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Remember county jail merger? Good idea, OK'd by voters, languishes years later in union-forced legal limbo

Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra's mistakes -- plentiful and well documented -- seldom go unpunished. But should not his good deeds too? Consider one reform, called a no-brainer at the time: Merge the county jail in Alden with the Sheriff's Department, which runs the downtown Holding Center.

Save up to $3.2 million a year by streamlining services and purchases, and cutting overlap. Voters approved it in November 2000 and it took effect in January 2001. Done deal, right? The county has saved $15 million to date? Not quite.

Recently Giambra noted that county government is so dysfunctional that between state law, union contracts and competing political interests, it's amazing anything gets done.

Exhibit No. 1, the merger. Since voters soundly approved, more than 40 challenges, lawsuits, hearings, negotiations and court rulings interfered, all but scuttling the merger. Different unions represent Holding Center guards and the jail's corrections officers, even though they work for the same government. Three unions -- AFSME, CSEA and the Teamsters -- are affected and within their rights to protect their members. But the result of the challenges is that five years later, the merger is not done. The left hand of the jail still doesn't know what the right hand of the Holding Center does -- and you pay for it.

The four-page summary of legal maneuvers that only a lawyer counting billable hours could love is depressing. Dying of a thousand paper cuts is merger, consolidation, smarter use of resources, better management prerogatives, doing what's best for the taxpayers. Unions tied up this merger and you can't blame Giambra for throwing up his hands in frustration.

Why? The law separating the two jails passed in 1846. Sixty of New York's 62 counties have merged these operations. Erie County taxpayers pay one of the heaviest costs per inmate in the state. Giambra promised no full-time employees would lose their jobs in the merger. We're not choosing sides, as much as wondering when opponents will lift their eyes from the legal briefs and remember they serve taxpayers. When will doing what's right for them come first?

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