- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Times Union of Albany on New York’s public pension fund.

May 21

The state’s pension fund is at an all-time high. So it’s all good then, right? Wrong.

What looks like an impressive figure comes with a few sobering asterisks. By at least some measures, the fund is actually not in as good a shape as it was before the recession.

All the more reason for New York to proceed cautiously. Rather than continue to ride the retirement roller coaster that the public employers, taxpayers and government workers have been on, it is time for the state to consider a more rational pension plan.

The retirement system, which covers more than 1 million public employees, retirees and beneficiaries and includes about 3,000 state and local government employers, right now appears to be in good shape. Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli recently valued it at $176.2 billion, well above the $108.9 billion it plunged to in 2008.

That’s good news for public employers who are still paying for the losses of the recession. Employer contribution rates are an average 20.1 percent of payroll for most employees; for police and firefighters, it’s 27.6 percent.

With the fund’s value rising steadily for the last five years, employers have already enjoyed a modest drop in contributions. If the market and the fund remain healthy, that’s likely to continue. In fact, contributions by law can fall as low as 4.5 percent, a floor established in 2003.

That may sound attractive to local government leaders and taxpayers after years of budget-busting pension bills, and to public employees, whose benefits have been the fodder for budget hawks and others who blame their cost for rising taxes.

But not all is quite as rosy as it sounds. In terms of its liabilities, the retirement system is less healthy than it was in 2008, when the fund was actually overfunded. Now, it is 89 percent funded - still in a good range, but not as high as some other state funds like Wisconsin’s, which is just shy of 100 percent. Put another way, the fund is short by more than $800 per member.

And the reality is that the economy, the market, and the fund ebb and flow over time. The challenge is to better plan for the bad times.

New York can do that by raising the floor higher, to a level that better reflects the fund’s long-term trends. Past estimates have put the average contribution rate over time at around 11 or 12 percent - substantially higher than the current floor, but considerably less than it is now.

A higher floor would give more stability to the local governments and taxpayers. Surplus contributions could be “banked,” with interest, and in years when the fund falls short, they could draw against that bank instead of asking taxpayers to suddenly pay more. And none of this would jeopardize the pensions, which are protected by law.

And, politically, it makes much more sense to set a higher floor in place now, while contributions are still high. Once they get too low, it would mean raising taxes - a tough idea to sell. Fiscal discipline is a lot easier to practice when it doesn’t hurt.

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Online: http://bit.ly/1pd1xhr

The Post-Standard of Syracuse on two boys removed from classroom on suspicion they planned to harm someone.

May 20

There’s a hero out there, and we’ll probably never learn his or her name.

Last week, a chilling drama played out in the Marcellus community when two young boys were removed from their middle school on suspicion that they might harm someone.

Was the threat real? Were kids in danger? Would the boys follow through on their dark daydreams?

Answers will become clearer to everyone involved as time passes. However, we’ve seen enough horrific school shootings to know that best response is to do exactly what the Marcellus school and police officials did - isolate the students from classmates and thoroughly investigate the threat.

But the hero here is unnamed. It’s the “classmate” who overheard the boys talking and told a parent. Years ago, the label to be applied here is “tattle-tale,” something bad. Today, kids “telling” is the first and best tripwire to stop a potential disaster.

Marcellus teachers and administrators have encouraged students repeatedly that if they hear others talking about killing others they should let someone know. That advice, apparently, took root, because it took a lot of guts for this student to overcome peer pressure and the shadow of “snitching” to tell a parent about the threatening discussion.

What this young adult did serves as a good lesson to other students, an example that they should speak up to ensure everyone’s safety. This kind of information not only can save lives, it enables troubled, isolated and lonely classmates to receive the help they need to cope with the pressures of adolescence.

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Online: http://bit.ly/1gPzHbv

The New York Times on court-related user fees.

May 20.

User fees are a fact of life in America - those inscrutable “administrative” charges tacked on to everything from checking luggage to buying theater tickets to applying for college. For people with the ability to pay, they are an irritation. But such fees are increasingly being levied on people caught up in the criminal justice system, who are overwhelmingly among the poorest members of society.

In recent years, both the number and size of court-related user fees have gone up sharply around the country, according to a yearlong investigation by National Public Radio, with assistance from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law and the National Center for State Courts.

Fees show up at every stage of the process, from arrest to prosecution to conviction, and often long after any sentence has been completed. Defendants are charged for pretrial room and board in a local jail ($60 to $70 a day); for renting an electronic monitoring bracelet (up to several hundred dollars a month); for the collection of their DNA samples; and, in 43 states and the District of Columbia, to “apply” for a court-appointed lawyer - even though free legal assistance for criminal defendants who can’t afford it is a constitutional right.

One Michigan man who pleaded guilty to forging a drug prescription was assessed $1,000 in fees, according to NPR - $500 went to pay his public defender and the other $500 went toward unrelated courthouse expenses such as phones, copy machines and a gym for county employees. Unlike fines, which are part of a punishment and thus within a judge’s discretion, fees are set by statute and are often mandatory, regardless of any finding of guilt or a defendant’s ability to pay.

