization. We know the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are far more culpable for our current circumstance, but we won’t tell them, “Thanks, but no thanks,” if a new one wanted to open up. Would we?

The prices are outrageous

Actually, they’re in line with most other music festivals of Woodstock’s planned scope and size. $450 for a three-day pass might seem unreasonable for some folks who live in the Finger Lakes, but that characterization doesn’t bear out in the data. Perhaps it’s a reflection of who organizers are trying to attract, and at the same time, a reflection of the monumental cost associated with doing anything, anywhere in New York state.

It will be a logistical nightmare

Actually, there’s a bona fide argument for doing something like Woodstock in a rural community. Holding an event of that size/caliber in New York City would be equal parts untrue to the festival’s roots and difficult to plan/execute. Holding the festival in a rural community that’s well placed is a far better option and one that organizers of music festivals of all sizes have employed over the years.

The final questions

Do we want people to visit and spend their money in the Finger Lakes? Do we want local businesses to thrive whether patrons are your neighbors or from another state?

People have fundamental beliefs about this event, and for that matter, anything that can be politicized in general. The “Backfire Effect” locally creates a sad outcome. What happens to an economy that the general public is so angry about that they oppose anything and everything that develops within, or because of it?

It backfires.

Try to ignore the false narratives on social media

Social media helps us see a lot of great activism, on a bunch of different fronts. Direct community activism — the kind that addresses a specific, localized community issue. Broad, topical activism — advocating for change in areas such as criminal justice reform, environmental protection, or even the economy.

A recent Facebook about the latter caught my eye. This poster, who has called the Finger Lakes home for his entire life, was critiquing Albany for what he felt was an unfair set of circumstances.

“There aren’t any jobs and these people are more worried about legalizing marijuana????” the post read. The comment section below the post was wild with people from all over the political spectrum, some just weighing in, others supporting or criticizing the poster. A few days later he took it down, but it reminded me of the challenge that social media poses in rural communities.

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More than anything else, Facebook and other social media platforms have become sounding boards. Whether the ideas are good, bad, or indifferent, social media becomes a catchall for feelings, ideas, and musings that can have major implications.

That’s because Facebook dictates modern rhetoric.

I know, I know. A lot of people reading this right now probably want to push back against that, but even in rural communities like the Finger Lakes, Facebook is where a majority of dialogue happens. While I don’t know the person who posted the above message very well, I assume it was taken down either because his view was swayed or because he was tired of reading and responding to comments. There were over 100 of them, several of which included sub-threads that spun off into debates of their own.

It’s a reminder that for all the good that can be done on platforms such as Facebook to mobilize populations, advocate for change and create positivity, a lot of harm also can be done.

The posting about jobs and New York state wasn’t that unique, though. I’ve seen it before. It’s a sentiment that some folks — even some elected officials in the region — like to push because it fits the narrative that all of our problems are someone else’s fault.

It’s an undeniable fact that businesses in the Finger Lakes and Upstate New York struggle because of Albany’s actions. Legislation passed year-after-year makes it harder to do business and more challenging to make money. It’s a stretch, though, to suggest that there are no jobs.

It’s true that jobs don’t look like they did 30 or 40 years ago. Pensions are mostly gone, pay rates are either stagnate or inadequate, there is less job security.

Many business owners, however, are saying the same thing: “I have jobs, but can’t find anyone to fill them.”

It’s a fascinating contrast, one that I’ve wanted to hear more discussion about. It’s easy to pile on Albany and blame state lawmakers for the way things are in 2019, but the fact is that jobs look dramatically different in rural parts of the Finger Lakes because of significantly greater forces.

There are disgruntled members of the workforce, frustrated that their skill set doesn’t match that of the modern workforce, and a group of businesses that often are faced with success or failure based on what prospective employees walk through their doors.

If a company or business is 20, 30, or 40 positions down. It means that they could be significantly more productive than they are presently. Despite that lack of productivity, they still have the resources and funds to support hiring all those people, for the greater, long-term good of their business.

Think about that for a second. Especially given the tenor of debate around doing business in Upstate. People use platforms such as Facebook as a gauge for what things are like out there in the “real world.” Even though it’s online.

