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Don’t Pay the Piper

Citizen Action wants taxpayers to know how much of their money is funding the Iraq war—and to consider refusing to pay it On April 15, Bob Cohen of Citizen Action and Joe Seeman of stood outside the post office on the corner of Central Avenue and Partridge Street in Albany, just waiting to give last-minute tax filers the bad news. “Half of your tax money is going to fund the war or to pay war debt,” explained Seeman. And they offered a solution that some people were more than happy to hear: If you don’t support the war, don’t pay your taxes.

A group of about 10 activists handed out literature showing that 36 percent of collected income tax goes to funding the current military and the war in Iraq, 18 percent goes to paying for war debt and veterans benefits, with 30 percent going to human resources and 11 percent to general government. Seeman said the group of activists holding antiwar signs periodically expanded when people waiting for the bus stopped to find out what the hubbub was about.

“They were waiting for a bus, and they would hold a sign until their bus came,” said Seeman.

The United States government, he continued, spends “pennies on researching alternative fuels, pennies on renewable energy, pennies on clean energy, and the price of gas is going up, but they are paying trillions for the war.”

According to Cohen, about two out of every three people in America today are opposed to the war in Iraq. And he said he thinks that he can win over the remaining one third by explaining how the financial burden of war is damaging the economy and diverting the federal budget away from funding important social initiatives.

Citizen Action flyers provided a number of helpful, creative, and socially conscious ways to avoid paying taxes to protest the war.

Flyers handed out by the group gave contact information for groups that promote organized war resistance through refusal to pay income tax. One group,, provides a form where a tax payer can note how much of their taxes they refuse to pay and then note a charity where they will send that portion of their taxes instead. Of course, not paying your income tax is illegal, but the group says it is an effective form of civil disobedience.

“I don’t object to paying taxes,” said Cohen in a prepared statement. “But I’m outraged that the president has wasted almost $50 billion of New Yorkers’ tax dollars on the war, while proposing cuts in aid to state and local government, after-school [programs], and energy assistance.”

Another option presented by Citizen Action is to refuse to pay the federal excise tax on local phone service, which has been seen as a war tax for decades.

Furthermore, the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee of Brooklyn has been championing the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Bill. The bill, which is currently before Congress, would allow moral or religious objectors of the war to pay their taxes to a government-regulated trust fund. The money paid to the fund would be allocated by Congress to any non-war-related program of their choosing.

Cohen said that Citizen Action will be pushing in the coming months for another economic-stimulus package. Unlike the rebates expected later this year, Cohen said the government should extend the time of unemployment payments, and expand the food stamp program. “A rich guy gets a $2,000 rebate, and he is going to spend it on a luxury item or invest it, or put it in a bank. We want the government to give back to the people who need it the most.”

—David King

What a Week

Price Fixing

The Times Union reported this week that the Albany Convention Center Authority approached the administration of Gov. David Paterson about issuing $190 million dollars in long-term state bonds to cover a gap in the cost for the proposed Albany Convention Center. Paterson has warned recently that the state needs to cut back its spending, but Assemblyman John McEneny (D-Albany) held fast in his support for the project, telling the TU that the state needs a convention center in its capital.

Bitter Words

Ironically, it was a Barack Obama supporter—blogger Mayhill Flower—who outed the Illinois senator’s remarks, made at a private fundraiser, that insulted many working-class voters and appeared to damage his chances of making further gains on rival Sen. Hillary Clinton before Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary. Obama said that small-town Pennsylvanians, “bitter” over their economic circumstances, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” Obama’s defenders, including Bruce Springsteen, said the senator’s comments were taken out of context, but others condemned them as “elistist” and “out of touch,” and some voters took offense at the suggestion that they weren’t religious until the economy soured. The New York Times called the remarks “boneheaded.”

Traitor Joe

The Hill has reported that former Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has made it clear that, if asked, he would make a prime-time appearance at the Republican National Convention to deliver a speech supporting his friend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Said Lieberman, “If Sen. McCain, who I support so strongly, asked me to do it, if he thinks it will help him, I will.” If Lieberman does speak, Democrats could punish Lieberman by revoking his seats on the Governmental Affairs and National Security committees starting with the next Senate session.

Super Secret

Sen. McCain has a number of special weapons in his bid for the White House, reported The Washington Times—McCain carries a lucky feather, a lucky compass, and a lucky penny, nickel and quarter with him at all times. “He had so many of them that we had to cut down. It was like a change purse in his pocket,” Brooke Buchanan told the Times. McCain, as it turns out, is extremely superstitious. According to reports, whenever anything optimistic is said about McCain’s chances in the fall, he and his staffers knock on wood.

Clem Cries Uncle

Troy’s city council surrenders in its first big battle with the mayor After five months of rancor and partisan sniping, the rumpus over pay raises in Troy City Hall has ended. The city council’s Democratic majority has announced that it will pass legislation to nullify an earlier ordinance that revoked the contentious raises. The council’s move, President Clem Campana said, was made with the taxpayer in mind.

Last month, Republican Mayor Harry Tutunjian filed a lawsuit against the council, claiming that it overstepped its legal authority when it rescinded the roughly $40,000 worth of raises for nine of his top political appointees. The raises had been passed during the budget process late last year by the then-Republican-controlled council.

Campana said that the Democrats’ decision to work toward settling the case outside of court was a prudent one. They feared that the case would grow into a costly, protracted appeals battle, costing the taxpayers significantly more than the raises.

“The administration,” he said, “will spare no taxpayer expense.”

Councilman Bill Dunne (D-District 4) agreed.

