This past winter is, mercifully, over. It seemed to begin ages ago, last forever and end just moments ago. And it was marked by three events that served to illustrate Western New York's challenges, and illuminate some potential solutions.
On the night of Dec. 1, 2010, New York State Police Capt. Michael Nigrelli watched as snow fell silently outside his Cheektowaga headquarters. As the season's first lake-effect storm developed, he noticed its unusual concentration of heavy, wet flakes. Around dinner time, Nigrelli, the commander of the Western New York section of the Thruway, learned that an accident was blocking traffic. By 8 p.m., he was thinking about closing the Thruway.
But there was a problem. The section of the Thruway Nigrelli wanted to close included entrances in the towns of Hamburg, Orchard Park, West Seneca, Amherst, Clarence and Cheektowaga; the Village of Angola; and the cities of Lackawanna and Buffalo. Nigrelli lacked a sufficient number of troopers to safely block all of the on-ramps. So he waited. And waited. Finally, at 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 2, hours after the Thruway had been transformed into a miles-long white pillow pockmarked with hundreds of trapped travelers, Nigrelli shut it down.
Angry finger-pointing ensued among politicians over who was responsible. But beneath the noise of their bickering lay the incident's true lessons. In recent years, Albany had reduced the ranks of its state troopers. Equally important, as Nigrelli pondered his limited forces, he was unable to enlist the help of the 23 additional police departments located in towns and villages throughout the county. Local politicians had never sat down and devised a plan of cooperation in Thruway matters, even though it traverses virtually every local municipality.
That December night, stranded and unable to move for more than 17 hours, Erie County was waist deep in 45 local governments, 435 local politicians, 30 highway superintendents, 18 public works departments and 27 inches of snow.
> Culturals take a hit
As the January cold spell arrived, Erie County Executive Chris Collins held firm. He'd decided over the winter that county government would end all aid to a vast number of local theaters, galleries, music companies, dance troupes and assorted places of artistic endeavor. As well, he insisted on a county budget that substantially reduced public dollars for public libraries.
We'd come a long way from Winston Churchill's view when, at the height of Germany's bombing of England in World War II, a British politician suggested that the government close London's theaters. "If we close the theaters," Churchill replied, "then what are we fighting for?"
And we'd devolved perhaps even further from Depression-era America, when ill-fed men stood in lines for free apples, and yet our nation closed not one public library. Human nourishment, we understood then, comes in several forms.
While no one can doubt that the future of private cultural institutions will include less public funding, what rendered wrong Collins' war on that which lifts us -- local arts -- was his refusal to equally attack that which holds us down -- local government. Rather than consolidate county departments and local governments to free up funds, the county executive more recently proposed yet another taxing district to pay for public libraries. Leaving bewildered residents to ask, "Don't we already pay for them?"
> Poverty and isolation
All winter long, at meeting after meeting, parents of students in the Buffalo School District stood to confront their School Board over their children's lack of access to quality education.
They were mostly people of color. Many described neighborhoods in stress and families in peril. All were desperate to find a cure for a district suffering the diseases of poverty, urban violence and cultural barriers both unknown and unknowable to their suburban counterparts. So desperate, their winter-long effort culminated this spring in a day set aside for keeping children home from school -- a protest as counter-intuitive as it was understandable.
But if you listened carefully to these beleaguered citizens' weekly appeals, you realized that their testimony offered insight into the realities of life in Buffalo for people of color. In beseeching the School Board for change, they begged not just for a remedy for a district that spends too much money for too few results. They were in fact pleading for someone, somewhere, to help stop the cycle of impoverishment and isolation that grips too large a swath of Buffalo's East Side. Until we end this last nightmare that haunts the Western New York dream, we can never hold our heads fully high.
> A declining population
These three events occurred during a year in which local town governments increased taxes to clear sidewalks; village governments raised water rates; county government went to court to raise property taxes; school districts cut teachers and increased spending; and the University at Buffalo paid its new president $650,000 with taxpayer money, while Albany eliminated state troopers, closed parks, reduced environmental protection and increased politicians' pensions.
