Month: March 2014

Four buildings have been condemned after the massive fire on March 18

Cause of Ovid fire, community response surprise residents

Residents in the town of Ovid finally have an answer to what caused the massive fire on Main Street the night of March 18: an 11-year-old boy with a lighter.

According to Seneca County Sheriff’s investigators, the boy was playing with the lighter behind the New Dragon Chinese Restaurant when he accidentally set trash on fire. Propane tanks nearby quickly turned it into a severe blaze, causing severe damage to the restaurant and three surrounding buildings that have all since been condemned. Fortunately no injuries were reported.

At least ten residents were displaced when seven apartments above the businesses were also gutted. A firewall between the Chinese restaurant and thrift shop in the building next to it was somewhat spared. The shop’s insurance engineer is inspecting the property today to assess whether it can be salvaged.

Sixteen-year-old Cheli Austin lives in the apartment just behind Italian Kitchen, one of the affected businesses. She was returning home from shopping that night when she saw the blaze.

“It was just flames everywhere,” she said. “It started around five at night and went until four in the morning.”

Austin visits both restaurants frequently and said she knows the owners personally.

“They’re [doing] good,” she said. The owners of the Chinese restaurant are staying in Waterloo with assistance from the Red Cross until they can relocate. Austin describes the food they made with one word: “Amazing. I miss it already. I ordered the sesame chicken dish a lot.”

The unnamed 11-year-old boy has been charged as a juvenile with arson in the fourth degree, given he recklessly started a fire, but did not set the fire intentionally. The sheriff’s office stated the case would be referred to family court. If found guilty, the boy could be sent to a juvenile detention facility, placed on probation, and/or given counseling or treatment.

Unprecedented destruction for the small town

Several long-time residents said they have never seen any structural devastation come anywhere close to this month’s fire damage since they have lived in Ovid.

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All the affected buildings are insured; both the Chinese restaurant and thrift shop have signs posted in their windows stating they plan to re-open after recovery.

Paul Walborn, who owns the barbershop just across the street, still worries about the length of time it will take to demolish and rebuild the businesses.

“I hope it doesn’t take a long time,” he said. “It’s an eyesore. A lady just stopped right in the middle of the traffic, and [her car] almost got hit in the rear end…They stop and they look. That’s not good.”

 United recovery in the community

A relief fund was set up at the local Five Star Bank, and multiple events have been planned to help the displaced fire victims. On March 27, the Ovid Federated Church dedicated this month’s community dinner, though it is technically free, to collect donations for the fund.

“We have helped some people with clothing already,” Pastor Diane Walker said. “Once they get into a permanent place of residence, we’ll help them with household goods. We’re working on sorting things as the come in and make them available.”

Right now, she said, cash donations will help the most until those specific needs are identified.

The Eagle Hotel in Lodi is hosting a benefit concert, “Rebuild With Love” on March 30. Adults are being asked to donate $5 (children 13 and under free) for admission to the event, which will include music, food and an auction.

A spaghetti dinner is scheduled for April 6 at Riley’s Place in Willard from 2 to 6 p.m.

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50 slaves work for me — how about you?

Courtesy SlaveryFootprint.org

Courtesy SlaveryFootprint.org

The film 12 Years a Slave —  based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free African American man kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery in 1841 — received even more critical acclaim after winning three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But slavery is far from being history, and is in fact incredibly prevalent around the world.

Recently I was enlightened to just how much modern-day slavery drives my lifestyle. SlaveryFootprint.org offers a free survey-style quiz to determine, based on different areas of consumption: food, clothing, electronics, etc. — approximately how many slaves ‘work’ for you.

My result was 50. I do not know their names, or faces. And neither does most of the international community. Conservative figures estimate that there are 27 million slaves worldwide (roughly equal to the entire combined population of Australia and New Zealand). The abolition of slavery unfortunately did not mean the end of the slave trade — only its visibility.

It is rather disturbing to visit the website and do this activity, with all its bright colors and aesthetically pleasing graphics — until you realize just what it is you’re unveiling. The quiz ends by asking if you would like to send notes to the various companies that have ties to slave labor, given that so many of the so-called ‘licit’ or legal trades we engage in on a daily basis are linked to this cheap, profitable and ‘illicit’ trade.

Try taking it for yourself. How high is your number, and what areas caused it to spike? Respond in the comments below, and please share any efforts you’ve heard or taken part in to expose and prevent slavery.

Ithaca City Hall helps same-sex couples collect newfound tax refunds

Image

Image courtesy Mint.com

The City of Ithaca vowed Tuesday to help employees in same-sex marriages receive refunds for federal taxes paid on spouses’ medical insurance, the Ithaca Journal reported.

Ari Levine, the City Attorney, announced that Ithaca can request the IRS to refund the taxes and will file amended W-2 forms on behalf of the employees. The assistance is good news for local same-sex couples as many others across the country are finding it difficult to navigate new tax benefits, as well as penalties associated with marriage.

Couples can retroactively claim refunds according to the new law for the previous three tax years. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), specifically ruling in the Windsor v. United States case that the IRS cannot deny marriage tax benefits to people in states that recognize same-sex marriage. New York became the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2011.

