Tag Archives: Regionalism and Downsizing

Obvious Does Not Mean Correct

11 May

For those that do not follow urban planning issues regularly, locally in Buffalo or nationally, note that this graphic has been making the rounds:

Image courtesy joeplanner.blogspot.com

Chuck Banas, on his blog Joe the Planner, used the map in a piece he wrote on sprawl. It was picked up by Urbanphile and the generally well-respected Aaron Renn, urban policy commentator, and then later viralized to sites such as this. The national pro-urban/anti-sprawl advocates did not develop a sudden keen interest in Buffalo and our individual issues. Rather, in a classic example of shopping for facts to reinforce an already set opinion, the combination of Buffalo’s growing urban footprint and stagnated population numbers provided another stark (and seemingly newly discovered) example to use to support their agenda.

The headlines of the later pieces make two claims: 1) sprawl causes government deficits, and 2) you are stupid to believe otherwise. I find this to generally be a theme in anti-sprawl advocacy – the evils of this scourge are so self-evident that they don’t require explanation or defense. Are you an idiot? Don’t you get it? Sprawl is bad. See – it makes us broke (and causes obesity, and all other manner of societal ills of the day).

Note how blissfully free of facts or figures each piece is (to be fair, Mr. Banas provides more stats than the rest combined – more on his figures in a moment). In fact, only the much-reported census numbers get any real mention by Urbanphile or Streetsblog. One is then left to intuitively assume that an urban area three times larger is three times as expensive, and that this expensive infrastructure is causing bankruptcies.

Allow me to now intrude some of those facts and figures into an otherwise pristine echo-chamber. For Buffalo, or the Erie/Niagara County metro-region, to be used as an example of sprawl + population loss = bankruptcy, one would think we should actually be bankrupt. But of course we aren’t, and after parental supervision control boards were set up for the City of Buffalo and Erie County, we have been running surpluses. Municipalities that are going bankrupt have been in the South and West, that experienced both sprawl and population growth.

Likewise, if excess infrastructure was causing municipal financial pressure, one would think that spending on such would be a significant portion of the budget. That too, is wrong. Erie County has a total budget of $1.14 Billion. The Highway Department’s budget is $20 Million, or 2% of the total, of which the county pays $12.8 Million. The Highway Department’s budget could double, and pick up the federal matching share, and we’d still have surplus money from this year left over.

Of course, the cost of sprawl is more than the county’s highway budget. There are town highway budgets, sewer districts, longer garbage collection routes, longer commutes for workers, redundant school districts and a host of other costs. Let’s look at a few of these one by one, starting with the sprawliest spots. The cost for Erie County to provide sewer services to exurban areas, the fringe of new subdivisions, is $45 Million. The Town of Clarence spends $4.6 Million on their highway budget, and another $4.3 Million on water and sewer. Amherst spends even more – $40 Million combined on highways and infrastructure. Grand Island drops $2.8 Million on roads, and with its own water district and lots of sewer pipes, another $10 Million on total infrastructure. Real money, certainly, but small as a percentage of total government expenditures or compared to budget surpluses. Older towns and cities (Buffalo, Lackawanna, Cheektowaga, Tonawanda, Kenmore – the yellow spaces on the map) have costs too, of course, as infrastructure ages, but these would not be sprawl costs.

Which gets to the root of the problem. Teasing out how much of each budget is sprawl induced, and how much would exist anyway, is challenging. Transit Road would exist, sprawl or not, but would require less regular investment. Unfortunately, Clarence’s town budget in 1950 is not readily available. Even if it were, however, it would be overly simplistic to attribute every change in the budget purely to sprawl – the cost of materials, maintenance standards and practices, salaries and benefits matter at least as much as total mileage of roads maintained. 

Determining the cost of sprawl in school district budgets is also difficult. The school district in our region with the largest student population, Buffalo, also spends significantly more than most, $22,000 per pupil at last reckoning. Amherst spends $15K and Lancaster $14K. Would the total cost of teaching every pupil in Erie County go down if everyone lived within the 1950 boundary line? How can you be sure when some school districts, less dense but with the same geographic size as Buffalo (or larger), are spending less per pupil? Perhaps geography isn’t the main cost driver. But more on this in a moment.