Here’s the challenge: Overcoming the damage that posts like the one that Facebook user shared into my own newsfeed. It was interacted with hundreds of times and likely viewed by thousands. A few of the people who originally commented on it felt emboldened to share similar views in their own posts separate of the original.

They all shared the same sentiment: There aren’t any jobs here in the Finger Lakes and lawmakers are trying to legalize marijuana.

Lawmakers in the region have pushed back against legalizing marijuana, and yes, there are jobs here in the region. But the economic problems of Upstate, and for that matter the rest of the United States, are far more complicated than that.

That said, just like the positivity and activism can share, trend and work on Facebook to make a difference, so too can the negative, incorrect or incomplete information make an impact. It can drive a narrative and perception about a region that’s completely incorrect.

Progress is difficult when pessimists are loud

“We need elected officials to champion solutions. They may not always be popular, but if they’re necessary for the county’s long-term stability, it’s vital that they be addressed.”

I wrote those words in March following Hillside’s announcement that it would be shutting down its Romulus operation and taking 235 jobs along with it.

There’s no doubting the importance of a “Hillside” or 235 jobs in a community like Seneca County. Perhaps unsurprisingly, readers had a lot to say about that column. Some posed questions, others suggested that I was capitalizing on the sad news that Hillside was ceasing operations, and there were a few kudos.

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The questions were most intriguing. Here’s a quick sampling:

What can anyone do about an economic situation that’s been created mostly by Albany? How realistic is it to expect a major employer — one who carries dozens, much less hundreds of jobs — to come to Seneca County or the Finger Lakes?

The answer lies in fragments of conversations I’ve had over the last several weeks with stakeholders and organizers who play a role in this whole “economic development” effort.

“I’ve reminded people every day for as long as I’ve been here that we need to scream louder than the pessimists.”

Those are the words of Steve Griffin. He leads the Finger Lakes Economic Development Center in Yates County. Fresh off Penn Yan’s $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative win and recent submission of the final DRI projects for state consideration, he talked about the years of work that went into the victory.

It doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes work. It takes a community coming together for a common goal. And I don’t mean that in a philosophical, sentimental way. Actually, quite the opposite. It means that if you don’t have the support of your community, or the right stakeholders, you have to do the legwork yourself and make sure that your community has a seat at the table and is represented the right way.

Then came a conversation with Richard Mayfield. He oversees rural development initiatives within the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New York. His, and the USDA’s, biggest collective challenge? Getting word out about the opportunities that exist to those who can act on them.

Good news breeds opportunities and awareness. If elected officials aren’t going to be the champions of their communities, screaming louder than the pessimists, as Griffin has done for more than a decade, then it’s up to others to do it.

It’s up to someone to fill the back pages, and Google Search Results with news and information that makes site selectors and interested parties choose these rural communities. It’s not up to your local newspaper, radio, or TV station to be your press machine. It’s up to the community to be its own public relations machine.

News organizations are meant to be the watchdogs of the community, not the loudspeaker of the community — echoing out a favorable message, just for the sake of filling their own editions. And worse yet, the unending expectation that someone else will do it is exactly what created the vacuum we see in the Finger Lakes now.

There are pockets of success, but large, rural swaths of the region are left untouched and hurting for some kind of success. They are begging for something to feel good about and for the community to rally around.

Change takes time and effort. More importantly, though, it takes repetition. Lots of it.

Addressing fundamental issues; like jobs, or livability

The announcement that the Hillside Family of Agencies would cease operations in Seneca County — resulting in the loss of 235 jobs from within the county’s borders — was stunning news for a lot of people.

Employees have called it devastating, and after speaking with someone who went through a similar situation in recent years an interesting point came out that was reiterated through a conversation I had with a Hillside employee.

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An acquaintance, who worked for a major manufacturer in Auburn for several years, recounted what it was like finding out that he was faced with the choice of relocating or being laid off. “It was almost as if the community became the isolated, third part of the equation,” he explained. “We paid it very little attention and ultimately moved.”

At that point, they had lived in Auburn their entire adult lives. Their families lived in Auburn. Their parents’ parents were even lifelong residents of Auburn. But, with a single announcement that his job was either relocating or going away completely, the community they called home became a non-factor.

