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Where is county control board? Too political or just out of touch, fiscal overseers have little to show

Eight months ago, Gov. George E. Pataki apparently thought he could clone Buffalo's control board for Erie County. He did so in name only, and county taxpayers still await relief.

Buffalo's board instilled discipline, froze wages, challenged municipal unions, won court backing and aggressively improved the city's overall financial picture now two years after its formation. That board, ably led, first by Thomas E. Baker and now by Brian J. Lipke, acted with urgency and without regard for local politics.

The Erie County Fiscal Stabilization Authority, whether due to weaker formative law or weaker appointees, is content to go with the flow while living off Erie County with a $1.83 million budget for 2006.

The questions must be asked: Has the control board been ineffective because it is soft, or because it does not have the will to get done what taxpayers expect? What has this board done to improve Erie County's fiscal standing? Since its July formation, no re-engineering occurred, no one made significant cuts; in fact, sales and property taxes rose and a hole growing to a projected $52.5 million remains in the 2007 budget.

Some observers feel that under its rules, an unbalanced budget as part of a required four-year financial plan means the board should become a so-called hard control board. That would give it stronger powers to lead Erie County, much as Buffalo's control board works for the city. However, even as a hard control board, would this group of people really be able to deliver for taxpayers?

The disappointment with the county's control board is widespread. Perhaps it's because its chairman lives out of town, or because of the political deftness with which County Executive Joel A. Giambra and the County Legislature held the board in abeyance. But the fact is, the control board presently plays no more than a cheerleader's role in shaping Erie County government's future. And, given that its members are mostly allegiant politicians, little can be expected to change.

Yet too much is at stake to accept that. Someone on this board needs to take stock of its weak performance to date, set goals with the taxpayer foremost in mind and force a redesign of county government. The board should start by reading the second annual report of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority.

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