States add insult to injury by piling interest on to these charges, sometimes called the “poverty penalty”; in Washington State, the rate is 12 percent while a person is incarcerated. In some cases, people are sent to jail simply for failing to pay on time, which only increases the costs to the state.

Of course, failure to pay is the norm, since 80 percent of those who enter the criminal justice system are eligible for indigent defense. Today, as many as 85 percent of inmates released from prison leave carrying debts from court-imposed costs. Paying off those debts is no easy feat, since people exiting prison already struggle to find employers who will hire former inmates. And failing to pay court debts could result in consequences like having a driver’s license suspended, which can make it even harder to get or keep a job.

Some states have taken steps to reduce the burden of these fees. In Rhode Island, legislative reforms have made it easier for indigent defendants to get fee waivers or fairer payment plans. And in New Jersey, thousands of people with outstanding court debts turned themselves in during a four-day amnesty period last fall, in return for significant reductions in what they owe.

State criminal justice systems have long been strapped for resources, but that is a result of political choices by lawmakers. Criminal justice in America has become an industry, and like any industry encourages growth and moneymaking opportunities. Still, it is difficult to imagine a more unjust and counterproductive way of paying for such a system than to dump its costs on those least able to afford them.

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Online: http://nyti.ms/1sUCC2w

The Watertown Daily Times on the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial Museum

May 18

After more than a decade of planning and development, the National September 11 Memorial Museum was dedicated Thursday.

And for the next few days, it will be open only to survivors of the 2,983 people who died as a result of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center to visit and absorb privately the cavernous space in the footprint of the twin towers. It commemorates lives lost, heroic rescue efforts and the world-changing consequences wrought by terrorists who hijacked and piloted two passenger aircraft into the World Trade Center. The public will be welcome later this week.

Since 9/11, at the same time the country successfully fought a war in Iraq, American soldiers were sent to Afghanistan to combat terrorist activities and U.S. Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden, who led the organization that carried out the attack on the nation. The war in Afghanistan continues today, frustrating the soldiers fighting, the political leadership at home and a nation that has had enough war over the last 12 years.

All the while these wars were ending the lives of American men and women, many of whom were our neighbors serving in the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, the organizers of the museum slogged on to build a permanent reminder of that terrible day and honor the heroes who died while simply doing their jobs. From office workers to maintenance people, to executives and professionals, firefighters and police officers, the new museum reminds visitors of their sacrifices.

The museum faced a multitude of challenges as it moved from a concept to the colossus that it is. There were lawsuits, fundraising challenges and many moments of strong leadership by individuals such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who stepped forward in the bleak days of development to make a substantial contribution of personal assets and time to thrust the fundraising campaign toward success.

The result of the squabbles is a masterful museum of common remembrance. It is significant that the nation accomplished this goal despite its divisive issues. With that behind us the nation needs to take a deep breath and visit this museum either in person, online or on television and decide that the petty politics today of the left and right pale against the memory of what happened to our nation.

The museum provides a platform of universal commitment based upon civil, yet courageous actions to protect the common good. Our political leaders should experience the museum in person to evaluate their own rhetoric in the face of the consequences of extremism.

They should leave the museum and its hallowed ground to return to Washington to walk past and absorb the Lincoln Memorial on the way to the Capitol. They should learn from the past to shun extremism, cross the political chasm and show America they are just as capable of governing as the innocent heroes of 9/11 were able to respond to the anguish raining down from a falling symbol of America.

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Online: http://bit.ly/1nq5GgR

The New York Post on the conviction of a British imam on terrorism charges.

May 19

In a New York federal court on Monday, Abu Hamza al-Masri was convicted on 11 charges ranging from recruiting for al Qaeda and aiding the kidnappers of Western tourists in Yemen to attempting to set up a terrorist training camp in Oregon.

The conviction of the fiery, hook-handed British imam ought to remind us that he is far from alone. He has many brother jihadis still plotting to do us harm.

Don’t take our word for it. Ask Gen. Keith Alexander, President Obama’s former National Security Agency director.

Recently, he told The New Yorker “the probability of an attack getting through to the United States .?.?. is growing.” He added: “There is a lot more coming our way.”

Alexander’s view was echoed this same week by President Obama’s new FBI director, James Comey.

In an interview with The New York Times, Comey said that when he took over the bureau last year, he expected to move the agency away from its wartime footing on terror in the belief, repeatedly stressed by the president, that the threat from al Qaeda had diminished.

Now he says al Qaeda’s “virulent” offshoots are far more numerous and “even stronger than I appreciated.” So terrorism must remain the FBI’s primary focus.

In short, we’re delighted the Egyptian-born cleric will be put in a place where he cannot do us harm. But we do well to remember that he is but one face of a determined enemy that each day is morphing into new forms and attracting new recruits.

And if Comey and Alexander are right, to allow ourselves to underestimate what al-Masri’s terrorist successors are capable of is to invite another 9/11.

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Online: http://bit.ly/1lQvrWF

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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