- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Editorials from around Pennsylvania

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JUST BREATHE

Six family members slaughtered by a Montgomery County man who then took his own life.

One hundred forty-three, mostly children, killed in a Pakistan school by the Taliban.

One hundred sixty-five children kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram.

Two New York police shot in cold blood.

And that’s just last week.

The world is never exactly a sane place, but lately it seems that the madness has increased. Few corners of the world are free from strife, from unbearable tensions. At home, malls sell T-shirts proclaiming this year’s catchphrase. In easier times, those slogans might be “Where’s the beef” or “I’m with stupid.” Today, the T-shirts read, “I can’t breathe.”

I can’t breathe.

If that doesn’t sum up the anxiety of living in this age, we don’t know what does.

Last week’s horrors began with the tragic saga of Bradley Stone who, battling over custody of his children, murdered his ex-wife and five members of her family. Initial reports suggested that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after a tour of duty in Iraq. But some Marines said that he was there for only 30 days, and couldn’t possibly have had PTSD.

His horrific action aside, has this become a world where you don’t qualify to be traumatized by war unless you’ve put in the requisite amount of time on the battlefield?

The world’s battlefields affect us all, and if we’ve learned anything in the 21st century, it’s that the dangers of extremism aren’t limited to certain geographies.

It may be a stretch to link the domestic bloodshed - of Stone’s family, of Michael Brown, of NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu - and the atrocities around the world, but it’s not really.

It’s all of a piece with a world in which the established order continues to be challenged, and the result is too often appalling violence. It’s a world where inequality continues to increase - economic, political and geographic, certainly, but also inequalities in power. Those whose power is being challenged will fight more aggressively to keep it; those out of power will fight to get a foothold, sometimes with “asymmetric warfare.”

That’s why the follow-up to the murder of two police in New York last week is critical. The battle between civilians and the police cannot be allowed to escalate. In fact, we can’t afford any battle between police and civilians.

Some already fear the growth of a police state leading to the erosion of civil liberties, and the increasing militarization of police driving a mind-set where police begin to think of those they serve as the enemy. That’s borne out by the reaction of some police who criticize both NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and President Obama’s tolerance of protest as fostering hatred for police.

On the eve of the Christmas holiday, and on the brink of a new year, it’s time for peace. There may be little we can do in the world to foster that, but here at home we must at least try: maybe to be kind when we don’t want to be.

To think before uttering fighting words, or to remember that a different viewpoint is not the same thing as a challenge.

To remember that while war and murder may be fundamental, we as a species have other, finer qualities worth putting into practice.

We need to take a breath. We need, at least for a while, to just breathe.

- Philadelphia Daily News

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FRUITS OF LABOR: MORE AMERICANS MUST SHARE THE ECONOMY’S GAINS

The latest employment numbers are heartening evidence that the nation’s labor market is showing substantial recovery. But that promise continues to elude millions of workers whose families still live paycheck to paycheck, if they have jobs at all.

Although the economy added 321,000 jobs in November, the biggest monthly jump in nearly three years, the average wage increased by just 9 cents an hour, to $24.66. Year-over-year wage increases remain at a historically low 2.1 percent, not much more than inflation.

The only way many employees can earn more is to work more hours, and the average work week rose slightly last month to 34.6 hours. But that option is not available to many workers, especially lower-paid ones in lower-skilled jobs. Many of the jobs created last month are in retail and hospitality, service sectors that traditionally are low-paying.

So this is no time for benign neglect by policy makers in Washington and statehouses. Federal and state minimum wages still need to rise. Congress still needs to restore extended federal benefits for long-term unemployed workers.

Looking ahead to next year, let’s hope that such matters will not defy agreement by President Barack Obama and a Republican-controlled Congress. On another economic front, both parties say they want business tax reform that would encourage U.S. companies to keep more of their profits, jobs and investment here. It’s time to get serious about revising the tax code.

