News

News Briefs

Slow It Down; A Valley Divided; Monsanto vs. Vermont; Taxpayer Jackpot? and more.

Comments (0)
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
AP photo Mark Welsh | Daily Herald

Slow It Down

By Maureen Turner

Next week, proponents of “slow living” will gather in Brattleboro to talk about their vision for a “a more reflective approach to answering how we live, work and play as human beings on a fragile Earth.”

This is the third annual Slow Living Summit, and each year, the event has grown, said Martin Langeveld, the event’s coordinator and marketing director. Over three days, participants will attend workshops on topics including local, sustainable food systems; cooperative business models; local investment and economic development; community-focused design; and reviving democracy. Speakers will include Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash, who will take part in the opening plenary on “The Quest for Sustainability,” and Tina Clark of the Montague-based Transition Massachusetts, who will talk about her group’s model for tackling economic, environmental and other problems through local community projects.

The summit organizers, Langeveld said, wanted to avoid the “silo” phenomenon found at most conferences—“the energy people talk with the energy people; the food people talk with the food people”—by bringing together an interdisciplinary crowd. “We bring everybody under one big tent,” he said. “We look for them to connect, to collaborate, to talk about solutions.”

This year’s summit will also focus on “the personal transformations people need to go through,” he added. “To live slow—it doesn’t come naturally.”

The summit will take place June 5 to 8 at various spots around downtown Brattleboro, including the Latchis Theater and the River Garden. (For more information or to register, go to www.slowlivingsummit.org.) On Saturday, June 8, there will be a Slow Living Expo at the Brattleboro Common and Brattleboro Retreat grounds.

June 8 is also the annual Strolling of the Heifers, when local farmers proudly parade their cows down Main Street—a nice way to cap off the summit, Langeveld noted. “We’re really trying to get the point across to people that supporting and celebrating your farmers and understanding where your food comes from and connecting with the people who grow it is a good thing.”•

 

A Valley Divided

Recently released data from a University of Michigan study shows deep racial segregation in the Valley.

The research looked at segregation between the white population and the Hispanic, African-American and Asian populations in 102 metro areas around the country. It found that the greater Springfield area—defined as Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties—has the nation’s highest level of segregation between whites and Hispanics and the 22nd highest between whites and blacks. Segregation between whites and Asians was the least stark, with the region ranking 57th.

Disappointingly, although not surprisingly, initial reaction to the report has mostly been concentrated in Springfield. That makes sense to a point; as a recent draft report from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission shows, 75 percent of the Valley’s African-American residents and more than 50 percent of its Hispanic residents live in Springfield. And since those two populations face greater social struggles—like higher levels of poverty and higher school drop-out rates—than other racial groups, that means that Springfield bears the brunt of segregation.

But, as the Michigan report shows, it’s the entire Valley, not just Springfield, that’s segregated. And until other communities in the Valley—specifically, the whiter and more affluent ones—step up to address the imbalance, it’s easy to see why many regard this as a “Springfield problem.”• —MT

 

Monsanto vs. Vermont

By Pete Redington

While May 25 saw “March Against Monsanto” demonstrations held worldwide—in faraway locations like Bali, Indonesia, and Zagreb, Croatia, and nearby venues in Hartford and Springfield—the march in Montpelier, Vermont was unique in promising to take legal action against the giant agricultural biotech corporation. At the same time, Monsanto is threatening to sue Vermont over proposed legislation requiring the labeling of GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Before adjourning for the summer, Vermont’s House of Representatives passed H-722, the “VT Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” by a vote of 99-42. The state senate is expected to vote on the measure in January 2014.

“Monsanto is no stranger to the American legal system and have forced competing farm after farm to be shut down or bought out by bringing lawsuits against the little guy throughout their history,” reports RT News. “Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto’s legal team tried to file nearly 150 lawsuits against independent farmers, often for allegations that their patented GMO-seeds had somehow managed to be carried onto unlicensed farms. Often those farms have been unable to fight against Monsanto’s mega-lawyers and have been forced to fold in response. The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association tried taking Monsanto to court earlier this year to keep them from following similar suits, but a Federal District Court judge in Manhattan shut down their plea. The group has since filed an appeal.”

