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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Downsizing is not a naughty word

By Dick Hirsch

If economy and efficiency in local government are the goals, how much money is each community saving and how much more efficient will municipalities become by eliminating two out of five positions on a Town Board?

I realize it’s fashionable to jump up and down and shout hooray for the efforts of those who have voted to reduce the governing bodies in West Seneca, Evans, Orchard Park and Alden. In each case, after a spirited local referendum, the boards were reduced by two members. I’m sure somebody must have calculated the savings and it must be so miniscule it is almost embarrassing to discuss.

There was a time when I thought Kevin Gaughan would be my newest personal hero, the indefatigable and relentless promoter of downsizing government. He predicts his effort will eventually result in more efficient and cost effective government in Erie County, resulting in a growth spurt for the entire Buffalo-Niagara area.

I’m sure he must believe his own rhetoric, but I can’t imagine why. I’ve heard him speak and he is articulate and convincing, his determination undiminished by the frequent and recurring skirmishes with local officials. For all of that energy and good work, I salute him. He has also recruited a substantial number of true believers, folks who think, as he does, that they are pioneers, developing a route to a new age of government.

I disagree.

He and his efforts get plenty of press coverage and editorial support. Who can envision an editorial opposing efforts to make government more efficient? The news keeps coming as he trudges from town to town, followed by a retinue of reporters and minicams. Results are headlined on the late news and in the daily and weekly papers. Those stories are usually accompanied by interviews with local residents, some of whom are ecstatic to be part of what they deem is progress, others to be sad that the old structure has changed. None of the interviewees seem able to explain, even generally, how the elimination or retention of two local offices is going to impact the governance of Erie County. It’s a tough question.

In my line of work, I’ve been either an observer of or a participant in countless debates, presentations, panel discussions and bull sessions over the years about how best to eliminate overlapping levels of local government. The goal: to transform the area’s municipal management, creating a more efficient structure. The dialogue was virtually continuous. Blah. Blah. Blah. When two daily newspapers were being published one coined the term “suburbanitis,” defining it as the ailment afflicting the area. The other described what we had at the time---and still have---as “oxcart government.”

Elected officials at every level have always paid tribute to the concept of some form of consolidation, but most were truly more earnestly concerned with maintaining the status quo. By retaining the power they wielded in their own fiefdoms they protected themselves as well as other public appointees and employees; change could result in many of them being consolidated right out of their jobs. There have always been examples of metropolitan forms of government that have been adopted elsewhere and operated successfully, but the concept never played very well in the Buffalo area.

It has always been a simple matter to look at the roster of cities, towns and villages in the county, along with school districts and authorities created for special purposes, and conclude that it is an outdated, cumbersome, costly way to operate. The first target of discussion has usually been the villages, places like Farnham, Depew, Williamsville and the others, trying to explain what useful purposes they continue to serve. The merest whiff of any plan aimed at studying the value of the continued existence of a particular village is guaranteed to produce an uproar.

How about merging certain services like engineering, public works and assessment? A countywide police agency works in other places. Those are emotional issues which have an established group of vocal opponents, many of whom are public employees.

That is old news. Kevin Gaughan knows all that. Yet he spends time tinkering with town boards, with the only significant accomplishment being publicizing his downsizing issue. Moving toward serious change is a much more daunting assignment. It might begin with an imaginative county executive as leader. Do you think Gaughan might be interested in that job?


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