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Larry Benjamin's blog

Friday, August 31, 2007

Leona and pet trusts

New York hotelier Leona Helmsley no longer may be considered the "Queen of Mean'' now that she's bequeathed $12 million for the care of her dog Trouble. (Don't tell that to the two grandchildren she reportedly left out of her will.) But you've got to wonder whether $100,000 or so would be enough for her beloved pet. Think about how many shelters can be sustained with the remaining $11.9 million.

News of the bequest has served another good purpose: discussion of pet trusts. People do consider their animals as part of their family. So why not plan for their care after their death? New Jersey is one of 39 states that allows such gifts. It's something else to ask your trusts and estates lawyer about.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

New old faces for Arts Center

Our editorial Monday about the need for more variety in the PNC Bank Arts Center programming noted that the first concert at the Holmdel amphitheater 39 years ago featured the Philadelphia Orchestra. Back in the day, the stage hosted top singers and comics, Broadway-caliber shows, opera, ballet and classical performers. Yes, that was then and this is now, with the schedule dominated by groups who will attract younger crowds that have made the Arts Center synonymous with partying.

But why exclude a significant portion of the potential audience? People who will gladly spend their money to enjoy good music along with some food and a brew or two. That's what's on display at the mecca of all summer festival sites: Tanglewood in the Massachusetts Berkshires. On our visit Sunday, the lawn was filled with people of all ages eating and drinking. Security is not an issue. The programming is almost exclusively classical, which makes sense since it is run by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But the July 4 concert brought back the music of Journey, the Boston Pops put on a concert version of "Carousel'' later that month and James Taylor sold out the enclosed and lawn seating areas Friday evening. The rest of the weekend brought back the Pops for Film Night (with Lynn Redgrave narrating for Harry Potter film music), followed by an all-Gershwin program Sunday.

I'm not saying our Arts Center should become Tanglewood. We're not New England and don't have the relaxed elegance of the Berkshires and the crowds it attracts. But why not borrow some of its winning elements? We have a New Jersey Symphony that can put on Pops concerts. Line up corporate heavyweights to sponsor specific programs or even the whole season, in exchange for a booth to display their wares. Apply their big bucks to attract high-quality entertainers. Reach out to the AARP or the state's many retirement communities for Sunday afternoon programs. Give the many regional theaters or even Paper Mill Playhouse the stage once a week. I'd be surprised if that all-Gershwin program I watched at Tanglewood wouldn't bring 10,000 or more to the Arts Center.

This approach, even on a limited basis, would restore some class to New Jersey's arts center. Our state needs all the good publicity it can garner. Right now, the bad news from the Arts Center outweighs the good.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Abelow's wit and wisdom

When Brad Abelow, the state treasurer, met with the Press editorial board Tuesday, we expected the type of discussion that yielded the front-page story "Corzine plan for toll hikes still evolving; Abelow: Don't expect to see it before election.''

But what we didn't expect was a public official with a gift for one liners:
- "It's a game of inches,'' referring to efforts to trim state spending. The car fleet is being reduced. And, catch this, the state is actually reusing computers and furniture. Yes, it seems state employees are learning that "new'' is no longer the rule.
- It's "not the most flexible of work forces,'' describing state employees and the Civil Service rules that protect their jobs.
- The Corzine administration is confronting "the culture of no.'' His example: the lack of meaningful property tax reform.

Who knew that the governor's office had such a clever wordsmith in its midst. I'm not sure Abelow even realizes it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Age-old question

I'm turned off by the polls that report Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who is 83, is too old to run for re-election or be re-elected next year. That's like saying Tony Bennett, 81, is too old to cut a CD or that Roger Clemens is too old to play baseball at 45.

It's not age but ability that counts. If Bennett couldn't carry a tune anymore, he couldn't get a record label to distribute his songs. If Clemens couldn't retire hitters, even the wealthy Yankees wouldn't spend millions to give him that chance.

The same goes for Lautenberg. He's already decided he can do the job by already raising millions for his 2008 re-election bid. Soon, it'll be up to the voters to decide whether he's right. The focus should be on his record, his stances on contemporary issues and his vision for the future. If he acts and sounds like an old man, the electorate should retire him. Not because he's 83, but because he can't cut it anymore.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Questions for the treasurer

State Treasurer Bradley Abelow, who next month will become Gov. Corzine's chief of staff, is meeting with Press editorial board Tuesday afternoon. The agenda will include the state of the state's finances, the proposed monetization of assets and his new role as the governor's chief adviser.

We would like to bring your questions to the table. Please send them using this space or via e-mail to me at

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

No E-ZPass to adultery

I've become a big believer in E-ZPass, not only for toll roads and bridges but extended to paid parking or other conveniences. I'm no Bible thumper, but my sense of morality means I have no patience for philanderers. But I'm not so sure we should link the two.

The Associated Press reported the other day that E-ZPass and other electronic toll collection systems are being used to prove infidelity. Divorce lawyers access the wayward spouse's E-ZPass records to prove they strayed to another's arms when they were supposed to be, say, at a business meeting.

Seven of the 12 states with E-ZPass release the toll information in response to court orders in civil and criminal cases. New Jersey and Pennsylvania aren't among them, limiting the released material to criminal cases. That's just as well. Law enforcement authorities should be able to use every tool they can to nab wrongdoers. On the other hand, there are plenty of ways a divorce lawyer can show why a marriage should dissolve. They don't need E-ZPass.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

My Sitka connection

All news is local, but it doesn't always touch your life. Ordinarily I wouldn't pay much attention to news of a private plane crash in Sitka, Alaska, that killed four people. Sad, but there's so much other sad news. But today I did because it was only two weeks ago that I was visiting the former Russian capital of Alaska as part of my cruise-land tour of Alaska. I walked around the downtown area where the crash occurred. I was a tourist just like any of the 2,800 estimated in town Monday afternoon.

But then I learned that this is indeed a local story because the victims are from Monmouth County. A father and his two daughters, ages 14 and 9, from Spring Lake Heights plus his fiance from Wall. Most of a family gone (one son survives), thousands of miles from home. I know their home town and, for one day, I knew the destination of their last moments. Sometimes it's hard to be immune from the news.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Bon voyage and back

I'm a big believer in vacations. It's really important to get away - physically,
mentally, emotionally - from work to, as the cliche goes, recharge. I can't unwind by just staying at home, so I've got to go somewhere.

Somewhere this summer was Alaska, by cruise ship and then by train through Denail National Park. Multi-colored glaciers, lush rainforests, totem pole parks, Alaska Indian villages, wildlife unheard of in these parts (caribou, bear, bison, moose). Bon Jovi and New Jersey may boast of my home state's many attractions, but there's no comparison.

Of course, then there's coming back to reality, which means facing up to all those e-mails that accumulated in your absence. (We can't turn them off.) The total was really about 1,500 over the 17 days, but thanks to some kind of spam, I was blessed with deleting 3,000 items when I came into work over the weekend. But it's all good now.

As for those stories about public officials, particularly school superintendents, who accumulate thousands of hours of vacation time over their tenures, they clearly don't appreciate what a vacation can - and should - do for them. Somehow their district survives without them. Their management skills are lacking if they think that they're indispensable..