Last month, Monsanto won an additional victory when “The Supreme Court … for the first time backed patents for a self-replicating technology—Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” soybeans—along with its licensing agreement that allows farmers to use them only once,” Wired reports. “Welcome to farming in the age of patented, genetically modified organisms, which in this case concerned soybean crops that withstand herbicide.”

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision “found that intellectual property rights took precedent over nature,” continues Wired. That’s a decision the defendant’s counsel vehemently disagreed with. “Practically, this issue affects every farmer in the country and the method of planting that farmers such as [my client] have used for generations.”•

 

Taxpayer Jackpot?

Springfield voters are expected to vote on July 16 on whether to approve Mayor Domenic Sarno’s host-community-agreement with MGM, the developer that wants to build a casino in the city’s South End.

As that date approaches, MGM will only intensify its already intense public-relations campaign to convince residents of the many ways it says its proposal would help the city. High on the list of promised goodies: cold, hard cash.

According to the agreement negotiated with the Sarno administration, MGM has committed to make “anticipated” annual payments to the city “in excess of $25 million,” through a combination of property taxes, development grants, “community impact payments” and other payments. (To put that figure in perspective, that’s about 4.5 percent of the city’s total annual budget.)

Of course, it’s too early to start spending that money; after all, even if city voters approve the agreement, it’s still up to the state Gaming Commission to award the one casino license to be granted in Western Mass. (Also in the running are Hard Rock’s proposal in West Springfield and Mohegan Sun’s in Palmer.) Still, City Councilor Tim Rooke is pushing an idea for how that money could be used: to lower property taxes for homeowners and businesses.

“This is the fairest process overall,” Rooke said. “Give a portion back to the residents and businesses that have stuck it out in Springfield—kind of a way of saying, ‘Thanks for sticking it out in the tough times.’” The move might also help attract new businesses to the city, Rooke said.

And, he added, it would reduce the inevitable squabbling that would come when councilors lobby to allocate the casino money to their pet causes or organizations. “Before you know it, everyone thinks it’s Christmas, and nobody can agree on where the money should go.”

Rooke doesn’t know yet how much of the money he’d like to see applied to tax relief; the City Council, mayor and City Hall finance team would have to hash that out, he said.• —MT

 

Banking on Student Loans

The “Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act,” proposed recently by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, aims to allow college students access to loans at the same low rates that big banks enjoy.

“Right now, a big bank can get a loan through the Federal Reserve discount window at a rate of about 0.75 percent. But this summer a student who is trying to get a loan to go to college will pay almost 7 percent,” the Bay State’s senior senator said when introducing the bill. “In other words, the federal government is going to charge students interest rates that are nine times higher than the rates for the biggest banks—the same banks that destroyed millions of jobs and nearly broke this economy.”

“For one year,” Warren suggests, “the Federal Reserve [should] make funds available to the Department of Education to make loans to students at the same low rate offered to the big banks. This will give students relief from high interest rates while giving Congress time to find a long-term solution.”

Unless legislative action is taken, the interest rate on student loans is set to double, from 3.4 to 6.8 percent, on July 1.

Warren’s proposal comes amidst increasing concern over the rise in tuition fees, and the corresponding ability of universities, both private and public, to effectively offer their students a road to a more stable financial future.

“America is distinctive among advanced industrialized countries in the burden it places on students and their parents for financing higher education,” Amherst College grad and noted economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote recently in an Opinionator blog post for the New York Times. “America is also exceptional among comparable countries for the high cost of a college degree, including at public universities.”

While the average tuition at a four-year college has more-than-doubled since 1980, Stiglitz says, rising from $9,000 to $22,000, median family income during that time has stagnated, increasing only from $46,000 to $50,000.

According to an Inside Higher Ed survey from 2011, more than a third of administration directors make greater efforts to target students who can pay full tuition price, reports The Atlantic: “Colleges recruit more affluent [students] who will pay full price to attend … In other words, schools are becoming more reliant on the inequality in the system than ever before.”

