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Regionalism plea renewed Giambra says he hasn't been 'radical enough' in pushing vision

Joel A. Giambra said in his annual address Thursday that he has not been "radical enough" in pushing for a new regional government for Erie County, and he asked the public to trust that he is moving ahead with the visionary plans he promised in the past.

"That's right. My name is Joel Giambra, and I am asking you to trust me," said the county executive, who looked back at the best parts of the past year and again played off his standing as the region's foremost political whipping boy.

During the last campaign season, a friendship with Giambra was an albatross around a politician's neck. Before a crowd of 700 in the Buffalo Convention Center on Thursday, there was only a flutter of polite laughter as Giambra made light of his image.

At that point in his State of the County address, Giambra was speaking mainly of his ongoing objective to unite the county's human services agencies, his "Blueprint for Change" that was delayed by the 2005 budget crisis.

But he discussed in equally grand terms the further expansion of Erie Community College's downtown campus, making the region a showpiece for Homeland Security collaboration, and melding county and city governments into a Regional City of Buffalo, the much-studied idea that sank with his political stock last year.

Borrowing a page from Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, Giambra said the Skyway should be torn down to make Buffalo's waterfront more accessible.

He called for a tourism train between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, on tracks already in place, and rail extensions to the University at Buffalo's Amherst campus, the airport and waterfront.

He longed for the return of auto traffic to lower Main Street and said he hopes the group Citizens for a Better Buffalo wins its lawsuit to block the Seneca Nation's downtown casino.

"Anything but a resort-style development is nothing but an economic drain," he said.

In last year's speech, Giambra apologized for the financial meltdown wrought by a two-year tax cut and spending that did not wane. This year, there was a fleeting reference to the "humility" that is needed for unity. But he did not mention the two sales tax increases, or the libraries that closed, or the need to save more than $50 million so another tax increase can be avoided for 2007.

Later, Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, stood with most of the other Democrats who control the Legislature to say they are focused on finding the savings suggested by a consultant to the 6-month-old Fiscal Stability Authority. "The top priority is the bottom line," Marinelli said.

Said Amherst Democrat Thomas Loughran: "For 35 minutes he was focused on vision, but not on the fiscal crisis."

Similarly, Comptroller Mark Poloncarz thought Giambra should have focused more on finances. "I had hoped the county executive would have presented a frank discussion on the current fiscal issues we are facing . . and what we received was a discussion about capital projects and his regionalism plan," he said.

Giambra noted that calendar year 2005 ended with a balanced budget.

"We cut more than 1,300 county positions. We cut $80 million in spending. But the roads are still being plowed, the parks are open, and we still have access to Wall Street," he said. "Erie County's real property tax rate is about half the statewide average for county property taxes."

He indicated he will continue promoting ECC's downtown campus and wants to use some of the county's scarce capital dollars to build a police training facility next to the new Public Safety Center. He boasted that taxpayers in two years will no longer need to subsidize the Erie County Medical Center, though they will still pay to retire debt and help with capital needs. And Giambra said the idea for a regional government "must become a reality."

e-mail mspina@buffnews.com

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