Reflecting on these numbers, it appears the anti-sprawl advocates are subconsciously making an argument that duplicated and redundant services are prohibitively expensive, not necessarily expanded ones. Mr. Banas seems to understand this, as he spends considerable time in his column discussing the duplication issue, and advocating for a regional government. Here I find common cause with him, though I find it interesting that his commenters do not, and even Mr. Renn wades in to note that the regionalism solution is tangential and superfluous to the real issue at hand: sprawl. Note again the self-licking ice cream cone.

We still haven’t considered the cost to the citizen, in commute time and fuel, to live in a sprawltastic suburb. If everyone lived in a denser area, workers would theoretically have more time to be productive and extra disposable income to spend on curbside coffee houses, money formerly spent on gasoline. But here too the reality of Buffalo, our specific situation, intrudes. In a comparable orgy of statistics, Mr. Banas spends a bit of time noting driving patterns, and factors in that WNYers drive 53% more now than we did in 1980. This sounds bad, except he also notes the average American now drives 151% more. Combine that with Buffalo’s famously nation-leading low commute time, and it would seem this portion of sprawl’s ills does not unduly affect us.

Back to the original proposition: we’re broke (but we’re not – see above) and sprawl is the thing that did it. To be fair, while Erie County’s, the City of Buffalo’s, and most school district’s finances are in fine shape now, all warn of trouble on the horizon. So while the sprawl-related financial strains are a mixed bag at best, it is worth asking where the real problem is. What will make our community broke? A fair place to start is Erie County’s largest budget line: Medicaid.

New York’s Medicaid mandate is the largest in the country and costs double the national average, equal to the combined programs of California and Texas. Medicaid costs the average New York family of four $5000 a year. Compare that to the $64 a year in gasoline an idling Buffalo commuter wastes in sprawl-induced traffic under the tyranny of $4/gallon gas. Closer to home, Erie County has a Department of Social Services budget of $577 Million (the lion’s share of which is Medicaid), about half the $1.14 Billion total and far more than the sum of the infrastructure budgets of the county and assembled towns. $577 Million is more than the combined 2009 profit of all 18 public traded companies based in WNY – National Fuel, Greatbatch, First Niagara, M&T, Columbus-McKinnon, Moog, CTG, Gibraltar, Sovran, Financial Institutions, Astronics, Graham, Cleveland BioLabs, Mod-Pac, Evans Bank, Rand, Taylor and E&E. $577 Million is 1.3% of our region’s total GDP of $43 Billion. Buffalo is ranked 48th in population nationally but 55th in GDP. We punch below our weight, not surprisingly, as a third of the City of Buffalo lives below the poverty line. Providing services to the poor who cannot afford it costs money – $577 Million currently, and many advocate for more. In other words, its not the sprawl that’s going to make us broke, its our generalized poverty and neediness.

There are two sides to this social services coin. Providing healthcare and housing to the impoverished and elderly is a major industry in Buffalo – our largest employers are healthcare conglomerates who provide new hearts and knees to those that can pay, and emergency medical services and the bare minimum to those who can’t. Federal Medicare payments are a major influx of cash to our region, and we’re building new facilities at the Medical Campus and ECMC to grow the already profitable portions of the business. Likewise, nursing homes are going up far faster than downtown lofts, as our region gets greyer. And it is no coincidence that some of our most successful grassroots non-profits and social justice advocates ultimately get their funding from federal HUD block grants targeting home refurbishment. 

On the other hand, the cost to healthcare providers of caring for those on Medicaid does not match the reimbursement rate, and clinics and nursing homes are closing. Smart, able, young talent is doing great work on the West Side to improve the lives of our neediest . . . and thus they are not entrepreneurs starting innovative companies, making money and reinvesting capital in the region. Buffalo’s big business is caring for the elderly, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, and curing the cancers of an industrial legacy. No one gets rich doing that work, and that’s why we’re broke.

