Shawn's Reporter Blog

No cash, no problems

Friday, June 21st, 2013
Shawn Magrath

It’s no secret that welfare abuse is a problem that exists in (and well beyond) the parameters of Chenango County. So any effort of local, state, and federal legislators to mitigate the threat of welfare abuse is something I would usually stand and applaud. However, a bill passed in the State Senate this week that would prohibit welfare recipients from using cash assistance to gamble, or buy tobacco products and alcohol, I think deserves a little criticism, not because I disagree with the intent to cut down on welfare fraud, but because I think the bill, in reality, is meaningless since it’s almost impossible to enforce.

Making it illegal to use public assistance for anything other than basic essentials, while good in theory, falls way short of solving the actual problem at hand. The problem, as identified by the Public Assistance Integrity Act, is that individuals receiving welfare are using cash assistance (which is not currently regulated) for anything and everything other than its intended use. But in my opinion, labeling such action “illegal” isn’t going to stop violators (an argument I’m sure pro-gunners are all too familiar with). Not to mention, how could anyone prove cash spent at the strip club is that of public assistance? And will the impending investigations of cash assistance misuse cost tax payers just as much, if not more, than what it’s currently costing without tougher restrictions in place (and please note, I’m not implying anything here… I really don’t have an answer)?

The bill would also prevent individuals who receive welfare from using their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards to make ATM withdrawals from certain places, including liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs. My theory? It’s much better to find a way to ditch cash assistance altogether. So what if ATM withdrawals can only be made at the bank across the street from the liquor store? I’m sure the money withdrawn will spend the same. Perhaps – if it’s possible – we should broaden the Food Stamps program to include other essentials like toiletries, toothpaste, hygiene products and the like, and eliminate cash assistance altogether. No cash, no problems. It seems so simple.

I can’t help but think the Senate’s decision to pass this legislation was anything more than an impulsive reaction to the recent threat of losing $120 million in federal funds for cash assistance (a good reaction, maybe, but a quick and non-specific one no less). That is to say, the issue of welfare fraud certainly didn’t grow overnight. Legislators have had time – years, even – to give the issue more thought and develop a better solution. In my opinion, the Senate’s bill is too little an effort to control what has become a frustrating issue for the millions who genuinely need public assistance and use it responsibly.

You don’t read the newspaper?

Friday, June 14th, 2013
Shawn Magrath

• I’m a sucker for old buildings, so of course I jumped at a chance Friday morning to get a peek of the inner working of the Chapman and Turner clock that overlooks Broad Street at the main intersection of downtown Norwich. The clock, which has worked on and off since I moved to Norwich four years ago, is on again, thanks to the commitment of a few historians and the financial support of a generous local charity. I suppose for some, it might seem like a trivial matter. But I’d like to think that for most, having a downtown clock that’s right more than twice a day is welcome news.

• Now I don’t usually call out ’30 Seconds’ posters, simply because I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion and the ’30 Seconds’ page on The Evening Sun website is a platform to express it. That said, there have been a few posts and phone calls this week regarding area sex offenders and a need for greater public awareness via the newspaper (i.e. where they live, their age, their offense, and their threat level). I couldn’t agree more. Anyone who regularly reads the paper also sees the number of sex crimes that go before the Chenango County Grand Jury each month, and the countless other sexually based offenses committed in this area. However, I would also like to point out that The Evening Sun is not the only source for such information. If you are a concerned parent or resident, there are resources to turn to (not to mention, if you aren’t being notified that you’re neighbor is a predator when you have kids to worry about, there is an obvious kink in the line of communication between you and local authorities).

• National headlines this week were dominated by stories of Edward Snowden, the man who revealed Monday that he was solely responsible for leaks of secret service operations to news media outlets in May. Feelings of whether this considers Snowden a hero or a traitor aside, what I find most surprising about this story is the surprise surrounding it. That is to say, I wasn’t taken back by information that the NSA was collecting phone records and conducting email surveillance. Like it or not, there’s a lot of information about everybody out there that, thanks to the digital age, has become increasingly easier for government officials to access. Fact is, that’s just the Orwellian age we live in. I’ll even wager that someplace, there’s somebody who know more about me than I do, and that’s a scary thought… though I do have a favorite sweatshirt that’s been MIA for a month. Maybe they know where it is…

• Shifting gears a bit, I stumbled across a somewhat interesting article written in Forbes magazine this week. The topic of the article: “13 Things You Should Never Say at Work.” According to the author, there are just some things that shouldn’t be overheard in the workplace. In order to take leadership in any company, the article says employees should stick to words and phrases that empower others. Included on the list of phrases off limits are: “That’s not my job,” “That’s not fair,” “I’ll try,” and “He’s/She’s a jerk” (admittedly, I’m guilty of saying that last one on more than one occasion; but to be fair, it’s never been about a co-worker). The list got me thinking of things I wish I hadn’t heard in The Evening Sun office, which in my mind are equally valid. Things like: “I don’t read the newspaper. I don’t like the reporters,” or “I’m glad I’m not in a profession that deals with people,” and the classic, “This milk has been in the refrigerator longer than I’ve been working here.” But I’d like to think every workplace has its own disclosed taboos.