It was a wild transition that neither of them expected.

The Hillside employee I spoke with reiterated all that. “If my job is in Rochester, we’re moving to that area. It wouldn’t really make sense to commute,” she said. At the time, she did not know if she was going to have an opportunity to relocate within the Hillside Family of Agencies, but it clearly was on employees’ minds.

While Hillside was quick to announce that about 60 positions would be repurposed and relocated within the company, it’s still a loss of 235 jobs for Seneca County. Some officials were hopeful that other employers would soak up those workers, but that’s not a guarantee even if those employers are seeking out employees.

Hillside says several factors led to the decision to close: national and statewide trends concerning the demand for residential treatment services; challenges concerning recruitment and retention of direct-care staff locally; and under-utilization of residential services across other Hillside campuses. Necessary, but cost-prohibitive improvements that would be required to the campus buildings also were a factor, according to Hillside.

Maria Cristalli, president and CEO of Hillside Family of Agencies, said the decision was “best” for the youth they serve, their families, Hillside employees, and their Family of Agencies as a whole. They made it clear that these types of cuts should be expected across the industry if direct-care pay is not addressed because retaining employees is hard when wages are low. James Purcell, CEO of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, said he expected to see more reductions like this one.

The loss of 235 jobs and the reality that some of those jobs were not paying enough to retain employees reminds us that our problem is fundamental.

If elected officials are going to talk about solutions then they need to address the fundamentals, or Maslow’s Hierarchy. When Maslow talked about “basic needs” he referred to things such as food, water, warmth, rest, security, and safety. In this context, we’re talking about a job that pays enough to provide shelter, food, transportation, and medical care. If you make enough money to have a home, maintain reliable transportation, have access to food and medical care, you’re in a solid place.

Those building blocks then allow a person to get into building relationships, developing friendships, and feeling accomplishment in their own life.

The U.S. Census Bureau identifies median personal income as around $26,000 annually in Seneca County. That breaks down to about $500 per week, before taxes.

Taking that into account, how reasonable does it seem that “basic needs” can be met by the individual when individual income is that low?

We need elected officials to champion solutions. They may not always be popular, but if they’re necessary for the county’s long-term stability, it’s vital that they be addressed. Find developers who are willing to build affordable rental units, who are interested in creating access to good, healthy food, who create partnerships that allow Seneca County to expand access to transportation.

Homeownership is complicated in 2019

“So, you’re getting married! Congratulations! Where are you guys thinking about buying a house?!”

My fiancée and I were watching “Jeopardy!” one night when that text message rolled into my smartphone. It was an old friend, and we hadn’t talked in nearly three years.

“I’ll take ‘Things that will never happen’ for $800, Alex,” I replied in my mind.

I didn’t say that, though, and instead offered, “To be decided.”

Later that week we saw each other at a work event and spent about an hour catching up. He recently had gone through the process of purchasing a home with his wife. They married the year before, and the moment they became engaged, he said friends, family, and co-workers began hitting them up with that same question: So, when are you guys going to buy a house?

It propelled an entire debate between the two of them.

“Man, I’m not sure what we got ourselves into,” he said. “The bank approved us, and on paper everything was supposed to work out, but everything is so close.”

He proceeded to vent about everything from taxes and household expenses to maintenance costs that weren’t even part of the math when they closed.

That old friend also said buying a house “was never part of the equation,” at least not until the people around them started asking, and in some cases, pushing for them to make the jump.

As the conversation continued, it became clear that his concern was not about fundamental affordability but rather the “bill of goods” floated with the concept of home ownership. They bought a home that would accommodate them in five years, when presumably, children would be part of the equation.

“I mean, the plan is to have kids. But, I don’t know if we’ll both have the same jobs in five years, much less be living in this house,” he continued.

His thought process started to sound pretty familiar, and at that point, I came clean to his two earlier inquiries about my fiancée and my plan.

“I’m not sure when, or if it will happen. We’re in a great spot now, and are really happy with how things are going. We at least won’t think about it until long after the wedding,” I insisted.

“Yeah, I wish we stuck to that plan, too,” he responded.