Finally, in a bitter coda to a cold winter, the season ended with the April release of the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent report. We learned that in the past decade, a period in which the U.S. population grew by 9.7 percent, Erie County lost more people than any other county in New York State. And since 1970, Western New York lost more people than any other region in America.
We learned as well that attendance in area public schools has dramatically declined. Our air has become the most toxic, and our residents the least literate, in all of New York. And when winter finally departed, like too many seasons before, it took with it more companies (from Rosa's to Quad/Graphics), and more workers (HSBC and National Grid).
We've all seen our community's harsh statistics: 294,000 residents, 110,000 jobs, and 30 percent of our young people, all gone. And we've all heard the harsh verdict: Western New York will never participate in the global economy until we dismantle our concentration of governments and school districts, and the taxes, bureaucracies and in-fighting which accompany them.
Yet we continue in Erie County with 25 town governments, 16 village governments, three city governments, one county government, 29 school districts and their grand total of 435 politicians and 186 school administrators. This is more than 10 times the number of public officials than any like-sized community in America. This patchwork system imposes one of the highest local property tax rates in the nation. Out of 1,824 counties in the United States, Erie County residents pay the 13th highest local property taxes; Orleans County pays the highest; Niagara County, the second highest; Allegany County, the fourth highest; Genesee County, the seventh highest; and Chautauqua County, the eighth highest.
All of these facts and failures existed even before the Great Recession of 2008, which heightened competition for investment and jobs as it temporarily dragged the rest of the nation down to our level. Politicians say we should be grateful that we never partook in the economic resurgence that lifted all of America except upstate New York between 1988 and 2008, because now we don't feel the downside as much. That's like saying that it's better to never win the Super Bowl because you don't feel so bad in those years that you don't.
The "private economy" collapse of 2008, in which debt-laden businesses went under, may be but a prelude to a "public economy" crisis, in which local and state governments collapse under the weight of employees' lifetime pension and health care benefits. In forecasters' view, the United States is merely in a respite period between these two events.
Western New York is failing today. Our local government structure guarantees that we will fail tomorrow. In this narrative of non-growth, why do our politicians act as if all is well?
> Myopia versus innovation
Our citizens' movement to reduce government size and cost has so far caused 12 public votes, resulting in residents adopting measures to downsize two county, six town and one village government in Western New York. Twenty-two elected positions have been eliminated, saving local taxpayers $4.8 million per year. But we've only scratched the surface.
Uncertainty is no friend of reform. And during last year's effort to begin to eliminate overlapping layers of village government, rather than explain people's fear of change, politicians exploited it. In high-pitched screeds, they drowned out the fact that along with the rest of us, our villages are dying.
In the 1970s, a Harvard Business School professor identified the practice of "marketing myopia" -- the way in which advertisers convince consumers that they require a certain item even after new products render it obsolete. It was myopic for local officials to claim that a village government is indispensable to village life. That assertion is belied by the thousands of villages around America that enjoy bucolic settings, strong identity and efficient services without an extra government level.
Our work to downsize government is an effort to slip the past and align ourselves with the future. While politicians fail to lift their vision beyond their boundaries, direct referendum gives citizens the chance to cause change on their own. Through public votes on reducing politicians, merging governments and combining school districts, we compel our public servants to do what every private family and business does when it is in peril: innovate, adapt and reinvent. Because they're the first steps necessary to start growing again.
The past three years, from Amherst and Akron to West Seneca and Wales, I've visited thousands of Western New Yorkers in their home. I've attended 305 local town and village board meetings, as well as community meetings throughout the nation. Here's what I've learned:
Western New York's local government system has lost its ability to offer solutions to our problems. It can neither educate urban children nor safeguard suburban intersections. Bickering politicians protect their turf, and leave vulnerable public institutions, services and amenities. As a result, citizens don't feel represented, they feel managed.
So before we fire one more teacher, hire one more administrator, open one more taxing entity, close one more park, consolidate one more hospital, combine one more place of worship, lose one more private citizen or add one more public pension, we must reduce our number of governments, politicians and school districts. At stake is nothing less than our future.