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The Cuomo Challenge

Who will define change in New York?

Who is this community, exactly, and what does it want? The signals are quite mixed.

State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has adopted the cause of regionalism.

The other evening, an internationally famous concert pianist gave a benefit recital at the home of one of Buffalo’s most accomplished business tycoons. The event reminded me of Buffalo of a past age, the Buffalo of playwright A.R. Gurney’s youth, the city of The Snow Ball. I was also reminded of the Buffalo of the late 1960s, the era of Martin Meyerson, when our great university so often and so routinely brought a great many famous musicians, composers, poets, painters, and literary stars to town.

Our university has since detached itself from our city, investing instead in Division I football. Our business tycoons still support the arts, however, and tens of thousands of not-so-rich donors sustain and replenish the scene here.

But our politics? If the arts are the public and sometimes also the private face of the community, our elected officials offer more slaps than kisses. Our current county executive has cut funding for the arts, breaking the strong historic continuity of funding that Giambra, Gorski, Rutkowski, and Regan maintained. Our current mayor, like his predecessor, uses not a single dollar of his budget to stimulate, sustain, or enhance the cultural infrastructure.

Fearful and reticent county legislators may soon overcome their fearfulness and reticence about creating a new county-wide planning board. To enact it, they will have to override a threatened veto. Should such a positive and courageous act occur, perhaps they will take another courageous and positive step, and enact a law to dedicate funding for cultural, libraries, parks, and tourism.

But by the end of 2009, these folks may be given something even more difficult to do: They may be given an opportunity to redefine government in this community.

Cuomo’s call

State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo gave a presentation at the UB law school last week in which he sketched the broad outlines of his forthcoming legislation to reform local government.

Here’s how Cuomo is going about this. Instead of setting forth a piece of legal draftsmanship in the usual way that a legislator would, Cuomo is conducting a speaking-and-listening tour, in which he is laying out some facts and sketching some broad principles, taking questions from audiences, and bringing some legislators along with him. At his UB appearance, Cuomo was joined by Republican State Senator Dale Volker and Democratic State Senator William Stachowski, who both pledged their support. Assemblymembers Hoyt, Schroeder, and DelMonte all saluted, as did Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz.

Here’s what they saluted: the concept, soon coming to a state legislature near you, of allowing either existing government officials or citizens themselves to propose consolidations or new government structures outright, then take the proposals to binding referendum.

Cuomo is saying that we need change. Cuomo is then saying that we ourselves are going to have to define what precisely the change is that we want.

And that means we are going to have to find out who “we” is.

The existential dilemma

We, of course, are not sure what we want.

A few years ago, Joel Giambra hosted a sequence of private dinners with the mayor and the council president of Buffalo and with the legislature chair—nice dinners, at the end of which there was a general agreement to go forth and draft up a law to merge the City of Buffalo with the County of Erie.

The law got drafted. Then, just to make sure that each of the reticent, skittish, and unbelieving players got the cover that they needed, a “blue ribbon commission” was empaneled, on the theory that representative government peopled by elected officials needed guidance from stalwart, upstanding, leading citizens. A former university president led it. Serving on it were a college president, the leader of a suburban chamber of commerce, ministers, others. The law we drafted was tweaked but remained essentially the same.

Then the law got sent, as laws need to be sent, into the legislative process—after having been endorsed by the four government leaders and by the panel of distinguished citizens.

What happened?

Nothing. An agreed-upon course toward change was set aside, overwhelmed, derailed, obviated, and left to fade off into history when the Erie County executive and the Erie County Legislature refused to agree on how to provide the revenue for the 2005 budget.

The Erie County Legislature never voted on the proposed city-county merger legislation. The bill never got sent to the state legislature as a Home Rule message. The referendum, which would have followed the governor’s signing of the Home Rule message passed by the state legislature, was never held.

So we in Erie County don’t really know, either as represented by our elected officials or as voters in a referendum, if we want to merge the government of the City of Buffalo with that of the County of Erie.

How will we know what we want?

The Cuomo proposal is to empower communities to come up with their own plans for change. There are lots of little units of government that are hard to find or even to count—like special taxing districts for lighting suburban subdivisions—that exist because town governments wanted those costs off their budget books. When Cuomo and others point out that there are more than 10,000 “governments” in New York State, the big numbers they point to are all about those little, obscure entities.

So if the Cuomo legislation passes by the end of 2009, one can expect that in 2010, there will be many local initiatives—most of them probably pushed by elected officials—to clear out the underbrush of all these little special districts for lighting, fire suppression, road upkeep, and such-like. Everybody will get to applaud each other for reducing the number of governments.

And, of course, there will be the ongoing campaign by some folks here, the campaign to hold town-level referenda on how many town board members a town should have. Hallelujah! I will bet you, right here outside the confines of any Seneca Gaming Corporation casino, that angry voters in many towns will vote to reduce the number of those wascally wabbit councilmembers.

But let’s get serious, people. If the Cuomo legislation passes, there’s going to be an opportunity to revisit that issue that the reticent, antsy, worried elected officials of 2004 actually managed to put forward. Remember, they spent a year in elected-official meetings, and staff spent many months drafting laws and doing studies, and there were two successful county-wide pro-consolidation county executive campaigns, and then to top it all off there was the work of that blue-ribbon commission.

Will that work stay in the archives, or will the Cuomo bill offer such a civic venture another shot?

The answer depends on who our elected officials are, and what their tolerance for political risk is. But ultimately, it depends on who we are, and who we want to be.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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