A new policy paper published by the New America Foundation, Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind, found that “hundreds of public and private non-profit colleges expect the neediest students to pay an amount that is equal to or even more than their families’ yearly earnings. As a result, these students are left with little choice but to take on heavy debt loads or engage in activities that reduce their likelihood of earning their degrees, such as working full-time while enrolled or dropping out until they can afford to return.”

“As more states cut funding for their higher education systems,” the paper continues, “public colleges are increasingly adopting the enrollment management tactics of their private college counterparts—to the detriment of low-income and working-class students alike.”• —PR

 

Seeking Tech Geeks for Love and Coding

Maybe you work for a non-profit organization that has great ideas but lacks the tech savvy and resources to get them done. Or maybe you’re a computer whiz who’d like to use your skills to make a tangible difference in your community.

This weekend on the UMass campus, Hack for Western Mass. will bring those two groups together with the goal of achieving the event’s motto: “Local folks solving local problems.” The two-day event is one of more than 90 planned as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking, which matches software developers and designers with community organizations and activists that need their help.

On Saturday morning, representatives from local non-profits will pitch their projects to the group, explaining their larger goals and their immediate needs. From there, attendees will divide into teams, with each one tackling a problem—and, it’s hoped, solving it by the end of the day Sunday.

Randall Smith, one of a group of volunteers behind the event, said organizers will help make sure the teams have the right balance of “hard-core data nerds, designers and people who are good with process.” Representatives from the non-profits will be there throughout the weekend to work with the teams.

Organizers expect at least 100 “civic hackers” to attend, Smith said. And a note on the h-word: while “hacker” has come to be shorthand for those pests who break into computer systems to wreak havoc, the Hack for Western Mass folks note that there’s a broader and more benign definition: “someone who uses a minimum of resources and a maximum of brainpower and ingenuity to create, enhance or fix something.”

As of last week, seven groups had submitted “challenges” for consideration: Community Action of Franklin, Hampshire and the Quabbin Regions, for instance, would like to create a map that will help it ensure that its offering its services in the areas where they’re most needed. The National Priorities Project seeks help expanding and improving its database of accessible information about the federal budget, which community organizers and other groups rely on in their work. Another project aims to address the loss of tree canopy in Northampton by identifying, via an online database and map, good places to plant trees and residents willing to water them.

Peter Wagner, executive director of the Easthampton-based Prison Policy Initiative, would like help with his group’s ongoing work to reform the prison phone system, which PPI has found is plagued by unfair monopoly contracts that serve phone companies and governments at the expense of prisoners and their families, who pay exorbitant phone charges. While the Federal Communications Commission is looking into that system, the public documents it’s compiling on the issue are so poorly organized that they’re inaccessible to reform groups like PPI that want to examine them in their own work. “What we’d like is help to figure out how to make this unbelievable treasure trove of data … accessible to the public,” Wagner said.

The Hack for Western Mass. takes places on June 1 and 2, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., at UMass’ Integrated Sciences Building. To register, or for more information, go to http://hackforwesternmass.org.• —MT

 

College Coaches Top List of Highest-Paid Public Employees

According to a recent infographic published by Deadspin, Massachusetts is one of only 10 states whose highest paid public employee is not a college coach.

“Based on data drawn from media reports and state salary databases, the ranks of the highest-paid active public employees include 27 football coaches, 13 basketball coaches, [and] one hockey coach,” Deadspin reports.

Of the remaining 10 states where coaching isn’t the highest paid public position, four employees (in Vermont, Delaware, Montana, and Alaska) are college presidents, one (Maine) is a law school dean, and the rest hold prestigious positions with various medical schools, either as department chairs (New York), deans (North and South Dakota), plastic surgeons (Nevada), or chancellors (Massachusetts).

Michael F. Collins, the UMass Medical School Chancellor, earned over $760,000 last year, the Springfield Republican reports.