Bad Government, Worse Politics

5 Oct

You may get sick of hearing it, but let me repeat the fundamental truth of American politics: the public does not want bigger government, or smaller government, but rather competent government. By that standard, Erie County continues to fail.

Kevin Gaughan’s legislature downsizing initiative may miss the ballot because two Board of Elections officials, themselves flawless personifications of the inbred Western New York entitlement-based political culture, have found a legal loophole they think they can squeeze through. Never mind that they allowed the same process last year, for a (failed) referendum sponsored by the wife of one of the board officials. Call the whole process Ianello’s Revenge.

Erie County’s property taxes, low by New York State’s otherworldly standards, are still nationally in the top 10, when compared to the percentage of the value of the house they are taxing. This is an insidious drain on our area’s resources, leaking out monthly into escrow in your mortgage payment. Allow my situation to represent the starkest comparison: I unfortunately own two homes, one here in WNY, and the other in Las Vegas, where I used to live, and became an unintentional landlord (anyone want to buy a house in vegas at 2005 prices?). The homes are worth roughly the same, have roughly the same monthly mortgage payment, and roughly the same percentage rate. In Buffalo, 55% of my monthly payment goes to escrow, for taxes and insurance. In Vegas, the figure is 15%. Or, in other words, only 45% of my payment is building me equity (or is tax deductible interest) in Buffalo, but 85% of my Vegas payment is useful. We crow about our low home prices here, but the average citizen builds wealth faster in their home (increasing the overall wealth of the community) in other parts of the country, bubble or not.

The question is not whether the taxes are high or low, but whether I am getting a good deal for my money. Don’t you suspect that we could be doing all that government does for a lot less cost? In Western New York, our personal income to housing cost ratio is high, which should be good for attracting outside businesses to the area. However, it’s bad for property taxes, since it takes a ridiculous percentage of home value to fund union salaries for Erie County workers. Funding an $80K/year corrections officer would be easier if the average house price in Buffalo was $300K, and not $68K.

Which is why our county tries to rely on the fickle sales tax to generate an above average portion of the total budget. I don’t mind balancing our books on the back of Canadian shoppers and spill-over tourism from Niagara Falls. But it leads to projection problems, irregular debt, a significant rainy day fund to bridge gaps, and, as is the policy debate de jour, conflict at budget time.

County Executive Chris Collins’ budget was destined to make everyone upset. Because it comes from his mouth and his office, it receives more acrimony than is usually present with a simple partisan divide. But it also fulfills campaign promises, which always sound better in theory than practice. He lays off workers, trims the library budget, shrinks the comptroller’s office, and, in the horror of horrors, nips $600K from the arts and culturals budget.

As Alan Bedenko points out, it is only because the county has control over such a small percentage of the budget that the conflict is so heated. Dogs always fight harder over the last scraps on the bone. This fight over $600K in county funding borders on the absurd in light of the following facts:

1) The Niagara River Greenway Commission controls $9M a year in funding for an asset utilized by far more tourists and locals (parks and green space along both lakes and Niagara River), but nary a peep is heard in the general public about its woeful record.

2) The Erie County IDA gives away more money in one session than the entire county arts budget combined, to help for-profit companies employing fewer workers. The only consistent criticism of this process is from local libertarians, but a tiny shrinking of the IDA budget could pay for all the arts we can handle.

3) The last county contract with CSEA, representing 4200 workers, gives a 15% pay raise, entrenches free healthcare for life for those hired before 2006, and mandates only a 15% employee contribution for new worker’s healthcare. Workers got $500 checks for each year since the last contract in 2006, as a sweetener. Cost to the county? $4.1M, or a rough doubling of culturals funding.

But the arts funding is receiving the press, and the criticism comes from two basic vantage points.

