Western New York's elected officials must stop bickering, embarrassing themselves and ignoring the need for change if the region is to reverse its downward spiral, M&T Bank Corp.'s top executive declared publicly on Tuesday.
Speaking at the bank's annual meeting in Buffalo, Chairman and Chief Executive Robert G. Wilmers denounced the failure by local politicians, unions, and the business community to work together to solve problems. He said the region's tax burden and other problems are driving away businesses and young people, and said Buffalo and Erie County must take bold steps to reverse the trend.
But the area's leaders haven't shown the willingness to stop "groping for magical solutions," he said. In particular, he cited the Erie County Legislature, the Buffalo Common Council, and the Buffalo Board of Education as being irresponsible.
"Our elected officials have failed to recognize the severity of our situation and to act accordingly," said Wilmers, a member of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, better known as the Control Board. "These officials squabble with each other rather than making the hard choices that signal leadership. At one time or another, all have been public embarrassments."
Wilmers said many officials still believe they can "return to business as usual" and that "if those affected can just dig in their heels for awhile, the gravy train will be right back on the tracks."
"This view is both wrong -- and dangerous. The status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable," he said. "The danger here is of a slow, painful, downward spiral from which the region finds it cannot emerge."
He even compared Buffalo to countries like Poland, Ukraine or Belarus before the fall of the Iron Curtain. "The economies of eastern Europe, long-strangled by Communism, are today far more dynamic than that of this region, while Buffalo looks more and more like the Eastern Europe of old," he said.
Wilmers delivered his scripted indictment before about 200 shareholders and employees, who even applauded afterward, a rarity at a shareholders' meeting. Wayne Nolan, a shareholder who identified himself as a county worker, even stood up and told Wilmers, "I don't know what office you're running for, but I'll vote for you."
However, the 70-year-old executive told Nolan and The Buffalo News that he will not seek office. "If I run for office, the county might be in bigger trouble," he quipped. "There are better people around to run for public office than me. I'm too old, and I love the job I have."
He also said in an interview that it isn't necessary to change officeholders, just attitudes. "I'd just like to see people working together and not taking cheap shots," he said. "It doesn't serve a useful purpose to have a high decibel dialogue all the time, slamming everybody."
City and county officials could not be reached for comment. But one business leader defended private sector efforts to work with local government, and echoed Wilmers' remarks.
"The message is one consistent with what Bob has been communicating for a number of years," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership business group. "We're trying to walk Bob's talk to the extent that we possibly can, because he's right."
In his speech, Wilmers touted the benefits that Western New York offers. Even so, he noted, the area's population has fallen 10 years in a row and for 25 of the last 32 years. The population of those aged 18 to 34 fell 23 percent from 1990 to 2000.
About 16 percent of housing units in Buffalo -- 23,000 dwellings -- are vacant, and 26 percent of the city's population lives in poverty. And real estate in Buffalo lost 10 percent of its value from 1994 to 2004, "while the rest of the country was in a time of boom," he said.
The city and county have both been unable to deal with their budgets. And Buffalo schools and students perform below state averages.
"Fixing these sorts of problems requires cooperation and imagination," he said. "Instead, we see a community whose institutions consistently show a lack of capacity to work together."
He noted the failure to develop a plan to replace the Peace Bridge; the inability of the Buffalo Board of Education to choose a single health insurance provider to save it $27 million over two years; and the expectation that Erie County will have to raise taxes and fees by $100 million next year, even while Buffalo borrows money.
He also cited the national news reports of Procter & Gamble sending Erie County government a free truckload of toilet paper after the county budget crisis resulted indirectly in a shortage. "People remember stories like that," he warned.
Wilmers said the city and county have to signal to their citizens, potential residents, businesses, credit-rating agencies and the country that they are willing to change. Controlling expenses and not raising taxes is a start, he said, but governments must also reduce overlap and improve services.
And the business community "must look beyond getting the best deal for itself and become involved," he added.
"It's time to work together, young and old, rich and poor, labor and management," he said. "I implore others -- not just those in positions of authority, but every household and every citizen -- to play a role in this effort to turn ourselves around."