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DON'T LET REFORM KILL REGIONALISM

Forget for a minute the jobs lost, the health clinics closed, the sheriff's deputies sidelined.

The other problem with the buckling of county government is that it cripples our best hope of thinking bigger.

The closest thing we have to a big-picture, grand-plan, regional government is run out of the Rath Building. Now it's getting pulled apart, at least for a while.

We've already divided and conquered ourselves. We're the land of compartments, the sultans of separation, the swamis of small-think.

The last thing we need is deeper cubbyholes and higher backyard fences.

We have a glut of local governments around here. We need fewer of them, not more.

Instead, we have towns talking about taking over county parks and forming police forces. I've heard whispers about taking down the County Legislature for a board of town supervisors.

It would be more dead ends for a community already headed the wrong way.

We have 44 separate towns, villages and cities, 28 school districts and five town-based economic-development agencies battling over local businesses.

"The more local government you have," said Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, "the less competitive you are."

It means we don't act as one, think as one, fight as one. It means lots of trees, with nobody seeing the forest. County government is the bigger-picture umbrella, the wide shelter against the rain of compartmentalization.

The county is on its knees, but not down for the count. A likely transfusion of property tax dollars next year will round a right-sized survivor into fighting shape -- and revive hopes for a city-county merger and the regionalism we need.

By regionalism I don't mean County Executive Joel Giambra's single slice of consolidation, but the whole pie:

Ignoring a checkerboard of civic borders to fight as one region in the global battle for new business -- instead of fighting among ourselves.

Slowing suburban sprawl and the higher taxes that come with its new roads, sewers, schools and fire stations.

Turning development into the city, the hub of our wheel and the place where most folks need work. A sick city is a ball and chain on every suburban village and town.

Merging and consolidating whatever makes sense and saves money.

I'm not making this up. Smarter folks than me -- David Rusk, Myron Orfield, Neal Peirce -- have said it for years.

Cities such as Charlotte, Louisville and Indianapolis -- municipal governments with big borders -- already know it. They think and act as one, avoiding intramural warfare and city vs. suburbs battles.

Erasing borders isn't easy in New York. But we can at least act like they're not there. Piecemealing parts of county government -- our main regional voice -- to towns and villages is the wrong way to go.

We're one region. Whether you live in Orchard Park or Elma, Buffalo or Blasdell, Cheektowaga or Colden, you're part of it. We have the same area code, root for the Bills and Sabres, live within an hour's drive of the city and say we're from Buffalo when we leave town. We cross city, town and village borders every day to work and play.

The more we think like the one region we are, the better off we'll be.

The closest thing we have to regional government is staggering -- at least for the moment -- under the weight of financial blunders and excess Medicaid costs. That doesn't mean that we don't need it, or that towns and villages can do it better.

The last thing we need is higher backyard fences. If they get much higher, nobody will see the bigger picture.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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