Alan correctly sums up a view held by a majority of Democrats that Collins is a giant jerk, and no matter what the funding decision is, they don’t want him to be the one that makes it. If the County legislature, or the advisory arts council, or my pet dog had made the decision to cut arts funding, that might be okay. But Collins is a dictator, and this is more proof. No matter the motivation, the Erie County charter does give the county executive far broader powers than are present at the federal level (for instance), so Collins is legally no more of a dictator than the law allows. The voting public will have a chance to remove Collins in the future if they don’t like the style. But it is a matter of style, not substance.

The other view is ably expressed by Colin Dabkowski and Jeff Simon, both of the Buffalo News. They make an argument for funding of the arts based purely on its merits. And while I agree with the sentiment (I like the arts too, and the groups that lost funding), I take issue with this unspoken premise: funding of a particular group in the past entitles that group to perpetual funding in the future, with the related subscript, cutting of county funding is an affront to these group’s right to exist.

Simon especially implies that Collins sees “no “reason for being”” for Shakespeare in the Park, because its county funding was cut. Since when is the county of Erie the sole or prime arbiter of an art group’s success, relevancy, vitality, or existence. It is one funding stream, and I hope, a small one. A community’s support of the arts, especially arts that exist to enrich that community and not cater to outsiders, should not exemplified in government funding. The county is not issuing, by royal decree, orders on which groups may exist or not. It is choosing which to fund, from county tax dollars, and nothing else.

Community based arts have a variety of funding streams: foundations, corporate sponsors, state and national grants, donors, and (one would hope, if a community asset) patrons. Even the Zoo sold wrist bands for a new elephant house. I question the impact and viability of any group that truly relies on county funding for its perpetuation. Despite talk to the contrary, Shakespeare in the Park will be fine, as it is a community asset. It will find enough revenue from the list at the start of this paragraph to continue. All 20 theaters that lost funding may not. But plenty of arts organizations exist now with no previous county funding (Sugar City, anyone), and I’m sure some of them are at least a bit indignant that they have grown and survived, and yet never got to feed from the trough at all.

Collins suffers from a lack of tact and communication. His desire to use arts funding to promote tourism is defensible and legitimate. Erie County is not the National Endowment of the Arts; the county executive has a right to an agenda, and to use taxpayer’s money as an investment as part of a policy strategy. It would nice if Collins himself would take the time to explain his motive and intent – he should borrow Mayor Brown’s podium more often.

Coming around full circle, let me offer two suggestions for arts funding that subscribe to a more “competent” government model, instead of simply bigger and smaller. If you are a supporter of the arts, please comment on my recommendations. Mssrs. Dabkowski and Simon are free to respond as well, if they are WNYMedia readers (which they should be):

1) Trim $400K from the big four receivers of funding (Zoo, Science Museum, BPO and Albright-Knox), and give it to the smaller groups instead. Can the Zoo do with $1.3M instead of $1.4M? This is the hatchet method, not the scalpel one, but it restores funding to the smaller groups, if they are so deserving and needy.

2) Preferably, turn arts funding on its head. If Collins were the entrepreneurial business leader that he says he is, he would not just be cutting spending, but changing how spending occurs. No matter that it’s the region’s top draw, how much bang for the buck are we getting from Zoo funding? HSBC employs a lot of workers, but $100K given to ten start up companies yields more dividends (in terms of jobs created and wealth maintained locally) than $1M given to HSBC. So keep the arts budget at $4M or $5M, but make it a competition. Which arts groups are ready to expand? Add a new space? Double the size of their program? Hire a new artistic director? On the cusp of breaking out? Invest the county’s money entrepreneurially, so you create the next Burchfield-Penney, not just maintain the old one. Help Shea’s absorb and retrofit the old Studio Arena Space. Give the Irish Classical Theater the resources it needs to double attendance in 5 years. And then move on. Don’t fund the same list every year. The IDA does not give money to GM or Kaleida simply for existing. It funds expansion and enhancement, and the county could do the same for the arts. “But art should exist for art’s sake, not just for tourism or tax revenue,” you say. I agree. I respect art for art’s sake  – when I was the ED of a small start-up arts center, we hosted a performance by a small choir that sings 500 year old chant. We received few attendees, but I was struck by the serenity of the choir members themselves; they were content that the music was alive, and the economic impact was so distant as to be forgotten. Such art should exist. But the county is not a foundation, nor the NEA, and could leverage its public dollars for maximum general impact.