Just south of the Valley, Connecticut’s highest public salary belongs to Geno Auriemma, head coach of the women’s basketball team, who this spring won their eighth national championship. At season’s end, Auriemma signed a five-year contract extension that will pay him close to $2 million each year, peaking at $2.4 million in 2017, according to the UConn Athletics website. The University of Rhode Island’s men’s basketball coach and New Hampshire’s men’s hockey coach round out the New England region.

“Far exceeding these base salaries is the “additional compensation” that almost all of these coaches receive, which is tied to media appearances, apparel contracts, and fundraising,” continues Deadspin. “While this compensation does not come directly from the state fund it is guaranteed in the coaches’ contracts; if revenue falls short, the school—and thus the state—is on the hook to cover the difference.”

Of the 27 football coaches, however, many head teams that actually make money for the university, as is the case with the University of Texas, The Ohio State University, Louisiana State University, and Oklahoma University, all of which rank in the top 10 for total revenue generated by public university football programs, and all of which receive no subsidies from student fees or state funds, according to a USA Today study of college athletic finances, which looks at “expense reports collected from more than 225 public schools in the NCAA’s Division I” from 2006-2011.

By contrast, the UConn football program, which is part of the Big East conference, received 23.8 percent of its revenue from the university, while fellow Big East school Rutgers (New Jersey’s state university) got 47.3 percent, the study shows. The University of Massachusetts, which played its first Division I season last year as part of the MAC (Mid-American Conference), subsidized 80.9 percent of its football program’s operating budget during those years, which is a higher amount than former Colonial Athletic Division foes from the state universities of both New Hampshire (69.9 percent), and Rhode Island (74.5 percent).•

(See “NCAA College Athletics Departments Finances Database” at USAToday.com for more info.) —PR

 

Sweatshop Clothing from Bangladesh to the Valley

After a factory collapse last month in Bangladesh killed over a thousand people, workers rights groups have been collaborating with various clothing companies and big box stores to get support for stricter safety standards. But while many European retailers have been supportive of the pact, the majority of North American companies have not.

“The deadline to sign onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh passed … and at least 14 major North American retailers declined to participate,” The Huffington Post reports. “The agreement, which demands a five-year commitment from participating retailers to conduct independent safety inspections of factories and pay up to $500,000 per year toward safety improvements, has seen greater support abroad than in the U.S.”

Companies that did sign the accord include Benetton, H&M, PVH (the parent company of both Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein), and Abercrombie & Fitch (who made their own news recently by announcing they would no longer carry clothing for women larger than size 10).

Those who did not sign include Carter’s (parent company of OshKosh B’Gosh), Macy’s, Foot Locker, JCPenney, The Gap, North Face, Sears, Wal-Mart, and the Children’s Place.

Retail outlets in the Holyoke Mall include Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M, Foot Locker, Macy’s, The Gap, Target, JCPenney, Sears, and The Children’s Place. JCPenney and Target can be found at the Hampshire Mall.

 

Shelburne Falls: Hollywood Backlot?

By Stephanie Kraft

That’s the question as a Warner Bros. Production crew sets up office on Bridge Street in the Franklin County town along Route 2 in preparation for the filming of The Judge.

Last summer a Holywood crew was in town for filming the yet-to-be-released movie Labor Day, which starred Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

The Judge, which stars Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duval, Billy Bob Thornton, and Vera Farmiga, is about a lawyer who comes back to his Indiana hometown for his mother’s funeral and learns that his estranged father is a murder suspect.

On Saturday, May 18, hundreds filled the Buckland Town Hall for a casting call as filmmakers lined up extras. Shooting for the film is scheduled May 31 to June 18, depending on weather and the artistic whims of the director

Now the town, best-known locally for the Deerfield River Potholes and the Bridge of Flowers, has seen selectmen and others work up a new film permit to be signed by moviemakers looking to shoot in the village. It was drafted in conjuction with their colleagues in Buckland, just across the river, and with the help of Mary Vilbon, executive director of the Greater Shelburne Falls Area Business Association.

According to the Recorder in Greenfield, the permit contains procedures for parking, street permit fees, usage areas, and what to do when quick decisions regarding the production work have to made by town officials.

