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Editorial: A start on the Water Authority

A couple of Western New York’s state legislators have stepped up to stem the flow of patronage goodies at the Erie County Water Authority. It’s a start, but it’s only that.

Curbing the use of exorbitant “golden parachutes” is certainly a worthy goal, but the state can’t stop there. It needs to abolish the authority and fold its responsibilities into county government.

The latest official to sign on to the preliminary effort is State Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst, who has sponsored legislation to curb the use of golden parachutes at all of the state’s public authorities. “Six-figure golden parachutes that guarantee a payout of more than double an employee’s salary are a wasteful use of public resources,” he observed.

He’s right. Who, besides the Water Authority’s commissioners, could argue?

A similar bill authored by Assemblywoman Monica P. Wallace, D-Lancaster, is awaiting introduction. The measures would limit such payments to either 10 weeks or three months of salary, a far cry from the ludicrous $400,000 that Republican-controlled commissioners provided to the Water Authority’s Earl J. Jann Jr. in case he was fired as Democrats gained influence.

But the problem of the golden parachute is only a symptom of the larger issue of patronage at the Water Authority. It infects the entire operation, reaching fever pitch when unqualified candidates such as Jann are given authority over a critical agency with a $73 million budget.

Jann is a former town supervisor whose only relevant experience was service as an authority commissioner. But he is also a reliable Republican donor. He would have been laughed out of the HR office had he applied for this job in the private sector.

This is raw politics, which has been endemic to the Water Authority, and practiced by both Democrats and Republicans. It enraged County Legislator Thomas A. Loughran of Amherst, a Democrat who has suggested naming a panel of experts to determine the possibility of ending the authority’s status as an independent agency and making in a department of county government. He also introduced a measure to stall, by 90 days, the naming of a new Water Authority commissioner by his own party, which now controls the Erie County Legislature.

Unfortunately, neither Wallace’s proposal nor Ranzenhofer’s would affect Jann’s contract if it becomes law. But it would put an end to overly generous payoff gifts for politically-chosen executives. It would be useful going forward.

If Ranzenhofer and Wallace really want to make a difference on this issue, they should push to abolish the Water Authority altogether, shutting off the political patronage spigot. That would introduce real professionalism into the county water service.

But this can’t be another one of those instances in which Albany does the least amount possible, declares itself pure and then goes back to business as usual. It’s the whole business model that needs to change at the Water Authority and it’s the state’s responsibility to make it happen.

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