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Student Loans: Paying When They’re Gray; Fight to Save Historic House Fails; David Koch: A Rocky Relationship With PBS; Drones: Just Over Our Heads?; and more

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Tuesday, July 09, 2013
Stephanie Kraft photo

Student Loans: Paying When They’re Gray

The annual battle to keep the interest on new subsidized Stafford loans from jumping from 3.4 to 6.8 percent seemed lost in Congress last week, but U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) vowed to try to get the 3.4 rate extended when Congress returned after July 4. As experts debate about more thorough and permanent solutions to the student loan problem—such as changing the law to let student loans be discharged in bankruptcy—surprising news about another aspect of it comes from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York via Reuters.

Educational debt is not only crippling the young, according to numbers collected by the Fed: the student loan debt load for Americans 60 and older has now reached $43 billion.

Some of the 2.2 million senior borrowers took out loans for themselves, while others signed onto loans taken out by children or grandchildren. (Financial aid experts caution relatives about signing loans for the young; find some other way to help, they say, but let the children be the borrowers, because Social Security can be garnished to pay the debt, and certain classes of loans must be paid off by co-signers even if the student dies.)

The over-60s have an average load of $19, 521, and the percentage of households headed by people of that age with student debt has risen from zero in 2001 to 3 today. The problem promises to get worse, since borrowers between 50 and 59 now carry a total of $106 billion in student loan debt.•

 

Tuition and Fees Won’t Rise at State Colleges

Cool news in a hot summer is a freeze on tuition and fees at Massachusetts’ state universities and community colleges, including UMass, Westfield State, Greenfield Community College and Holyoke Community College. The $34 billion state budget for the coming fiscal year increases funding for the state universities and community colleges from $941.5 million in the previous fiscal year to $1.1 billion.

UMass, where students faced a 4.9 increase in tuition and fees if the Legislature hadn’t been generous, got a 9 percent increase in funding in the new budget, to $478.9 million. Greenfield Community College got $9.6 million, up from $7.8 million last year. That rise is part of a $20 million increase in funding allotted to the state’s community colleges under the so-called Vision Project, which links funding to the schools’ performance as measured by graduation rates and numbers of students trained for high-demand jobs.

Voting on the new budget broke along party lines with one exception: Sen. Mike Knapik of Westfield, whose district includes Westfield State University, was the lone Republican to vote in favor of it.• —SK

 

Holyokers Fight Walmart Plan

A group of Holyoke residents has begun organizing to fight a Walmart Supercenter proposed for Whiting Farms Road. The group, which calls itself “Holyoke First” (not to be confused with the sporadically updated blog of the same name maintained by City Council President Kevin Jourdain), held an organizational meeting last week.

Walmart announced its plans to build the 160,000-square-foot store in June, after months of rumors that the mega-retailer was interested in the site. Holyoke Gas and Electric, which has long owned the land, has a purchase-and-sale agreement with a Rochester, N.Y., development company for the property. Several years ago, Lowe’s had its eye on the site, although that plan never came to fruition.

Holyoke First organizer Terri Laramee, who lives on Gordon Drive, a short, dead-end road off Whiting Farms, told the Advocate the Walmart project is the wrong fit given the number of homes in the neighborhood.

“We have no problem with development,” said Laramee, who thinks small businesses or more homes would be a good use of the property. But the proposed Walmart, she said, would be way too large for the area. “Our quality of life is going to be greatly depreciated.” Traffic in the area can already be a nightmare, with the Kmart shopping center just down the street, the Holyoke Mall a short distance away and I-91 running parallel to Whiting Farms, Laramee noted. She’s also worried about the effect the development would have on residential property values.

City Councilor Rebecca Lisi told the Advocate she’s opposed to the Walmart proposal. She also opposed the Lowe’s project, saying at the time that it would hurt nearby residents and small businesses and distract from the need for a sustainable economic development plan for the city, one that includes a focus on reviving Holyoke’s downtown. Proponents, including the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, said the Lowe’s plan would bring needed jobs to the city. Kathleen Anderson, current president of the Chamber, did not return a call from the Advocate about the Walmart proposal.

Laramee said her group welcomes support from city councilors, although its main focus is on the Planning Board, which will vote on the Walmart matter. The company is expected to submit its plans to the city sometime this summer. It’s already said the project would create about 300 jobs.

“Are they quality jobs, though?” Laramee asked, noting that if employees receive low wages or poor benefits, they’ll end up on taxpayer-supported public assistance.•

 

Drones: Just Over Our Heads?

The Northampton City Council has made national news by passing a resolution asking the federal government not only to stop using aircraft for “extrajudicial killing,” but to halt the movement that will give domestic drones increasing “right of transit” to fly within the U.S. at near-ground levels.