Village Exclusivity

17 Mar

There was an election for Mayor last night in East Aurora, and the whole thing came down to a de facto referendum on dissolving the village government of East Aurora.

Village Trustee Allan A. Kasprzak, who often butted heads with Mayor Clark W. Crook over the last few months over Crook’s push for dissolution, won a tight race in Tuesday’s village election, topping Crook by 46 votes. Kasprzak, who has served on the Village Board for two years, received 701 votes to Crook’s 655.

This is the first sort-of-kind-of defeat for the Kevin Gaughan-fueled push to consolidate and reduce the number and size of local governments in Erie County. 46 votes is a tight margin indeed, and I don’t know what benefits the residents of the village of East Aurora receive that residents of the town of Aurora don’t, but I think that there’s an exclusivity associated with the villages of East Aurora and Williamsville – an exclusivity that its residents bought into, pay for, and want to maintain. I picture a gated community, sans gates.

(Photo via)

Erie County Legislature Downsizing

5 Mar

Earlier today, the Erie County Legislature passed half of the 21st Century Commission’s recommendations by voting to reduce the size of the county legislature from 15 to 11 members.  The other half of the commission’s recommendation was to increase the terms of elected legislators from two to four years, which was not part of today’s resolution.   Collins vetoed the recommendation to lengthen terms along with a reduction to 11 members last year.

The downsizing resolution was approved nine to six, with Legislators Mills, Hardwick, Fudoli, Walter, Dixon, Rath, Kennedy, Bove and Loughran voting in the affirmative and Legislators Whyte, Marinelli, Grant, Miller-Williams, Mazur and Kozub voting no.

“I am pleased that we will now be letting taxpayers decide on what the size of the legislature will be,” said 12th District Legislator Lynne Dixon, “I campaigned on the Legislature taking the lead on steps to saving taxpayer dollars.”

In their 2009 report, the 21st Century Commission estimated that reducing the legislature to 11 members would save $550,000 each year.

Democrats discussed other options, such as reducing the legislature to 13 members rather than 11 or putting both options (11 or 13) in front of the voters in November.  It’s possible to put both items on the ballot if they are worded properly so both referendums don’t pass.  However, simplifying the options for the voters was the order of the day.

Legislators Marinelli and Grant were concerned with the need to downsize and the potential to diminish the urban voice in the legislature, “I simply don’t hear a demand to downsize from my constituents and I pride myself on my door-to-door outreach”.  While Legislator Grant said, “My constituents tell me to remember the Common Council downsizing and the negative effect on the minority community in the city”

The measure now goes to Erie County Executive Chris Collins for his signature before appearing on the ballot in November as a referendum.

Teabaggers vs. Downsizers

5 Oct

There has been much discussion lately, especially on WNYMedia and various cable channels, about teabaggers. But it was only today, for the first time, in today’s Buffalo News, that I heard word that Kevin Gaughan’s downsizing movement was really another teabag manifestation.

The Alden Town Government is the obvious object of this rage. . .

The Alden Town Government is the obvious object of this rage. . .

It appears that civic activist Kevin P. Gaughan has found a way to empower politically disenchanted voters at a time when many other efforts, such as taxpayer tea parties, have attracted many loud and angry voices but have not yet yielded tangible results at the ballot box.

“The overall trend is, regardless of what Kevin Gaughan says, anti-government,” said Canisius College political science professor Michael V. Haselswerdt. “Downsizing wins everywhere, not so much on the merits but on the sentiment.”

And what is this sentiment trend?

“People are so angry that they don’t know where to lash out,” [Hamburg Councilwoman Joan A. Kesner] said. “People are not happy with what they see in government, and since we are the front line, they lash out at us.”

