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Giambra's message still matters

The messenger self-destructed. The message remains.

The message is more vital today than it was when Joel Giambra touted it 10 years ago.

We need to erase village/town/city boundaries that artificially divide us. We need to peel off layers of government that cost us money and cloud our vision. We need to think and act as one region, all of us in this together, instead of city versus suburbs, town versus town.

The city and county have nursemaid financial control boards. The recent $130 million back-pay court ruling for city workers erases the illusion of Buffalo's financial health. Albany's $4 billion budget hole presumably ends extra-aid transfusions to Buffalo. Town and school taxes inflate. Folks keep leaving.

Neither of our key politicians is long on vision. Byron Brown is a between-the-lines mayor. County executive-elect Chris Collins is not pushing a regional agenda. The age of small-think is again upon us, just when we need a bigger picture. Giambra, who leaves office in five weeks, drained the county's surplus and was politically skewered on his scorched-earth, red-budget sword. But he rose to office on a vision of all-for-one metropolitan government. It is no coincidence that chugging engine Charlotte, N.C., encompasses 242 square miles, six times larger than idled caboose Buffalo -- whose regional reach does not extend beyond Kenmore Avenue.

There is more that ails us than 45 separate governments inside one county. Our problems go beyond an overlapping collection of politicians, police departments, school districts and highway crews. We suffer from worse than a half-dozen competing development agencies shuffling pieces on the same chessboard. But unlike tax-inflating Albany laws or job-killing regulations, these are things we can do something about.

Giambra tried. It seemed he might succeed, when then-mayor Tony Masiello signed on to metro government and a city/county police merger. But blow-with-the-wind Masiello shifted and the moment passed.

"We were almost there," lamented Giambra recently, from his 16th floor office. "Masiello pulled out the plug."

Looming in his office window is the tower of City Hall. The two government centers, City Hall and the Rath Building, are within blocks of each other -- delivering the same services to many of the same people. The county Sheriff's Office is a short downtown walk from Buffalo police headquarters. "If these were private corporations, one of them would have bought out the other a long time ago," Giambra said. "When will this community realize we are in crisis, and we need solutions beyond throwing more money at the problem?"

I think that people realize how deep the hole is. The problem is our politicians. The system works fine for our hundreds of elected officials -- town supervisors, board members, legislators, trustees, police chiefs and school superintendents. Absent a reformer, nothing changes.

"None of these people is willing to give up their power," Giambra said. "Meanwhile, the county is positioned to deliver services to the region."

Civic leader Kevin Gaughan works the same ground as Giambra, and in some ways better. But his power is limited by the lack of a political office.

As a parting shot, Giambra is taking the fight to the governor. He wants Eliot Spitzer to pressure towns into erasing borders by cutting their state aid.

"The change has to come from the top down, just like it has in other places," said Giambra, citing the Toronto model. "You have to turn off the spigot."

Maybe. But political blunders cost Spitzer much of his muscle. His state-wide consolidation commission strikes me as just another gesture. We know what we need to do. What we need is somebody to do it.


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