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IT'S TIME FOR BUFFALO TO MERGE DEVELOPMENT, HOUSING AGENCIES

Recent disclosures of serious deficit problems at the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. were accompanied with the suggestion that agency cutbacks may be imminent. The real solution, however, goes far beyond a few staff cuts. The size and complexity of Buffalo's economic and community development and housing-related bureaucracies is way out of tune with the times and reality.

Maintaining the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., the Buffalo Neighborhood Revitalization Corp. and the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency -- along with all of the assorted not-for-profit groups that are funded through them -- costs tremendous dollars and delivers very poor bang for the buck. Far too much of the monies are spent on administration. Not nearly enough of the dollars reach the people and small businesses in need.

Buffalo receives approximately $20 million per year in the form of Community Development Block Grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and has been receiving these monies for 25 years. It is largely from this source that the city's entire economic and community development and housing-related operations are funded. Add it up -- over $500 million through the past 25 years. And what do we have to show for it?

Are most of our neighborhoods better now than they were 25 years ago? Do we have better quality and higher paying jobs? Do we have more incentives to keep our youth from relocating out of the area? Can we honestly say that we have spent this money wisely over the past 25 years? I think not.

True, the state of our local economy is tied into such things as the state tax structure and regulatory environment. Nevertheless, it is time for the city's elected leadership to take serious steps to put its own house in order and implement some self-help remedies before looking for the annual handout/bailout. It is time for the city to do what private industry has been doing for years, and that is downsize.

It is time to merge the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., Buffalo Neighborhood Revitalization Corp. and Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency into one agency with one director, one board of directors and one set of staff. In a city whose population has shrunk by nearly 50 percent over the past 40 years, there is absolutely no justification for the proliferation of these quasi-government operations that drain money from the city's Community Development Block Grant budget to pay for inefficient, personnel-heavy operations and duplication of services.

These suggested changes don't have to be nearly as painful as some might believe. For starters, reducing personnel involved in the city's economic and community development and housing-related bureaucracies by one-third could be accomplished largely through attrition and early-retirement packages over the next five years. Productivity levels and morale could be boosted by upgrading information-technology systems so the city could work more like a year 2000 operation than a mid-20th century operation.

Buffalo is now contemplating a consolidation of all licensing and permit functions into one streamlined operation. A necessary ingredient for success is the consolidation of all city economic and community development and housing-related activities into one streamlined agency as well.

The real challenge is to understand and accept the fact that a well-designed, methodical and comprehensive downsizing of city government is not synonymous with the reorganizations and restructurings we have grown so accustomed to seeing in the past.

STEVEN H. POLOWITZ is an attorney practicing in Buffalo.

For writer guidelines for columns, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Opinion Pages Guidelines, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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