76 Trombones…

Friday, May 31st, 2013
Shawn Magrath

• As a former high school band geek, I feel a sense of obligation to take a moment to promote the 64th annual Sherburne Pageant of Bands, which officially got underway with the jazz band competition Thursday evening. The image of a procession leader and lyrics of “76 Trombones” have been looping through my head all day in anticipation of the big parade on Saturday, which will see a total 28 competitors this year (not quite as many than had attended several years ago, but still nothing to sneeze at). Best of luck to all schools involved.

• On a separate but still school-related topic, it seems more and more likely that student loan rates will double beginning July 1. The current proposal, detested by the Obama administration, is that federal student loans that now come with a 3.4 percent interest rate will raise to 6.8 percent just as most college students start submitting financial aid applications for the 2013-2014 school year. While I agree that students who borrow money should pay the interest fee (after all, higher education, like anything else, is an investment), substantially high loan rates will only prove more burdensome college grads who already struggle to pay back student loans (some believe the failure to pay back student loans will even be the cause of the next recession, so I hear).

• News that seven people, including four children, died as the result of a horrific accident in the Town of Truxton was devastating to say the least. Moments like that make me reflect the brevity of life, as it should, and reevaluate where I see myself in ten years. Certainly my thoughts and prayers go out to all those who have been impacted – friends, family and community, and I only hope that pain for those people will subside with time.

You’re welcome, America

Friday, May 10th, 2013
Shawn Magrath

It looks like a busy weekend ahead, with a cruise-in at the Howard Johnson Hotel tonight, the Norwich Merchants Association Spring Crafts Festival on Saturday and of course, Mother’s Day on Sunday (and me without a special Mother’s Day gift idea. I refrain from the customary macaroni necklace and Popsicle stick picture frame).

Kudos to the teachers at the Sherburne-Earlville Central School District for their respectful protest on Tuesday. I’m one who believes testing is a good thing, so long as there’s a clear goal in mind. However, when teachers are testing only to get ambiguous results, not knowing what steps to take next; and not knowing where to go, yet still expected to know when they get there… well to me, it sounds an awful lot like building a plane in the air. I admire any effort to change education for the better, but it’s only appropriate to diligently scrutinize any changes made. Perhaps this new method of statewide assessment isn’t the best alternative. Perhaps it’s time to learn from mistakes, adjust accordingly, and move forward.

Avid readers of The Evening Sun are surely familiar with the weekly “Thumbs” section. Thumbs, for those who don’t know, is a brief opinion piece written by reporters. My “Thumbs Down” this week went to obnoxiously long receipts that have only grown longer in recent years – namely, the 30-foot receipts I get after buying a single pack of gum at the grocery store. When Thumbs was published in today’s paper and I thought I could put it behind me for another week, I received a phone call from a reader who told me receipt paper may also contain trace amounts of the glycogen BPA, which can be absorbed in the skin (a claim backed by a 2011 study reported by the New York Times). I read in the report that BPA can disrupt hormones, cause neurological damage, and even stimulate obesity… and then it clicked. Longer receipts equals fatter, crazier people! I just solved our nation’s most pressing health-related issues and crippling diplomatic affairs: we need shorter receipts! You’re welcome, America.

Beware of half-truths; you might get the wrong half

Friday, April 26th, 2013
Shawn Magrath

I find it funny that so many people complain about the supposedly high number of Chenango County SNAP recipient who take advantage of their benefits, yet so few people – none that I know of – have the numbers to back up that statement. True, I believe there are people who “abuse the system,” as one ’30 Seconds’ caller recently put it, just as I believe there are people who steal, speed, litter, plagiarize, jaywalk, or obscurely break any other number of laws. But how can one possibly say that “most” or “many” (or my favorite, “all”) welfare recipients abuse their privileges without having one bit of empirical data to support that argument? Seams pretty weak to me.

Then again, these types of arguments come from the very same people who believe county government calls all the shots in determining who receives federal supplemental assistance. It’s just further proof that people see what they choose to see. I guess ignorance truly is bliss.