To protect the town’s interests, the selectmen are demanding advance assurance of that the film company has liability insurance to cover damage to the town, and that it will pay the bills if town employees have to work overtime or town equipment has to be used. And they want the companies to set up escrow accounts that the town can hold on to until all incidental costs are paid up.

Also determined to be on top of the situation, the Greater Shelburne Falls Business Association has come up with a plan for a Shop Local card for the crew members, to encourage them to lay out some money at businesses in town.

As it turns out, the producers of The Judge also have their location scouts scoping out another Valley community, Sunderland, for a possible stunt scene. According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Sunderland’s Select Board last week passed a film policy based on the one developed for Shelburne Falls.

 

Help for Problem Gamblers?

As Massachusetts looks to add three gambling casinos, experts in the field of gambling addiction say there is a serious lack of treatment options for compulsive gamblers.

Massachusetts will try several innovative approaches, but maintaining and fully-funding the programs will be the challenge, as it is in many states.

An Associated Press report May 6 quantified the gap between gambling revenue and addition treatment. Connecticut’s casinos, off-track betting and the state lottery generated nearly $659 million in state revenue in 2012 while problem gambling services that include counseling, treatment and a toll-free phone number for gamblers received $1.9 million.

“Even as you see an expansion of gambling you’re not seeing a level playing field in treatment,” said Mark Vander Linden, president of the Association of Problem Gambling Service Administrators.

Linden’s organization, in a 2010 report, found that 37 states were providing public funding for gambling programs—at a combined total level of just over $58 million. Nevada alone reported casino and card room gambling revenue that year of $10.4 billion, according to Casino City’s North American Gaming Almanac.

About 2.6 million gamblers characterized as pathological, or unable to resist the impulse to gamble, are estimated to need treatment each year, the Association of Problem Gambling Service Administrators says.

Problem gambling is defined as behavior that causes physical, psychological, social or job disruptions. It is progressively addictive as gamblers become preoccupied with betting and require more frequent bets with more money. It can be as mild as spending too much at a slot machine, card table or convenience store selling lottery tickets or taken to the extreme, compulsive gambling results in overwhelming debt, divorce and sometimes crime such as embezzlement to raise money to pay off gambling debts.

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, a principal architect of legislation in 2011 allowing up to three resort casinos and a slot machine parlor, said gamblers from his state are spending money in casinos in neighboring states, leaving Massachusetts to treat problems related to their gambling troubles.

??If they’re addicted, they leave their money and come home with their problems,” he said.

Massachusetts nearly doubled its annual problem gambling budget from $1 million, to $1.8 million but Gov. Deval Patrick cut funding to about $1.3 million as part of spending reductions across state government.

Keith Whyte, executive director, of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said prevention and education programs have succeeded in reducing problem gambling and keeping the number fairly stable.

“With expansion, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to knock it back down,” he said. “This is an addiction where state government is intimately involved and quite complicit,” Whyte said.

The expansion in gambling in Massachusetts will come with some innovative steps to deal with addiction. One requirement calls for intervention treatment centers at the casinos, a first in the nation, according to Marlene Warner, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. Gamblers will be able to stop in for advice or referrals.

Casinos also will be required to pay 5 percent of their proceeds from the state’s 25 percent tax on gross gaming revenue into a trust fund for programs to prevent and treat addiction and other gambling problems.

“We took advantage of the opportunity to address problem gambling while everybody was paying attention to gambling,” Warner said. “There’s a lot of prevention work to be done.”

This story is based on an Associated Press report.

Comment:

Name:

Password:

New User/Guest?

Find it Here:
keyword:
search type:
search in:

« Previous   |   Next »
Print Email RSS feed

Better Later?
More joining the ranks in favor of a later start time for high schools
Between the Lines: Riding the Brand
Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker are more afraid to lose than inspired to win.
More Than A Coal Job
A veteran of the Mount Tom energy plant begins again.
From Our Readers
In Satoshi We Trust?
Outside the Cage
How solid is the case for organic and cage-free egg production?
Between the Lines: Practically Organic
Does the organic farming movement make perfect the enemy of good?
Scene Here: The Kitchen Garden Farm