Is Your Commute to Work Fueled by Pork?

Eric Schillinger, Staff Writer, ESchillinger@albanylaw.edu

In his inaugural address this past Tuesday, President Obama challenged Americans to confront the many crises facing the nation.1 One such crisis is America’s continued reliance on foreign oil for energy.  President Obama noted the need for the country to move away from this reliance, stating that “each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”2 President Obama’s vision for an energy efficient and independent America will hopefully inspire Americans to take responsibility for how they approach energy consumption by working to minimize fuel use in favor of “green” transportation.

Ironically, when former President George W. Bush signed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act3 of 2008 (EESA) into law last fall he helped lay the ground work for a potential, federally funded bicycle commuting program that may help decrease America’s reliance on foreign oil, discourage urban flight and suburban sprawl, and increase the health and well being of Americans.

The EESA contains three separate divisions, each a discrete Act unto itself.4 Section 211 of Division B, a little publicized line item provision within the 451-page EESA, has little logical connection to the economic bailout necessitated by the sub-prime mortgage crisis.56 Division B of the Act began as a separate bill, but the House eventually tacked it onto the proposed bailout bill as the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 (EIEA).7 With just one small provision titled “Transportation fringe benefit to bicycle commuters,” Section 211 of the EIEA amends the Tax Code to exempt bicycle commuting costs paid to employees by employers.8 In part, Section 211 states:

    The term ‘qualified bicycle commuting reimbursement’ means, with respect to any calendar year, any employer reimbursement during the 15-month period beginning with the first day of such calendar year for reasonable expenses incurred by the employee during such calendar year for the purchase of a bicycle and bicycle improvements, repair, and storage, if such bicycle is regularly used for travel between the employee’s residence and place of employment.9

Simply put, the bicycle provision of the Act provides a tax incentive for bicycle commuters.  Employers may now offer, as a tax-free fringe benefit, reimbursement of costs associated with cycling to work.  The provision requires the rider to show that he or she “regularly uses the bicycle for a substantial portion of the travel between the employee’s residence and place of employment. . . . “10 If the rider fulfills these requirements, then he or she is eligible to exclude employer reimbursement for bicycle commuting costs up to $20 per month (for a maximum of $240 per year) from gross income. Continue reading “Is Your Commute to Work Fueled by Pork?”

Albany Government Law Review Fireplace Mentioned in the National Jurist

The Albany Government Law Review Fireplace was mentioned in this month’s edition of The National Jurist in their “For the Record Section.”  Thanks to Dan Katz, our Publicity Chair, for making that happen and our colleagues at the National Jurist for their much-appreciated recognition.

The Social Costs of Crying Wolf or Of Burned Popcorn and Public Goods: False Alarms at Paul Smiths College

Robert Magee, Lead Writer, RMagee@albanylaw.edu

On December 9, the Town Council of Brighton New York held a hearing on the implementation of a municipal law that would fine private parties for issuing repeated, false, fire alarms that are the product of carelessness, negligence, or improper installation.1 The impetus for the law is an ongoing conflict between the Paul Smiths-Gabriela Volunteer Fire Department and Paul Smith College over the number of false alarms the department responds to at the college, routinely two to three times per week.2 The college’s fire detection system, which feeds directly to the fire department, is such that the triggering of an alarm at the college immediately dispatches the fire department and is entirely up to code.3 This isn’t of much comfort to the Fire Department, which scrambles eighty times per year without good reason, or to the taxpayers, who foot the bill.

The Fire Department/College conflict speaks to the Free Rider Problem.4 Paul Smith College (and by extension, its students) is a taxpayer and is entitled to the benefits of whatever contract is drawn up between the Town of Brighton and the Fire Department, but overuse by the College of the Fire Department is an inefficiency and a dangerous one.5

The problem of false fire alarms has been dealt with before.  The issue here isn’t whether the Town of Brighton has the authority to impose the fine,6 as a municipality in a home rule state, it likely does.7 Further, fines for false alarms are hardly inimical per se as discouraging genuine fire alarms.8 Indeed, it’s a class E felony to repeatedly and knowingly convey false information about the occurrence of a fire,9 it is the quintessential abuse of First Amendment freedom.10 Criminal penalty lies even where the fire exists but is known by the complaining citizen to be safe and authorized by permit.11

In 1995, in New York City, Mayor Giuliani attempted to remove street fire alarm boxes from New York City’s streets because of their prolific use in the commission of the aforementioned felony.12 The problem Giuliani sought to solve in doing this is similar to the problem addressed in Brighton on December 9th: the fire reporting system is faulty.  The College has proposed a solution whereby the Fire Department will wait for on-site confirmation of danger before scrambling their department.13 Fire Chief Roger Smith rejected this solution as jeopardizing the safety of students by delaying response time.14 The solution proposed by the College is an inversion of the one imposed in New York City.  There the municipality controlled the problematic apparatus and simply sought to withdraw it.  Resistance was substantial and operated on the same argument the Fire Department has used to resist the College’s suggestion here: safety first.15

Continue reading “The Social Costs of Crying Wolf or Of Burned Popcorn and Public Goods: False Alarms at Paul Smiths College”