Thursday, April 19, 2012

Of Dr. Millard Harmon: He gave up flying, grudgingly, at the age of 82 . . . he donated his Beechcraft 36 to an aircraft museum

Dr. Millard Harmon spoke to the Times Union regarding his donations to New York State and their disposition at his home in Bethlehem, N.Y., April 18, 2012. 
(Skip Dickstein / Times Union) 

New York state rejects taxpayer's dedicated donations
Chris Churchill, The Advocate
Published 09:46 p.m., April 18, 2012

In honor of this week's tax filing deadline, I bring you a man who wants to give state government more of his money.

No, Millard Harmon isn't crazy. Nor is he a Warren Buffett type who thinks he's under taxed.

Harmon is simply a retired school teacher and college administrator with a nest egg that he wants to use for good causes.

"I'm basically giving away my estate," Harmon said Wednesday, sitting in the living room of his Delmar home.

So Harmon wrote two checks to New York state and delivered them early this month to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office at the Capitol.

The first check is a $5,000 donation to re-open the closed state rest area along Interstate 90 in Schodack. Harmon believes the shutdown denies truckers the chance for needed sleep and figures his gift should be enough to cover the cost of mowing and minimum maintenance.

The second check provides $1,400 to extend the operating hours for the waterfalls that grace the eastern escarpment of Empire State Plaza. Harmon always admired them and wants the water to flow more often.

Of course, in this era of diminished budgets and expectations, there's no shortage of state services axed by cuts. So Harmon hopes to start a trend that leads thousands of New Yorkers to voluntarily donate to state government.

Alrighty then.

Got your checkbooks out? Who's ready to follow Harmon's lead?

Anybody? Anybody at all?

Well, it's true that Harmon's effort seems out of tune with the prevailing mood. Skepticism about government and the way it spends is sky high, particularly in this over-taxed state. Many seem to believe government is incapable of doing anything good.

Harmon understands the skepticism — and admits worrying his donations would be swallowed by the state-spending vortex.

"We all know that money that gets into the government can disappear in all kinds of ways," he said.

But Harmon, 86, is a World War II veteran who saw how the Marshall Plan rebuilt a shattered Europe. He knows what government is capable of accomplishing.

He's also no stranger to romantic causes.

In fact, if Harmon's name sounds familiar, you might be remembering news accounts of his air-flight speed records or his 1997 trip into Cuba, where he landed and delivered $50,000 in donated medicine. The landing violated the U.S. trade embargo, and Harmon had to pay a $34,000 penalty to get his plane back.

He gave up flying, grudgingly, at the age of 82. He donated his 1969 red-and-white Beechcraft 36 to an aircraft museum.

But Harmon still has more energy and enthusiasm than many half his age. And motivated by religious faith and the memory of his late wife, Ruth Harmon, he's determined to inspire by gifting money. (Harmon's nest egg comes mostly from his buying and selling of real estate in the Boston area, where he's from.)

Harmon began looking for ways to donate to state government late last year, but didn't find much interest. The checks he delivered to Cuomo's office have not been cashed.

There's a reason for that. State law only allows donations and gifts if they arrive without conditions, according state comptroller spokeswoman Kate Gurnett. What constitutes a condition isn't entirely clear, but donations like Harmon's — for specific uses — probably require legislative approval.

So if you notice a pothole at Thacher State Park and want to give to get it fixed? Forget it. The state doesn't like strings attached to its money.

That's too bad, and it likely means that Harmon won't lead a wave of voluntary state giving. But that doesn't mean his idea is without merit.

There's nothing wrong, after all, with individual taxpayers taking responsibility for programs that benefit the collective good.

Perhaps Harmon's idea is better suited for local governments, where bureaucracy is smaller and rules are fewer. Personal donations seem particularly helpful for school departments wrestling with ways to maintain programs, including extracurricular activities, under the state's new cap on property taxes.

Harmon, in fact, is exploring giving $5,000 toward the establishment of a town of Bethlehem trust that would be sealed for generations. The idea is inspired by $2,000 that Benjamin Franklin set aside in 1790 for Boston and Philadelphia; by 1990 Franklin's gift was worth $6.5 million.

Harmon hopes others would give to the town trust, multiplying its impact.

"I have a little more money than I need," Harmon said. "I'm looking around for ways to be helpful."

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