But I digress… and step off my soapbox…

In something completely unrelated, legislators in New York City are considering what to do about the Times Square “entrepreneurs” who dress up as pop-culture characters to make a few bucks by posing for photos with tourists. The considerations come two weeks after a man dressed as Cookie Monster pushed a two-year-old boy because the boy’s parents didn’t foot a $2 tip for the photo op. Who would of thought costumed strangers working the streets of New York would be so unpredictable? Instances like this are exactly why I wouldn’t let Mario use my camera to take a picture of me and my wife during our last visit to the Big Apple. Never in my life do I want to file a police report for a stolen camera with a suspect description: obese Italian plumber, with blue overalls and oversized head — Grew three sizes larger after eating mushroom. Some circumstances are worth the extra effort to avoid.

Oh, cruel world

Friday, April 12th, 2013
Shawn Magrath

Hats off to the Chenango County Sheriff’s Department for their Sherburne drug bust (see Friday’s top story). As for those who claim it was a waste of time because marijuana possession is a petit crime, of course you’re entitled to your opinion and certainly welcome to challenge the law (which at times has been known to work for the best. “Separate but equal” comes immediately to mind). But perhaps – and this is just my own thought – calling your challengers “morons,” “cowards,” and “uneducated” isn’t the best battle tactic. I should also point out that no legitimate medical researcher has ever said weed “cures canceristic tumors,” as someone put it… assuming that “canceristic” means cancerous.

On a different topic, I’m not entirely sure what to think of this whole North Korea issue. While it wouldn’t be prudent to write off North Korea’s threats, it’s difficult not to considering their past missal tests have been so incredibly unsuccessful. Should they fire another, it’s impossible to predict how it would play out. Will they finally be successful? Or would it play out like a Benny Hill scene, with a nuclear rocket chasing Kim Jong Un (to the theme of Benny Hill, because it wouldn’t be as funny without it).

What a week! There’s no real explanation as to why, but people seemed despairingly negative these past few days… more so than usual. This week’s News – world, national and local – has been remarkably bleak, spinning people into a subsequent frenzy of grumbling and vexation. Guns, gas drilling, North Korea, school boards, drug busts, cause of death investigations (note, I didn’t say the “M” word, at least not yet…). None of these are new topics any means. But to me, it’s almost as if there has been more emphasis on them this week than there has been in a long time. People are vicious, I know, but it’s really beginning to hamper my spirit. A cold rainy Friday certainly doesn’t help. Oh, cruel world!

Bring on the spring cleaning

Friday, March 29th, 2013
Shawn Magrath

They say when it rains, it pours. Same holds true for the newsroom, I guess. After what felt like a relatively slow news week, Friday morning exploded with stories of drug busts, bomb scares and school board shake-ups (oh, my). Nothing quite as exhilarating as hitting the ground running early on a Friday morning.

Hats off to Village of Greene Mayer Marcia Miller, who announced her retirement after 24 years of community service, six of which were as Village Mayer. The vacancy is sure to make for an exciting mayoral election in the Village of Greene in the not so distant future (good from the newspaper standpoint). In the meantime, the torch has been passed to Village Trustee Phillip Brown, who clearly has some big shoes to fill. Best of luck to all in their future endeavors.

A week into spring and I’ve yet to begin the ritual of spring cleaning. I guess it’s the procrastinator in me. Not to mention, I have a lot of crap. Not useful crap; just crap crap – the kinds of things no one should hang on to, ever. The storage space of my one bedroom apartment is filled with old birthday cards I don’t have the heart to throw out; worn-out running shoes not fit to give the homeless; several shoe boxes, one filled with electronic accessories (chargers, adapters, USB cables, etc.) but the other two, well… your guess is as good as mine. I don’t even remember putting them there, let alone what I filled them with. The element of surprise, I think, keeps the aspect of spring cleaning more exciting.

For the last three days, there’s been what I can only describe as a Holy War on the Evening Sun online ’30 Seconds’ page. People are quoting Bible verses, saying who is and isn’t Christian, and declaring that, given our current state, we’re in the end days before the Second Coming. I’m not really arguing for or against anyone’s post (who am I to say one way or another. After all, I’m not the final authority… I don’t think). But I am relieved the ’30 Seconds’ conversation has moved away from the two-day-long snow tire argument. Religious debates are far more interesting than how many snow tires can be counted in the WalMart parking lot.

Bid farewell

Friday, March 15th, 2013
Shawn Magrath

Now it’s time to say goodby to all our company. E-V-E (see you real soon) N-I-N-G (why? Because we like you) S-U-N…

Okay, so it doesn’t carry the same ring and flow as M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E, but the sentiment’s sort of the same. Not to mention, Micky Mouse is much easier to rhyme than “The Evening Sun” (We’re having fun? A grieving nun? Your amusing pun?).