“Obviously it came down to the fact that our attorney simply told us that, by the time that both sides are done litigating this, regardless of the outcome, it would have cost more than the raises,” Dunne said. “And at that point, it just didn’t make any sense. You know, we weren’t going to put the taxpayer through that. So we just decided to be the bigger men, and swallow our pride, and for the sake of the taxpayers not run a $40,000 tab up to an $80,000 tab.”

Dunne said that the council has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the fiscal well-being of the taxpayer.

“It is regrettable that it even got that far,” he said. “And the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the mayor, for the timing of these raises.” The pay raises were presented to the council last year after the November elections, a move that many consider a bald political calculation. “This is the only thing that I can remember this guy [Tutunjian] passionately digging his heels in over, in the four-plus years that he has been mayor. And it has been raises for his political cronies. Nothing else.”

“They have to be the first people in the world to be involved in a court case,” countered Jeff Buell, Troy director of public information, “who think they are right, and just give up for no apparent reason whatsoever. If they are doing this to save political face, that’s one thing, but to try to continue along this path of saying that they are backing off even though they think they are right, for the taxpayer, is disingenuous.”

Buell said it is more likely, and obvious to him, that the council Democrats simply realized that they were going to lose. It is a simple case, he said. Either the city charter gave the council permission to rescind the pay raises, or it didn’t.

“The mayor sets the salary for the employees,” he argued. “That’s what the charter says. It’s clearly written in the charter, and that is our whole argument. They can’t do this. It is what the mayor said in January, it is what he said in February. It is what he has continued to say.”

It is a matter that could be easily settled in court, if the council Democrats really believed they were right, he said.

“They are running the other way,” Buell said, “but they are continuing to shoot their guns at us without looking where they are shooting.”

Meanwhile, Bob Mirch, Troy commissioner of public works, and one of the employees whose pay raise has been in debate, has called for Campana to resign.

“He is lying to the public,” Mirch said.

Campana shrugged off Mirch’s petition.

“If he is calling for my resignation,” Campana said, “then I guess I am doing my job.”

As of press time, the council had planned a special meeting Wednesday night to pass the necessary legislation to revoke its previous ordinance.

“They are getting their raises,” Campana said, “at a time when people can’t afford to put fuel in their car, and the city streets are blowing up. They are more worried about their salary increase.”

—Chet Hardin

Taxing: Activists remind late filers how much of their money is going to the war in Iraq.

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Better Than Nothing

Troy code enforcement shutters an “unliveable” building where 24 men happen to live

Howard Barrett has never been homeless. He could be, now, within less than a week. The onetime state worker was living at Cook Arms when the city of Troy padlocked the doors. Code workers had found a foot and a half of raw sewage in the basement, and a crack in the foundation that you could see daylight through.

“You can’t let people live in raw sewage,” said Jeff Buell, spokesman for the mayor’s office.

Last Wednesday, code workers visited the boarding house on the Troy-Brunswick border on Route 2. By Friday, Barrett, along with 23 other men housed in the building, many of whom were living on county assistance, had to find somewhere else to live.

“There are guys who were up there in wheelchairs. There are guys with schizophrenia. There are guys with active addictions,” said Tracy Neitzel, director of Joseph’s House and Shelter in downtown Troy.

She and her staff made emergency accommodations to accept 13 of these men. To do so, Joseph’s House had to first move the women and children—the demographic they typically serve—into motels. They filled their beds to capacity with the men and set up cots in the common room for the rest to sleep on. The community, driven by local churches, dropped off emergency food supplies.

Neitzel is very familiar with Cook Arms. She has been placing single adults there for years. If you are living on public assistance in Rensselaer County, she said, the total assistance grant from the Department of Social Services is $290 a month.

Gene Cook, the owner of the house, Neitzel continued, “just so happens to charge $290 a room, and is willing to have DSS to pay him,” which the agency does directly. Cook was the only landlord in Troy who would work with DSS. “Cook Arms is a flophouse. It always has been a flophouse, it always will be a flophouse. It is not a great place. It was never, at its best, a great place, but it is the only place where a lot of the guys we work with could afford.” Cook Arms was a last-resort placement for Joseph’s House, but they were placing people there as late as last week.

Cook has said that the building’s code violations, including the foundation crack, will be fixed within a couple weeks. Neitzel doubts it. The building’s foundation has been an issue for five years.

“To me, this was such an ‘aha moment,’ “ Neitzel said. “Yes, there were people living in these conditions, because this was the only place we have for them to live. All the housing we place our people in is crap. But where else are we supposed to place them? That’s the hardest part of running a shelter—putting people in this crappy housing, setting them up for failure, knowing that it is not going to be a good, healthy environment. But that is where poor people live. That is the kind of housing for poor people.” The whole issue leaves her ambivalent. Is deplorable housing better than no housing at all? It’s a terrible choice.

Now that the building has run afoul of code, the tenants realize that Cook Arms might have been better than nothing. “And now we are stuck with these guys.”

DSS will provide assistance for only one week for some of the men she is currently boarding. After that, the assistance will end. She wants to bring back the families who were displaced by the emergency. She said that she hopes she can get these families back into the shelter soon, because school is starting and the shelter has arranged bus runs for the children.

But it will hard be for the men of Cook Arms to find housing anywhere near what they can afford, she said. “I don’t know where these guys are going.”

Barrett doesn’t know, either.

“I am worried,” he said, his face reddened, his eyes wide and unblinking.

He has no family to stay with. He is unemployed. When Joseph’s House can no longer accommodate him, he said, he will be faced with few options. He is trying to land a telemarketing job, but if that doesn’t pan out, he might become homeless for the first time in his life.

—Chet Hardin

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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