As America’s economy continues to grow, it is pulling further ahead of other industrial nations. The economy benefits from low oil (and thus gasoline) prices, rising domestic energy production and the Federal Reserve’s policy of keeping interest rates near zero.

Corporate profits are growing as well. The stock market’s Dow and S&P; 500 hit record highs Monday. If now is not the time for all working Americans to share in the new prosperity, when will the time come?

-Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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TASK FORCE THAT GUARDS AGAINST EXPLOITATION OF SENIORS IS AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS COME

There are no more sinister newsmakers of 2014 than Richard Freer.

Freer, a former bank president and financial consultant, callously ripped off scores of senior citizens who trusted him with their retirement savings. The former Palmer Township resident now rightly resides in state prison, where he’s serving a 12- to 30-year sentence.

Meanwhile, his many victims are left holding the bag - an empty bag that once contained what they thought was their nest eggs or boosts to their grandkids’ educational funds.

Last week, Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli announced he’s creating a task force aimed at protecting the county’s older adults from exploitation.

If any good has come from Freer’s sorry saga, it is this. Morganelli said his case provided the spark for the task force.

This is a worthy effort whose time is overdue. As our population grays and technology changes daily, opportunities to prey on the vulnerable have skyrocketed.

Telephone and Internet scams. Shysters like Freer. Distinguishing legitimacy from fraudulence has grown especially difficult for senior citizens.

Morganelli said after some initial skepticism, he’s now sure the time for such a crusade is right.

“I am convinced that a task force regarding elder abuse … would allow us to educate the public about the issues that affect seniors, help prevent the victimization of them both financially and physically, give our senior citizens information so that they can protect themselves and help law enforcement to better prepare cases for prosecution,” he said.

The veteran district attorney is entrusting responsibility for the task force in capable hands. John Mehler, director of the Northampton County Area Agency on Aging, has demonstrated tireless advocacy for the region’s older adults. Mehler will pave the path for finding members and staking out a strategy.

A task force might lead educational seminars; train bankers, health care workers and others who work with the elderly; and create open lines of communication between these individuals and law enforcement - all with an eye toward protecting the elderly from predators and potential scammers.

The idea is not unprecedented.

Several of Pennsylvania’s counties have such task forces, some run by nonprofit organizations and others that are extensions of prosecutors’ offices or the county government.

Exactly what shape this one will take isn’t quite clear, though Morganelli indicated he favors a hybrid.

A review by the state Supreme Court found the task forces are a factor in fighting elder abuse, according to Linda Mill of Temple University’s Institute on Protective Services.

In the Lehigh Valley, it’s a worthwhile initiative that fills a void and builds off the infrastructure already in place at the county level to help seniors navigate in an ever-evolving environment.

Hats off for that.

- The (Easton) Express-Times

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PUTTING CLAMPS ON ABSENTEE LANDLORDS

Absentee landlords will be getting a lump of coal for Christmas.

A law went into effect Monday that stitches shut a loophole whereby landlords were able to hold out their hands to collect rent but wipe their hands clean when confronted with building code violations.

Rep. Kurt Masser, R- Northumberland County, played the role of the Grinch.

Until now, landlords were able to hide their identities within shell corporations, making it virtually impossible to know who a property owner really was.

“They are using these corporation shields to play hide-and-seek,” Masser told Harrisburg reporter John Finnerty, who covers state government for The Tribune-Democrat and other CNHI newspapers.

Masser’s law makes it easier to break through the shield and identify the true owner.

Masser has targeted blight since 2010, when he was elected to the House.

He has held meetings to help municipal officials develop plans to counter the burgeoning problem of rundown and unoccupied buildings.

At last report, the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania said there were approximately 300,000 vacant buildings in the Keystone State. Almost every community across Pennsylvania is battling blight.

Philadelphia checked in with 25,000 unoccupied properties. It formed a “blight court” specifically for code violations.

Armed with rules from a rewritten blight law, Philly inspectors converged on 12,500 properties and found problems with two-thirds of them.