By now, it’s no secret that our longtime editor here at The Evening Sun is moving on to greener pastures after more than 20 years sitting in the boss’s seat. It was made Facebook official a week ago, reaffirmed by a more formal announcement from The Evening Sun publisher Dick Snyder in Wednesday’s paper. Funny that even in the digital age, nothing is validated until it’s in the newspaper.

Under Jeff’s wing in the year and a half that I’ve been a reporter, I was introduced to a brave new world of professionalism, skepticism, cynicism and profound sarcasm… and I couldn’t be more grateful for it. And apparently, neither can the community at whole. All week, he’s been taking phone phone calls in his office, which I’ve overheard in my cubicle outside his door – each conversation seemingly the same: “Yeah, it’s true… the 15th… Chobani, actually… It’s a good opportunity… It’s going to be hard to say goodbye… I’ll miss Shawn the most” (paraphrased, of course, as per my one-sided understanding of the two-way conversation).

As hard as it is to bid farewell, our loss is indubitably Chobani’s gain. It’s been a great company for the community, so to add one more great employee of the community to their ranks can only mean better things, right?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also take an opportunity to congratulate Brian Golden, who’s stepping up to the plate as editor in Jeff’s departure. In all, he’s deserving of the job and I can’t think of a better personality to call “boss.” Though, it’s going to take getting use to…

The end of face-to-face classrooms?

Friday, March 8th, 2013
Shawn Magrath

Kudos to the volunteers and organizers of this year’s Dr. Seuss Family Fun Night at Stanford Gibson Primary. The annual jamboree brought out hundreds of kids, parents and grandparents Thursday night in a worthy effort to encourage kids and families in family involvement, literacy, and community engagement – three incredibly important aspects of childhood development, in my opinion. Not to mention, I’m a huge fan of Dr. Seuss myself. In retrospect, I guess I’m lucky to be a reporter, otherwise roaming the halls of an elementary school when I don’t have a child of my own – and taking pictures no less – might have looked a bit on the creepy side (I assume it’s hard to blog from a jail cell).

Also on the subject of schools and education, Bill Gates said in an interview this week that he believes technology (online classes and mentoring) will be the main source of higher education within the next ten years. Computers, he says, will slowly phase out working instructors, professors and the traditional face-to-face lectures, and the money saved by using online resources could instead be invested in research facilities and study groups. While I agree, there’s certainly potential that this could be the classroom of the future, I don’t really count on it. In the 60′s, it was widely believed that television would eventually replace teachers… five decades later, all we have to show for it Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

And while on the subject of technology … (pause for self pat on the back for a smooth transition) … did you know Facebook is losing its cool? An article published in Time this week unveiled “an unscientific survey” of 40 Alabama high school students, only eight of which said Facebook was their most commonly used social networking site. It’s disappointing news for the millions of Facebook users who like to take photos of themselves at a 45 degree downward angle. I knew it was only a matter of time before people like myself could ruin the coolness of Facebook.

Small talk and retirement dreams

Friday, February 22nd, 2013
Shawn Magrath

I’ve had enough winter. In a more perfect world, winter wouldn’t even exist after Christmas – just sunny 75 degree days from January through November. Then again, if not for changing weather, I wouldn’t have small talk.

It’s always a shame to see funding and participation stand in the way of a good community program. Unfortunately, that’s what happened with the Chenango County Big Brothers / Big Sisters program. Facing low participation and falling just short of requirements set by the national organization which can’t be met by the local Big Brothers / Big Sisters, The Place is closing the program after this week. For those who were actively involved with the program, I say kudos. I hope to see good work continue with the new mentoring service offered by the Liberty Partnership Program.

There’s a lot of back and forth lately about gun laws, but I think one of the most overlooked concerns has been the recent allegations of computer hacking. Over the last two decades, we’ve become a society dependent on online information, so it doesn’t take much imagination to consider the catastrophic possibilities of US business and military information being hacked. I myself have a lot (a lot) of personal information out there in cyber space. It’s time to go back to balancing the checkbook the old way, I guess, since the only safe computer anymore is one that’s turned off, unplugged and setting in the trunk of the car.

During the pope’s last week in his position, I can’t help but wonder what someone does when they’re no longer pope. I mean, it hasn’t happened in 600 years… I can’t imagine a pope’s retirement being the same as anyone else, with days spent playing golf, gardening, sorting junk mail from AARP, traveling in an RV or opening up his own small business. But as an employee of God, I can’t imagine the pension being too shabby.