I don’t buy this They-Hate-Us-Because-We’re-So-Good-Providing-Services-On-The-Front-Line argument. It reminds me of the Rachel-Maddow-Republicans-Hate-ACORN-Because-They-Are-So-Good-At-Helping-The-Poor argument that is bunk as well.

I don’t see anger here. Or anyone getting lashed. Its not that the general public hates government. Most also see a patriotic duty to pay a reasonable amount of taxes, so it isn’t a true tax revolt. And this is isn’t a Teabagger movement, best known for its loose allegiance to the facts. Gaughan is nothing if not thoughtful, thorough, and a master of data proving the public should vote to downsize.

So this isn’t about any of those things. No, the public is eliminating elected positions because the choice “Other” is not on the ballot on voting day.

When I talk to normal independent people who don’t post on political blogs all day (i.e. not WNYMedia readers), they have few firm Democrat and Republican ideologies. They also have little love for the candidates presented every year. Obama is probably the exception that proves the rule. The reaction I most often hear is “Really? There is no one else better than I can chose from?” Brown vs. Kearns? Collins vs. Keane? Really? Nobody else? The crop of inspiring yet competent local leaders is thin.

So the voters hear Kevin Gaughan’s numbers. 439 politicians costing over $32M a year. Per capita, far more than most. A dwindling economy. Declining population. Plenty of stories in the paper about embezzlement, corruption, fraud and waste. Not all those problems are the politician’s fault, but I don’t like (or know) most of them anyway. Then, on the run up to the vote, and on election day, the politicians I don’t especially like are making it hard for me to express my voice, limiting voter access and playing dirty? That just validates “all the stories you hear,” and puts the general public over the edge. “I don’t know if this will save money, but fewer politicians has to be a good thing.” Thus Alden, Evans, Orchard Park, West Seneca, and maybe a town near you, vote to downsize.

Does downsizing actually work on the merits? To me, it seems like 5 would be a good number to run a town. Its just that we have too many towns. So I get nervous about 3, but don’t think it will do much damage. Will it save money? Clearly – as Collins shows with the outsourcing of WIC, its not the salary, its the healthcare and pension’s that’s the real problem. Somehow, many of these town board positions have small salaries but huge benefit packages. So it can not help but to reduce costs to have fewer ex-politicians continuing to be supported on the tax payer dime.

But the facts don’t matter as much as the gut. The average voter doesn’t like his political choices anyway, and has this sneaking suspicion that fewer pols is not a bad thing. That’s not government hating, anger, hostility or Teabagging. It’s just common sense.And its about time.

3 > 5

24 Sep

Congratulations to the voters of Orchard Park who traipsed out to the singular polling place, which opened at 11am, to vote in favor of downsizing their town board last night. The tally – using all new voting machines – was 2,034 – 1,063.

Why this ballot question didn’t appear, say, during the September 15th primary or the proper election day in November is anyone’s guess.

But come 2012, Orchard Park’s town board will be reduced to two members, plus its supervisor.

Chris Smith was there, and he adds this anecdote:

That lack of leadership and a surplus of government obstinacy was evident today in Orchard Park. By selecting a special election date on a Wednesday between the primary and general elections, choosing only one polling place, putting that polling place in the basement of the municipal building, lack of signs or directions to the voting booth, selecting odd voting hours which didn’t allow for people to vote before 11AM and blocking the parking lot this morning with barricades and police to reduce “congestion” in the parking lot. It was a mess. Local voter Rich Wilson said, “Honestly, I planned to vote ‘No’ on downsizing until I got down here today and saw all these shenanigans. If the local council members are so opposed to this and will go to these lengths to block participation, maybe Gaughan’s got it right.”

Maybe.

Chris says this may be sparking a renewal of the whole regionalism idea. The metropolitan-style government we see in Toronto is a model of what regional government and planning can look like. So is Ontario’s Niagara Region. Imagine that. One needs only cross a short bridge to see regionalism in action and we’re busy talking about places like Charlotte or Indianapolis.

But it’s not just the electeds that are the problem. Sure, that’ll help with legacy costs, but how do we reduce and regionalize the bureaucracies?