The Huffington Post outlined key benefits the new law affords:

  • Deductions and Credits for Dependents — If you file married filing jointly, you will be able to take tax deductions and credits for your children, other dependents, or your spouse.
  • Dependency Exemption — The dependency deduction may mean an additional tax deduction of $3,900 per dependent and an additional $3,900 exemption for your spouse.
  • Earned Income Tax Credit — When you file as a married couple you may be eligible for an Earned Income Tax Credit worth up to $6,044 for 2013.
  • Education Credits and Deductions — Education is expensive, you may be able to claim a tax deduction on your taxes of up to $4,000 for your dependent or spouse’s education.
  • Lower Tax Rates When Filing as a Married Couple
  • Easier Tax Preparation and Savings on Costs
  • Savings for Families

However, it’s not all good news. Some couples may find that it is not worth it to re-file, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported. Those couples with combined six-figure incomes could find themselves placed into higher tax brackets and losing tax credits they previously qualified for. Still, it pays for couples to investigate and see how they are affected.

Lavine also told the Ithaca Journal the city is willing to work with other big employers’ in the area who are considering similar action.

The watch tower at the Auburn Correctional Facility is a far cry from Cornell's clock tower, but the two institutions have built a working relationship through CPEP.

Education during incarceration: local efforts echo Gov. Cuomo’s vision

By the time Raymond Roe was released from prison in 2008, he had been behind bars for more time than he had even been alive before being sentenced. With mounting bills, a new baby at home, and a troubled past, he committed three robberies that he would immediately come to regret. Several months later, he found out he would serve 15-41 years at the Auburn Correctional Facility.

Now, 24 years later, Roe is working as Mobile Unit Assistant for the American Red Cross. He was able to take college courses while still in prison as part of the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP), and now serves on its Board of Directors. The program teaches about 100 inmates each year at the Auburn and Cayuga Correctional Facilities.

Last month Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an initiative to fund college programs throughout New York State prisons. Rob Scott, the Executive Director of CPEP, applauded the plan.

“This is a game-changing initiative,” Scott said. “After two decades of depriving incarcerated adults of the opportunity to pursue post-secondary education, New York is prepared to lead by example in putting its prison classrooms back to use.”

Financing the Guilty?

However, the plan’s announcement did not come without criticism.

Lawmakers opposing the initiative point to hard-working and law-abiding citizens who are struggling to make enough money for school. In effect they are asking, why should inmates get a free education while those who have not committed a crime cannot afford it?

Currently it costs an average of $60,000 to house an inmate. Adding college education programs would cost up to an additional $5,000, which taxpayers would fund.

Governor Cuomo has argued the overall cost of housing inmates would go down in the long-term with reduced recidivism rates that the education measure would bring.

“These people need jobs when they come back to their families,” Christine Bonilha, a former volunteer of CPEP, said. She agrees the benefits of programs like CPEP also apply to the greater community.

“There’s also a lot of gang violence within prisons, but with this program inmates need to have perfect discipline to be enrolled as students, which sets them as role models while in prison, and when they return to the community,” Bonilha said.

Changing the Prisoner Perception

Cornell is not the only higher education institution getting involved with the effort. Over on South Hill, several students at Ithaca College set out to film Beyond the Wall, a short piece profiling the success of Ray Roe with CPEP.

“I really hope it can be used as a point of critical thought, and actually get people to think and talk about these issues that are really uncomfortable,” Caroline Podraza, one of the producers, said.

Across the U.S., 2.3 million people are imprisoned – more than 90 percent of them will be released sometime in the future.

“Cornell University…has seen first-hand the wider benefits to our students, their families who benefit from their academic accomplishments, and the neighborhoods that will be better, not worse, for their return,” Scott said.

What do you think? Should a statewide prison education program be implemented? Sound off in the comments section below.

Why our minds are wild when wired (and how journalists can tame them)

Let’s face it: our attention spans have gotten drastically shorter with the advancement of technology. I haven’t even gotten to the reasons why, and you may already be thinking of clicking away from this page. But hang in there! Here’s what you need to know:

1. Instant Gratification

The Internet provides us with information almost instantly, and if it’s not there (or easy to find), we go elsewhere. So, make your point and make it quickly. On webpages with 111 words or less, readers only read an average of 49% of the text. That goes down to 28% for 593+ words.

2. Layout Optimization

Readers tend to read in an “F-Shaped” pattern (i.e. scan the first two bars of content horizontally, then skim down vertically) so prioritize content according to this format.

3. Click. Stayyy. Gooood Reader

I like to draw the analogy that Internet users are like puppies: they’re excited, over-stimulated, and need a little training. Easy, non-cluttering visuals — like large banner images at the top of a page — not only ease a visitor’s mind, it encourages them to scroll to get to the content they want. And once they start scrolling, they are more likely to continue scrolling.

4. App-ly the Tap/Click Culture

Two apps I really like are Tapestry and MAZ. Tapestry encourages users to pay closer attention, because once they click to the next page of the story, there’s no going back. MAZ is a digital magazine platform that allows for interactive content (videos, webpages, etc.) to be viewed without leaving the original magazine.

For more details on this presentation, check out the slideshow above!