The conversation didn’t go much further, and we moved onto happier topics. It got me thinking about the numbers, the logic that led me to a place where home ownership was a “maybe” rather than a certainty, and what would have to change in the industry in order for it to be considered “seriously.”

Last March, Fast Company reported this fascinating trend, which gets to approximately half the issue: “At the core of the American housing system of today is the fundamental belief that housing should be a vehicle for private wealth creation.” The story notes that privately owned housing on the market makes up more than 96 percent of the housing stock in the U.S., but that home ownership has declined by as much as 63 percent in some places. “Big banks and mortgage companies attach stringent criteria and high interest rates to loans that often lock lower-income people out of buying a home,” the Fast Company story continues.

You know who else walks away from the prospect of home ownership when that game is blatantly being played by lenders?

Middle-income folks who don’t want to fall into something that looks or feels like a trap.

There is a calculation taking place, and it’s pretty simple: What will the return on investment be if I/we purchase a home?

Career, job location, income, health, and family are a few factors that can drive choice of housing but that also can drive individuals out of certain housing situations. If your job changes, you need to move, and can’t sell your house, home ownership becomes a set of shackles — not a crowned accomplishment to be treasured in the social view of life.

There is an endless list of situations that can play out, which make home ownership less appealing. What’s worse is that many of those situations — like sudden joblessness or significant shift in income due to a layoff or medical emergency — are more likely to happen today than they were 40 years ago.

What’s the answer, then? Build stability. Whatever that means to the individual. Whether it’s related to career, personal finance, family, or community. Start there, and then think about the things in your life — like a place to live — that will help you move forward in that endeavor.

Discussing mental health in the Finger Lakes with Margaret Morse

In 2018, the CDC produced new, shocking data that showed a 30 percent increase in suicide rates over the last two decades. That increase prompted a lot of discussion, dialogue, and ideas about what could be done differently to improve mental health treatment, services available, and remove stigma. Those efforts are now being realized in a number of unique, exciting ways in Seneca County.

Director of Community Services Margaret Morse joins Josh Durso on Inside the FLX to discuss the world of mental health, substance abuse, and much more.

Asking the right questions about mental health services in the Finger Lakes

Reaction was swift throughout the region when Finger Lakes Health officials said recently that they were seeking permission from New York state to shutter a behavioral health program in Yates County.

Of the unit in Penn Yan, Brittney Christensen, a registered nurse speaking on behalf of a community organization opposed to the proposed closure, said it sent the wrong message to the community. Especially to those in need of mental health services. “Apparently, the unit is being closed due to ‘low volumes and reimbursement,’” she said in a letter, which appears on this page. “Essentially, reporting to our community that our mental health is not financially beneficial to those making these decisions.”

Her point: That mental health services are essential if we want to de-stigmatize mental illness. Furthermore, the services are necessary if we want those who suffer from mental illness to be contributing members of society. “[It] ultimately portrays the detested stigma that if you suffer from mental illness you are less likely to be a contributing member of our society,” she said.

Christensen raises valid points especially in regards to predicting mental health treatment, insurance coverage or the total cost of necessary services to address mental illnesses.

Lara Turbide, spokesperson for Finger Lakes Health, said in an email that, “As with any service changes, significant consideration is given to community need, volumes, and financial viability.” She added that there would be “no closure of the unit until the OMH and DOH provide such approval.” She went on to note that FLH has merely started the process, requesting to discontinue services. Turbide also noted that Finger Lakes Health is engaged directly with regulatory agencies for the appropriate steps related to the request of closure.

She said that volumes were regularly in the single digits, with some days having no patients at all. Turbide also noted that approximately 40 percent of patients served were from other counties. Another point Turbide makes is that there are several other inpatient psychiatric units operated by other area health systems also operating below capacity in the region who can and are willing to accept referrals.

“If we do close the inpatient psychiatric unit at Soldiers & Sailors, we, Finger Lakes Health, will continue to make referrals as clinically appropriate to other area facilities and will continue to offer out-patient care at the John D. Kelly Center in Penn Yan,” Turbide said.

