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Save the control board Spitzer must keep city panel strong despite unwise push to soften its powers

The loss this week of two key Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority members, chairman Brian J. Lipke and Robert G. Wilmers, places an enormous responsibility squarely on the shoulders of Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer. Buffalo's continued fiscal recovery still depends upon its control board, and the control board depends upon firm leadership.

The loss of Lipke and Wilmers, soon after the announced departure of salaried executive director Dorothy A. Johnson, should trouble anyone interested in the financial health of this city. The control board has been under attack not only by unions but, more recently, by Mayor Byron B. Brown and state legislators dependent upon union backing. Spitzer, the state's top Democrat, has committed to strong support of the control board and its positions; he now has to deliver.

Lipke, who succeeded Thomas A. Baker in the chairmanship, and Wilmers, an original and highly qualified member of the financial oversight board, both served well and without pay. Lipke and Baker both provided strong and principled leadership for the board. All deserve the gratitude of this community, far more than they merited the insults and epithets directed their way during their dedicated community service.

Finding a new chairman with an equal amount of spine, and a replacement for Wilmers with both the same will to take tough stands and a degree of the M&T Bank chairman's financial expertise, will be challenging. It will be especially challenging in light of increased local efforts to soften the board, which provided the backing City Hall needed and still needs to stand up to union pressure for a business-as-usual return to a style of city government based on the needs of city workers rather than on the needs of taxed-near-the-limit city residents.

With the Buffalo control board looking ever more endangered, Spitzer earlier this week offered solid encouragement to those who understand that the city still has work to do before it can be considered fiscally stable.

Speaking to The Buffalo News editorial board, Spitzer made clear that, while city officials and union leaders are clamoring for the board to fade away, he needs to see action on real cost savings before he will consider weakening the board. That's just what Buffalo's money-spenders needed to hear: The board is here and it should remain here until conditions change.

Prominently, that means producing cost savings in labor agreements. Those have been hard to come by since the control board was established. The firefighters' union, for example, rejected a proposed new contract hammered out by its leaders, and the teachers' union can hardly say "single health insurance carrier," let alone discuss the possibility.

That's a standoff that taxpayers seemed about to lose over the past several weeks as this area's State Legislature delegation responded to union and City Hall demands for passage of legislation weakening the board to a softer "advisory" role. What was needed was some kind of statement of purpose and perseverance. Spitzer delivered that on Tuesday, strongly indicating he would reject any such bill.

Observing that he didn't give in to political pressure from vested interests to call it a day, the governor instead set out a standard of contract-based savings that city officials, union members and others will have to meet if they want the board to pull back. It's worth remembering that the control board approved a series of wage increases for the police, and it was the governor's office that limited the hikes to a single step increase.

Now, the control board and the governor have delivered an identical message -- they want pay raises for city employees, but there must be savings agreed to by the unions. That's a formula for long-term financial recovery, and any weakening of the control board now will weaken the chances for success. Turnover in board membership makes the challenge tougher, but it is a challenge that still must be met.

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