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City, county control boards likely to remain in place

Erie County enters the new year in an unenviable position - its two biggest governments still under the thumb of state control boards.

Local officials will tell you that the day is coming soon when those boards no longer call the fiscal shots in City Hall and County Hall.

The two boards, however, show no signs of leaving the scene willingly - at least not this year.

"We want them to go away," said Ellicott Council Member Brian C. Davis of the state-imposed fiscal overseers in Buffalo.

Davis, chairman of the Common Council's Finance Committee, speaks for a lot of politicians when he suggests that everything should be done to "chase them out the door."

By most accounts, that's not going to happen.

Earlier this month, the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority - the board overseeing county government - rejected the county's latest four-year financial plan.

The authority has also opted to remain a "hard board" with expanded powers over county finances.

"There appears to be more risks in the 2007 budget than the 2006 budget," said Authority Executive Director Kenneth Vetter when asked about why the board might remain a hard board.

It's also no secret board members are distrustful of County Executive Joel A. Giambra and are reluctant to return to a "soft" advisory status as long as he's in office.

Giambra, whose term ends Dec. 31, has battled with the board almost endlessly, arguing its actions are personal and political, part of a strategy to make him look bad.

"Nothing," said Giambra when asked what the county control board has done for local taxpayers.

He suggests that both boards - he serves on the city's control board - have failed to exploit their greatest power - the ability to force government consolidations and save millions of dollars.

"The only reason to keep the control boards is if they become an advocate for change," said Giambra.

City Hall offers a far different tale. Some want the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority out of their affairs, pure and simple. They also insist the countdown to its departure has begun.

City officials cite a 2003 state law that created the control board, noting that the active control period will end once the city balances three consecutive budgets.

Two such budgets have already been approved, and officials expect to deliver a third balanced budget - without the need for deficit borrowing - in July.

If that happens, city officials say the control board should transition into advisory status - or "sleep mode" - in the summer of 2008.

But control board officials claim the clock hasn't started ticking. The panel's outside legal expert issued an opinion in late 2005 suggesting that the board's authority won't end until three years after a wage freeze is lifted.

That means the board, even in a best-case scenario where the wage freeze would be lifted later this year, would stay an active control board with all its existing powers until at least 2010.

Control board officials did not return calls to comment on the contrasting interpretations.

"They will perpetuate themselves as long as they can prove there's a problem in Buffalo," said North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr.

City union leaders suggest it's in the control board's interest to keep itself in business as long as possible.

"They've got a lot of hefty paychecks over there," said William C. Travis, who heads the union representing thousands of blue- and white-collar employees.

Eager to find out who's right, City Hall lawyers are researching the law. In the past, Mayor Byron W. Brown has insisted the control board's active oversight role should end after the city balances three consecutive budgets.

The other wild card is the potential for changes in both the composition of the board and in its philosophies.

Five of the nine board members are appointed by the governor, so Democrat Eliot L. Spitzer will have an opportunity to make his mark on the oversight panel when he makes appointments this year.

"We think it could be an opportunity for real change," said Michael F. Drennen, president of the city's white-collar union.

City officials, meanwhile, continue to work toward elimination of the wage freeze the control board imposed in April 2004.

The panel has repeatedly said it's willing to give raises on a union-by-union basis, but only in return for concessions that would save more money than the cost of the pay increases.

"We're going to redouble our efforts in the coming year to lift the wage freeze," said Br o wn, who sits on the control board.

Erie County's control board took a far different tact. It avoided a wage freeze but adopted a hiring freeze.

Vetter says the board wants to spend much of this year trying to get county government to act smarter.

"I don't see a wage freeze in the offing," he said. "Why would we ask people to work smarter and then not pay them a penny more."

Two control boards. Two contrasting philosophies.

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