Gaughan Wins In Orchard Park

24 Sep

gaughan-wins-orchard-park

The Town of Orchard Park today voted to reduce the size of their government, not a small victory for civic activist Kevin Gaughan who said, “I’m proud to see the voters take control of their future.”

This is the third victory for Gaughan and his organization as previous efforts to reduce town council seats passed earlier this year in West Seneca and Evans.  The vote today was “Yes” to downsize the town council by two seats or “No” to maintain the status quo.  The vote was, of course, controversial in this town of 27,000 people with entrenched Village and Town governments and a very parochial sensibility.

However, Gaughan put together a grassroots canvassing operation in which voters were visited multiple times throughout the summer.  A last minute canvassing by a group called “Concerned Citizens for Responsible Orchard Park” and rumored to be organized by town council member Nan Ackerman, cited a recent study by UB’s Regional Institute which refuted Gaughan’s position that downsizing governments would reap cost savings and increase citizen participation.  From the report:

Any cost savings from downsizing are negligible and must be weighed against disadvantages in representation and responsiveness.

Gaughan responded to the report in an interview with WNED:

“Right now, Orchard Park taxpayers owe $2.3 million dollars to the 27 former Orchard Park councilmembers who have been receiving lifetime benefits. That’s called legacy costs and that’s what’s destroying the state of New York and each of our town’s and village governments,” said Gaughan.

Gaughan believes that reducing the size of town and village boards would also “reduce the decibel level of this turf protection” seen throughout local politics.  UB Researchers also say there’s a greater chance for corruption with fewer people in charge. Gaughan says if that were true there would be no corruption in Albany and Washington where there are hundreds of politicians.

However, it seems to me that arguing about the cost of town government is a canard.  Plain and simple, Gaughan’s effort is intended to get people off their asses and take control of their government.  To give them an opportunity to define their own representation, increase citizen involvement and eventually empower people to have their voice heard.  As a region, we have been disempowered by redundant layers of government and our participation at the voting booth and at government hearings or public meetings reflects that disempowerment.

Also, his efforts to downsize have resulted in a re-ignition of the regionalism debate he began in 1997 with a series of conferences at the Chautauqua Institution.  One of the primary arguments that has emerged in opposition to his efforts to downsize town governments was that it would be more sensible to regionalize.  Probably not a coincidence…

When it seemed as if the flicker of hope for a regionalized Western New York government was extinguished by a county wide economic meltdown in 2005, Gaughan took a step back and recalculated.  His comments at the time,

“Reform efforts failed because creating consensus for change in our community is next to impossible. And the chief reason for that difficulty is our inordinately large number of politicians.  With 439 elected officials throughout Erie County – each with individual purposes, powers, and views – accountable leadership, or just plain leadership, has eluded us.”

That lack of leadership and a surplus of government obstinacy was evident today in Orchard Park.  By selecting a special election date on a Wednesday between the primary and general elections, choosing only one polling place, putting that polling place in the basement of the municipal building, lack of signs or directions to the voting booth, selecting odd voting hours which didn’t allow for people to vote before 11AM and blocking the parking lot this morning with barricades and police to reduce “congestion” in the parking lot.  It was a mess.  Local voter Rich Wilson said, “Honestly, I planned to vote ‘No’ on downsizing until I got down here today and saw all these shenanigans.  If the local council members are so opposed to this and will go to these lengths to block participation, maybe Gaughan’s got it right.”

Maybe Gaughan does have it right, but Councilwoman Ackerman sees it differently, “I think its sad, I think it’s misguided.”  It should be noted that Ackerman’s seat is one of the two to be downsized.

You know what’s misguided?  Citizenry who do nothing while people stream out of the region at an unrelenting pace while private sector jobs evaporate and legacy government costs balloon.  Tonight, Kevin Gaughan gave people a mechanism to have their voice heard.  It’s up to us to take it from here.