When the discussion centers around “low volumes” or utilization rates, a lot of assumptions are made for entire communities. And unfortunately, when the debate is started, we all too often fall into the habit of asking: Why are we doing this? Instead of asking the more-important question: Why is this service or this thing underutilized?

If “community need, volumes, and financial viability” are the “factors” at play when a decision like this is being made, how do they rank? Do they all represent an equal 33 percent share? Or does one outweigh another?

The assertion that community need dictates fewer available services, instead of more, is a statement based not in fact or reality. If a company or business, wants to assess community need by simply counting the number of folks who pass through their doors, that’s fine. But let’s not confuse that for actual community need. That’s not a scientific analysis of any given community. Especially rural ones, that often are lost in the shuffle of verified data collection as it is.

Last summer the Centers for Disease Control released a damning report, which showed a 28.8 percent increase in suicide between 1999 and 2016 across New York. Even more concerning: The fact that the CDC found that more than half (54 percent) of people who died by suicide weren’t diagnosed with a known mental health condition.

Again, as communities in the Finger Lakes, we need to ask ourselves why programs or services like these are underutilized, not why we operate them if they see low turnout or utilization.

Balancing good morals and policy in 2019

What do we do when good, well-intended policy has a tangible, negative impact on some groups of people?

If there is one critique our political culture in New York state has made ever clear, it’s that for every action an elected official or political party takes, there is a clear, negative impact on another group.

Why have we allowed our politics to devolve into these sweeping, broad, often shortsighted solutions that don’t yield a real benefit in the long-term?

As far as New York is concerned, I’ve railed in this space and on various other platforms against policies or legislative efforts — such as the Downtown Revitalization Initiative. In fact, despite the net good it does for communities in Upstate and the Finger Lakes — which see money that otherwise would be directed to communities Downstate — I’ve said numerous times that a thorough, balanced approach to investing in those Upstate communities would serve the whole significantly better.

It’s a new year, though, and that means a new batch of proposals for residents and taxpayers to evaluate as they brace for impact.

Everyone wants to cite a moral compass when it comes to policy.

For example, let’s look at the plastic bag ban. On the surface, it seems like a sensible idea. We have a plastic, single-use problem, for sure. Plastic is everywhere, along with Styrofoam. This is likely the first step of several, which will include driving our society away from single-use plastic. The end result is desirable, but the means by which we get there is flawed.

While a lot has been made of the government imposing its will on The People, the larger issue seems to be the way it’s sold. It’s factually correct that conservatives — and frankly, people in general — don’t want to be told by the government what they should do or how they should do it. However, when you talk to folks, the debate is much simpler than that.

Here’s an argument I’ve heard far too often: “Well, you should want to preserve the environment and so what if it costs some people more in the process??”

That argument carries over into a number of other policies too. The introduction of the moral element into policy takes the debate away from strength of policy and focuses it solely on the feelings associated with taking the moral high ground. And we see it on both sides of the political aisle.

People can cite moral compass while voting on a piece of legislation or while debating a topic. However, it doesn’t do much to further the cause or debate. Furthermore, it allows the opposing side to invoke the same thing, essentially creating a back-and-forth within the vacuum of a single issue or question.

Moral compass should dictate how we live our lives and, by that same measure, should ultimately decide who is representing us in elected office. Moral compass does not always create the best policy, though, because it does not weed out the negative human components of policy making. For better or worse, moral compass shifts with time. It moves, because people evolve, typically for the better.

Each generation should improve, but we should never fool ourselves into thinking that we’re perfect or completely, 100 percent morally stout.

There are far more impeding or concerning pieces of legislation that have been proposed across the board that have a tangible impact on all sides of the political debate. Plastic bags just happened to be the easiest choice to explain in this column.

The so-called Green New Deal is another example, though much larger and significantly more complex. The moral components of the debate are getting all the attention when a much more constructive debate could be had if they were not invoked constantly and used as primary arguing points for both sides.

The plastic bag ban will have a tangible impact on the people who run grocery stores and businesses in Upstate. Every time we reduce an environmental debate to, “Why don’t you want to save the planet? What kind of horrible person are you?” without looking at the other components of the debate, we’re allowing ourselves to become further entrenched in partisan, party politics.