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THE BUFFALO Sewer Authority found itself in an overly generous mood the other day. It handed out a tidy raise to the man holding the misleading title of secretary to the general manager.

Far from being a stenographer, the secretary through the years has been a close ally of the mayor, generally viewed as the "mayor's man" in the authority hierarchy. Work results have varied, but typing speed was never an issue. The incumbent is, in the grand tradition, a longtime friend of Mayor Masiello's.

The authority isn't well known, but it has serious responsibilities. It runs a huge $200 million sewage treatment plant and takes care of hundreds of miles of underground pipes. Buffalonians pay for it as part of both tax bills and water bills. However, politics is never forgotten in its machinations.

In the latest news, the authority board has lifted the secretary's salary to $63,712, a hike of $9,099, a big number at a time when others at City Hall may be pushed out of work.

What's wrong? First of all, there is no general manager for the incumbent to be secretary to. Second, such a hefty raise sets a dangerous pattern for the authority's ongoing labor negotiations. Most importantly, it signals a management scheme totally out of kilter for a major agency.

The incumbent secretary says the raise puts him on a par with two other officials who, he says, are tri-captains of the authori
ty in the absence of a general manager.

In other words, no one staff person is in charge of an important agency.

There has been no general manager since Masiello edged David Comerford out of the job in mid-1994. Comerford got the job when the authority abandoned the requirement that the general manager be a licensed professional engineer. Gillman J. Laehy, general manager from 1970 to 1993, was the last professional engineer at the helm.

Laehy and the Engineering Society of New York have rightly challenged the lack of engineering credentials in court. The pending suit may account for the authority's shyness in naming a general manager nearly a year after Comerford's departure.

In sum, the authority has made one mistake of commission and one of omission. It has elevated a political job to unnecessary heights. It has failed to name a professional engineer as general manager so one person with the right credentials is in charge.

In the authority and elsewhere in local governments, engineering credentials have been wrongly shunned for high public-works jobs. Such jobs need strong technical education and experience that most people lack. It could be a matter of public safety.

The sewer authority, which once had as many as five professional engineers on staff, has only one now.

But it does have an overpaid secretary.

Who feels good about that?

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