Governing Niagara Falls

10 Sep


Governing Magazine examines Niagara Falls, NY and why it sucks so hard.  Among the many fixable reasons:

There are a lot of reasons for these differences, not least geography: the Canadian side gets by far the most dramatic view of the Falls. But another, less visible, force has had at least as great a say in the two cities’ fortunes: a disparity in governance that has put the two sides on very different trajectories. Simply put, Niagara Falls, Ontario, has benefited from decades of decisions by regional and provincial policy makers who have built on one another’s work. Niagara Falls, New York, has lurched through short-sighted, incompetent and sometimes corrupt municipal governance, failed stabs at regionalism, and flailing, inconsistent and outright destructive approaches by various arms of state government.

“They are way behind the curve on this side of the river,” says William Hudnut, an urban policy scholar and a student of the situation in Western New York. “When you cross the bridge into Canada, there’s a world of difference: a comprehensive plan over there, while the state of New York is floundering.”

Niagara Falls, New York, is not unique in this respect. Fragmented governance has bestowed serious problems on many struggling U.S. cities, especially in the Rust Belt states that surround the Great Lakes. “We all have this political organization that was modeled after New York and Pennsylvania and that platted the politics of the Midwest all the way to Minnesota: Let’s have local government close to the people, so let’s have kajillions of jurisdictions,” says John Austin, who runs the Brookings Institution’s Great Lakes Economic Initiative from the University of Michigan.

Read the whole thing.

Your Point Being?

11 Aug

I really didn’t get the point of this article about Kevin Gaughan and his downsizing movement.  It seems as if the general theses are that, “some people don’t like Kevin because he wants to make sure he gets credit for his efforts”.  Otherwise it hardly merits a lengthy article that he would reject help from, e.g., Responsible New York.

I don’t necessarily agree that this downsizing effort is the most effective way to bring about change to WNY, but I respect Gaughan for undertaking it and for keeping the issue of governmental FAIL in the news every so often.

At least he isn’t just heckling from the sidelines, y’know?

Downsizing: Symbolic, but Provides Momentum and Opportunity

4 Jun

Well, if you give a voter a choice between bigger and smaller government; when you give a voter a chance between more costs versus less, it appears as if that voter will vote to downsize and make government leaner and cheaper.

I don’t know if that would have been true a few years ago.

Again – I think the victory is more symbolic than it is substantive. Removing a couple of town board members from smallish towns doesn’t suddenly make all of Erie County more efficient. But there is a procedural momentum here that the imminent passage of the government consolidation bill may help tap into.

Part of what ails WNY has been its slavish devotion to the way things have always been done, regardless of cost, efficiency, or need. When you propose something as radical as metropolitan government, as Gaughan has done in the past, or something even as mild as a reduction in town boards, as just happened, the champions of the status quo come out in full force to make sure no one kills the job. I heard Kevin Gaughan on Shredd & Ragan the other day explaining that the opposition to downsizing in these towns had concocted the most gloriously ridiculous stories of doom and gloom should the measures pass. Town employees will be fired! Services will be abandoned! Dogs and cats living together!

And this vote is one of the first times I can recall in recent memory where a simple and stark choice was presented to the voters – more government, or less government – and the fear tactics of the pro-more-government faction failed.

That is big.

So, the significance of this to Evans and West Seneca in particular is somewhat beside the point for me. The significance here is that the voters were able to decide, and decided against the status quo. That simply doesn’t happen here.

So congratulations are in order to Kevin Gaughan and his merry band of government shrinkers.

But let’s take this to the next step.

Very shortly, Governor Paterson will sign that government consolidation bill to make it much easier for average citizens to make special taxing entities merge or go away completely. There ought to be an effort to identify each and every one that directly touches Western New York, and I’d gladly volunteer to assist in that effort to draw up a wish list of dissolutions and consolidations, and then to collect signatures and advocate for fewer governmental layers – fewer taxing entities, and a more efficient way of doing the people’s business.

Perhaps one of my more tech-savvy friends could set up a site whereby people can post their ideas for special district dissolution/mergers and people can vote them up or down, like on Digg.