Reps. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, and Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican, often don’t see eye-to-eye on partisan, ideological issues.
But on Monday afternoon, they stood together at Canalside, just southeast of the USS Little Rock, to voice their joint support on an issue that cuts across party and ideological lines: the feared dismantling of the Buffalo district office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Collins and Higgins say they have learned of internal restructuring plans by the Army Corps to move primary functions performed by the Buffalo district office to Detroit or Louisville, Ky. That move could turn the Buffalo district, which stretches from Massena to Toledo, Ohio, and employs about 280 people, into a mere field office, or what the congressmen call a “district in name only.”
During an afternoon news conference at the water’s edge, the two elected officials demanded an explanation for the Army Corps’ apparent plans.
Higgins and Collins seemed baffled at the thought that relocating Army Corps personnel would save any money.
“Brian and I will be asking for – demanding – an explanation of how you can save money when you’re not cutting any personnel,” Collins said.
If you move these workers to Detroit or Louisville, some of them working on Buffalo-area projects will have to be flown back here, and stay at local hotels, all at government expense, he noted.
“How can that possibly save money?” Collins asked. “Common sense tells me it’s going to be more costly.”
Higgins cited the billions of dollars in economic activity linked to the fresh water of the Great Lakes.
“When it comes to protecting the safety, health and future of our waterways, there is no substitute for having a team of qualified people on the ground and familiar with the projects,” he added.
Higgins also pointed to prevailing federal law, which says the closing or consolidation of an Army Corps of Engineers district office needs the consent of Congress.
“I suspect they’re trying to circumvent the letter and the spirit of the law,” Higgins said. “This would be, in effect, the closing of the Buffalo office.”
Bruce I. Sanders, chief of public affairs for the Army Corps’ Buffalo district office, said that it would be inappropriate for him to comment because the public affairs office is one of the areas being considered for consolidation. He referred all questions to Jacqueline Y. Tate, chief of public affairs for the corps’ Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, who could not be reached to comment.
James S. Dean, president of Local 2930, American Federation of Government Employees, who attended the news conference, said that he had no details about the consolidation plan or its financial implications but suggested that the plan didn’t seem to make much sense.
“I think we need a presence on the lake, and it needs to be a robust, fully functioning district office,” Dean said.
Collins and Higgins both discussed how well they work together, on certain issues.
“When it comes to Western New York issues and things we need to support, that’s when we work together,” Collins said.
“There’s the ideological, partisan divide in Congress, but there also are geographic tensions,” Higgins explained. “We will continue to come together on issues important to Western New York.”
While details of the consolidation plan were sparse Monday, Collins noted that the best way to stop a proposed project is before it gains any momentum.
Higgins isn’t shy about using the bully pulpit in certain battles. “We don’t accept ‘no’ for an answer,” he said. “Typically, we succeed, because our facts are better.”
The Army Corps of Engineers plans and carries out projects to reduce flooding, protect the shoreline, maintain navigation and support water-quality efforts. The Buffalo district office was founded in 1857.