The job for Mark Poloncarz's brother was, predictably, just the tip of the Water Authority iceberg. The liquid flowing out of our faucets is clean. But the county's Water Authority has for decades been a cesspool of political patronage and abuse.
Buffalo News reporter Denise Jewell Gee on Friday connected the dots from 14 recent Water Authority hires to the political fixers behind them. Notable was county Republican boss Nick Langworthy, whose fiance's sister landed a $55,132 secretarial job. We already knew about the contract-monitoring slot for the Democratic county executive's brother, a chef. Republican or Democrat, they all feed at the trough.
It is bad enough when a public authority fills unpublicized job openings with the politically connected, often of questionable merit. It is worse when the bloated payroll partly feeds, as an ex-Water Authority official recently told me, some $2 million a year in excess costs for ratepayers.
Spare me the Authority officials' excuse that some of the political hires eventually have to ace a civil service exam. There are plenty of ways to outflank the rules. One repeated civil service underachiever years ago was infamously shifted from job to job for a decade.
I can feel rate-payers simmering as they read this. The ire reaches a boil when folk realize that, barring a prolonged outrage, there is not much they can do. Politicians have no interest in tightening the spigot on the pipeline that waters their gardens. When abuse of the Authority makes headlines, they just duck for cover until the clouds break. Then it's on to the next outrage.
The web of Water Authority misuse involves, directly or indirectly, virtually every local politician.
It goes beyond rewarding family, friends and loyal soldiers with jobs. The same week that Poloncarz's brother started work, Assemblyman Sean Ryan held a $250-a-ticket campaign fundraiser hosted by - wait for it - Water Authority commissioners Fran Warthling and Jack O'Donnell. Beyond the political back-scratching, Authority contracts handed out to lawyers, engineers and contractors are typically repaid with political contributions. The beat goes on - and ratepayers are the drum.
The Authority's murky waters would partly clear if it were remade as a county department. Don't hold your breath. That push has to come from county legislators. Most of their strings are pulled by either Langworthy or county Democratic boss Len Lenihan, who treat the Water Authority like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Legislators who buck the back-scratching system pay a price. Then-lawmaker Kathy Konst was kicked off the Democratic island after pushing in 2006 for a county takeover of the Authority. Legislator Greg Olma years ago lost party backing - and, subsequently, his seat - after leaving the Democratic reservation to block political operative Steve Pigeon's bid for an Authority commissioner slot.
Absent a county takeover, the best way I can see to leash the beast is with regular audits from the supposed-watchdog comptroller - including a vetting of all hires. It ought to be a prime campaign issue in the current comptroller race.
I would love to see the Water Authority cesspool drained. But as every politician knows, you can't drink the water if the well runs dry.