Traditionally, the minimum altitude for aircraft has been 500 feet above the ground in open space and 1,000 feet above buildings. The Council wants to keep the airspace for unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, at those levels, so residents don’t find unmanned gadgets floating above their back yards.

Throughout the country, the move to expand the zones open to commercial and private as well as academic and police drones has people anxious, not only about government surveillance, but about the potential for spying by others, even stalkers or burglars.

And there are safety concerns: worries about devices falling or colliding with buildings or other structures. There are potential issues involving trespassing and even liability: if a tree limb on your property falls and smashes a small drone, do you owe the owner of the device damages?

Such issues are bound to arise with the expected appearance of thousands of drones in American airspace within the next two years. Many can’t be settled in advance, but will have to be decided by litigation; in the words of a Congressional Research Service report entitled Integration of Drones into Domestic Airspace: Selected Legal Issues (available at www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R42940.pdf), “As drones are further introduced into the national airspace, courts will have to work this new form of technology into their jurisprudence.”

In Massachusetts, state representative Colleen Gary of Dracut has introduced a bill, H1357, to limit the use of drones. That bill would, among other things, prohibit the equipping of drones with weapons, and the collection by a drone of data “on individuals, homes, and areas” other than the individual the drone operator has a warrant to monitor. So far, more than 40 states have introduced some type of legislation to regulate drones.• —SK

 

Fight to Save Historic House Fails

Springfield has lost a historically important building, despite a last-ditch effort to save it.

Late last month, the Sisters of Providence Health System announced that the Allis Mansion, which sits on the campus of Mercy Medical Center, would be knocked down to make way for parking for a $20 million office complex planned for the site. SPHS first applied for a permit to demolish the mansion late last year, but held off after historic preservationists in the city asked the organization to try to find a developer interested in the building. (See “Last Chance to Save a Piece of History,” March 12, 2013, www.valleyadvocate.com.)

SPHS agreed, putting out a request for proposals last winter. While the hospital received one proposal, from Peter Picknelly’s Opal Real Estate Group, the two parties have since concluded that a rehab of the building is not feasible.

Built in 1867, the Allis Mansion was the home of Haitsill Hastings Allis, who owned a brick works in the city. It was later bought by the Catholic diocese, serving as the bishop’s home before becoming part of the hospital now known as Mercy Medical Center. In 2010, the home was named to a list of “most endangered historic resources” by PreservationMass, a statewide preservation group.

Bob McCarroll, a member of the Springfield Historical Commission who worked to save the building, lamented the loss of the house, which he described as “one of the largest and oldest mansions left in the city. …

“Putting together a multimillion dollar renovation project would take more time than the few months Mercy was willing to allow,” McCarroll said. “[The] razing of the Allis Mansion is one of the biggest losses to Springfield’s heritage in years, and points out the need for the city government to adopt a demolition delay ordinance.”• —MT

 

David Koch: A Rocky Relationship With PBS

A Massachusetts woman is circulating a petition to rein in the perceived influence of conservative industrial billionaire David Koch on public television. Petitioner Christine Scherer is concerned about the failure of a documentary, Citizen Koch—about the political activities of groups supported by Koch Industries in Wisconsin—to air on public television. Her petition begins with a plea to Public Broadcasting Service ombudsman Michael Getler: “Please fight censorship from the Koch brothers and air Citizen Koch.”

When it was first proposed, the documentary had the support of Independent Television Services, producers of public television’s Independent Lens series and other PBS programs. But that support was withdrawn after the airing last November, by New York PBS station WNET, of another PBS documentary, Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, that carried material critical of Koch and other wealthy New Yorkers. At the time Park Avenue ran, Koch was a trustee of WNET and of public television station WGBH in Boston.

Late in May, The New Yorker carried an article by Jane Mayer, “A Word From Our Sponsor,” that contained detailed information about the inner workings of WNET with respect to both documentaries. Mayer wrote that Neil Shapiro, president of WNET, was concerned in advance about the portrayal of Koch in the Park Avenue program and allowed Koch Industries to broadcast a disclaimer calling its content “disappointing and divisive”—an extraordinary action that suggests that WNET officials were so sensitive to the reaction of the industrialist, who has donated $23 million to public television through the years, that they went into self-censorship mode.

That self-censorship went so far, said some of Mayer’s sources, that Citizen Koch, a second program critical of Koch, didn’t have a chance to be aired on PBS. For its part, ITVS said it eliminated funding for the program because as work on it progressed, it deviated from the proposal originally submitted.

Meanwhile, on May 16 Koch resigned from the board of trustees of WNET, which he had joined in 2006. He is still on the board of trustees at WGBH, the station that produces Masterpiece Theater, Mystery, Frontline and Nova. Koch has been a WGBH trustee since 1997, and is a major funder of Nova; in recent years his financing of groups that discredit climate change have raised concerns that his views on that issue may have influenced the content of the otherwise highly respected series.• ??SK

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