About 4,000 owners of run-down properties restored their holdings to code specifications, according to a report submitted to the Legislature.

Locally, Johnstown is home to about 1,600 blighted properties.

And Windber Borough had to resort to legal action to serve papers on a New York man regarding condemnation proceedings on a dilapidated former gas station.

“We talk about this all of the time at (state) Association of Borough meetings,” Windber Councilman Jim Spinos told our David Hurst. “We all have the same problem when it comes to blight.”

Renee Daly, economic development director for Johnstown, said many out-of-state buyers acquire rundown buildings only to show as collateral in order to secure bank loans. They have no intention of renovating the properties, she said.

Land banks, Daly said, are the new hot-button topic when it comes to dealing with vacant property. A land bank would help communities purchase blighted properties, ensuring that they would not fall into the hands of absentee landlords.

Masser’s law, we believe, is a step in the right direction in exposing the identity of absentee owners to public scrutiny. Perhaps that will spur them into action to fix up or get rid of the vacant properties that are causing a pox on our communities.

- The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat

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BOLSTER STATE ETHICS PANEL

Given a tsunami of corruption over the last decade that has washed over the state Legislature and many local governments statewide, it would be reasonable for Pennsylvania to have the toughest government ethics commission in the land.

It’s a function of ethical dysfunction, however, that the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission has little power and few resources to implement it.

As reported recently by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the commission has 11 vacancies on its 27-position staff and a budget that is more than $105,000 less than it was six years ago - numbers to remember the next time a state legislator professes a commitment to ethics or a local councilman says that his dubious conduct was cleared by the commission.

Limited to investigating complaints

That deliberate underfunding and short-staffing by legislators is the main reason that the commission cannot initiate its own investigations of unethical conduct by public officials. It is limited, as a practical matter, by considering complaints filed by others.

And even when the commission acts, it is limited. It can’t levy fines, but only can order restitution after the village has been pillaged. Lawmakers also have precluded its access to records it would need for comprehensive investigations.

The Legislature should give the commission the power and resources it needs to be effective, or end the charade and eliminate it.

- The (Scranton) Times-Tribune

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DON”T GET TAKEN WHEN YOU’RE AIMING TO GIVE

People are hungry in September and March, too. They struggle to make ends meet all year-round.

But there must be something especially painful about being in need at a time when other people are celebrating and spending freely.

Not every child can look forward to a Christmas vacation filled with home-cooked meals, trays of Christmas cookies, stacks of holiday presents.

The numbers of children who get free or reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches are rising even in suburban schools here. For those children, Christmas vacation can mean fewer meals.

Many of the families struggling to put food on the table are among the working poor, says Scott Fischer, executive director of Lancaster County Council of Churches.

“So many of them aren’t making a living wage or even close to it,” Fischer says. “It’s just really hard out there. … People are falling … further and further behind.”

The needs here are genuine and deep. In the face of this great need, we should be sure that our money is going to charities that will use it effectively.

Fortunately, Lancaster County has excellent charities and religious organizations working to meet those needs - and residents and businesses eager to help.

Those philanthropies include, to name just a few, the Lancaster County Council of Churches, the Lancaster County Community Foundation and United Way of Lancaster County.

If you want to give to organizations that are less familiar, do a little research.

The Pennsylvania Department of State has an online database of charities registered with the commonwealth. That department also has a toll-free number you can call to find out about a particular charity.

You can search for larger charities, for free, on websites such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar.

Charity Navigator uses nonprofits’ IRS 990 tax forms to evaluate their use of funds. That site rates a charity’s effectiveness, its level of accountability and its degree of transparency.

GuideStar gathers data about the mission, impact, programs, leadership and finances of nonprofits, and offers reviews from people familiar with those charities.

We shouldn’t bother with charities that don’t do any discernible good, while raking in money that goes mostly to administrative salaries.

And we shouldn’t let the rare bad charity make us cynical over philanthropy in general.

Those genuinely in need are relying on us to give - not give in to cynicism.

-LNP

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