excerpts from feature story

Alan J. Bedenko

It isn’t often that Buffalo Spree gets out its ruler to give certain aspects of Western New York life an admonitory tap. But even though we prefer to look on the bright side, we can’t ignore newspaper headlines and the evidence of our eyes any more than you can. Our region is beset by many problems that cause our young people to leave and our neighborhoods to decline. Some of them are due to economic conditions faced by all cities where heavy industry has all but disappeared; others are the result of the larger worldwide fiscal crisis of recent years.

But some of our problems we bring on ourselves and we need to fix them ourselves. In the following pages we detail many of our failures with some suggestions on how they got that way. We’ve kept it balanced, though. There are also many reasons WNY is a great place to live, work, and play—we talk about those as well.

Of course, this is just a sampling of both the good and the bad. We know we’ve missed a lot—if there are omissions you’d like to talk about, respond via email or comments on buffalospree.com.

Politics as usual. Again.

By Alan J. Bedenko

Illustration by JP Thimot. Photo by kc kratt.
[We asked a regular Spree contributor, who is perhaps better known as the author of the widely read political blog Buffalo Pundit to give us his opinionated take on the state of local politics. Here it is. —Editor]

You’d have thought that by now we’d have learned our lesson.

But even by Western New York standards, it’s been a tumultuous year. A year where, instead of making tough choices to help improve the fundamentals of our area to encourage growth and success, we have doubled down on failure.

This perpetual cycle helps breed cynicism among a weary populace that checks the Charlotte want ads perhaps as often as it checks those in the News.

While a vat of our problems gets continually brewed in Albany on a regular basis, our elected officials and our layers upon layers of oft-redundant municipal governments own their own share of the blame.

As Kevin Gaughan works to shed the adjective “quixotic” from his name by waging a relatively successful battle to reduce the size of certain town governments, one can’t help but sense that our political climate is still imbued with the dissatisfaction and shock that came with county government’s 2005 red/green budget crisis.

But despite all the new talk of “running government like a business,” nothing fundamental has changed. The vastly expensive implementation of a program to root out inefficiencies in government processes has produced scant results, if any. How many regional entities exist which purport to help businesses get started or relocate to the Buffalo area? Why is there no one-stop shop for that sort of assistance? Why was the city of Buffalo literally handing out free money to start a restaurant to a politically connected person with no experience in the restaurant business? One Sunset, one suspects, is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership is as revered as it is disingenuously feckless. Its “Unshackle Upstate” program is laughable in its random exhortations to cut state spending, while in the same paragraph it protects its own pet government projects—like UB 2020—like a wild animal protects her young. IDAs controlled by elected officials, some of whom have never worked a private sector day in their lives, dole out money without keeping close enough tabs on the recipients to ensure that the money is spent as intended, or that the promised job creation exists.

It is often repeated that Erie County government controls only a small percentage of its annual budget—that something around eighty-five percent of its $1.1 billion must be devoted to state mandates. Yet we are represented by fifteen county legislators who only very occasionally argue over that remaining fifteen percent, and what to do with it. While political jousting takes place behind the scenes to ensure as compliant a legislature as possible for our ambitious county executive, the bottom line is that the legislature’s role is largely ceremonial and mostly ministerial.

Meanwhile, the water authority is still a pit of patronage. There has been no meaningful effort to consolidate services across municipal boundaries to save money. While many other similarly situated rust belt cities come together to solve widespread socioeconomic problems and to support entrepreneurship, WNY comes up with new and innovative ways further to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.

In 2009, County Executive Chris Collins pulled the county out of the business of handling WIC and county health clinics. The rationale was that he was trying to cut nonmandated services and transfer responsibility for them onto charities. In early 2010, rather than dip into reserves or hike property taxes, Collins opted instead to cut daycare subsidies to the working poor, possibly forcing them on welfare or out of school. State budget cuts had precipitated this, he argued. Yet other nonmandated county services—like golf courses—continue to operate unmolested, tended to by county workers with the same legacy costs as those who administered WIC or the health clinics.

The problems that plague this region are well established, and while not unique, our unwillingness or inability to rectify them in a meaningful way is. When you get down to it, our politics locally has practically nothing to do with partisan party politics. Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame. The change we need has to start with one very basic tenet—elect and hire the best. Instead, our political figures make decisions based on connections rather than merit. They bank on the fact that the people may grumble but won’t really be able to do much about it. When making multimillion dollar decisions affecting a million people, what you know is far more critical than whom you know, but in politics common sense like this does not apply. Crucial decisions are routinely based solely on patronage and power relationships.

When we strive for growth and success, we must take pains to achieve it. We need a plan to do so—a plan implemented by smart and capable people. The failure here is prevalent but not irreversible. This isn’t a situation where the suburbs and city can point fingers at each other or deepen already pointless divides—we are all in the same boat, regardless of which part of it we’re in.

You know, of course, what it is we define by making the same mistake over and over again and expecting different results. If we really want change, not just a billboard with the word change written on it, we must take responsibility, make informed voting decisions, and get involved.

Alan J. Bedenko is a regular restaurant reviewer for Spree, author of BuffaloPundit.com, and an attorney living with his family in Western New York.


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