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Taxes -- raising them, that is -- used to be about the only guaranteed kiss of death in suburban politics.

These days, it has company, though. The new dirty word is regionalism.

With the Nov. 4 election just around the corner, almost no candidate in any town race is talking about the concept that national experts say is vital to reining in suburban sprawl and shoring up Buffalo and its suburbs.

"It's just political cowardice," said Henry L. Taylor of the Center for Applied Public Affairs at the University at Buffalo. "Sad, but not surprising."

And the few who are talking have, for the most part, nothing good to say.

"Buffalo is like a drowning man," said Bill Kindel, a Republican challenging Amherst Supervisor Susan Grelick who says Buffalo will gobble up every town around it if regionalism is approved.

"You want to help him," Kindel said, "but you can't get too close or he'll take you down with him."

All of this is discouraging to Buffalo Mayor Masiello, who has been trying to convince the suburbs they need to work with Buffalo if the region is to rebound.

"It takes two to tango," said Masiello, who has been treking to the suburbs on a regular basis to dispel fears about regionalism. "It's important that, at election time, there is discussion. We all have to be on the same page."

It was just four months ago that Erie County's leaders were anything but silent on the subject of regionalism. National experts presented them advice that boom towns like Lancaster and Clarence were draining the economic life out of Buffalo and its first-ring suburbs.

Since that time, the picture has gotten worse. Recent census data shows a continued decline in the population not only of Buffalo, but also of many first-ring suburbs, including Tonawanda, Cheektowaga and West Seneca. Meanwhile, the newer suburbs like Lancaster, Clarence and towns even
farther out are seeing more growth. Experts at last June's Chautauqua Conference on Regionalism had warned that the domino effect would continue and pushed for a more regional approach to government to prevent the sprawl from worsening.

Local leaders left the conference agreeing in general with the regionalism concept, although not on specifics.

Still, most agreed to tackle the issue -- just not, apparently, on the campaign trail.

One of the few exceptions are the Democratic Party challengers in the Town of Tonawanda. They accuse the all-Republican town board of ignoring the sprawl issue, thus leaving Tonawanda ill prepared to compete with the likes of Lancaster.

The challengers point out that Tonawanda's population dropped another 5 percent between 1990 and 1994 alone -- a bigger percentage drop than even Buffalo's during that time. Yet the declining population, tax base and property values are not discussed by the board.

"They can't see the forest through the trees," Michael Meyers, one of the Democratic challengers, said of the town board.

Amherst's Ms. Grelick also has been mostly mum about regionalism despite goading from Kindel.

Cheektowaga's candidates have been mute on the topic too, despite a drop in the population and the deterioration of neighborhoods that border Buffalo.

Instead, the focus has been on taxes, building a new golf course and allowing Buffalo Crushed Stone to expand its quarry.

Candidates in Clarence have given the topic short shrift, too. And the topic hasn't come up at all in Lancaster's election.

West Seneca Supervisor Paul Clark isn't surprised that this season's crop of town race candidates are focused elsewhere. Aside from the politically risky nature of regionalism, he said, most suburban politicians just are not accustomed to thinking in big-picture terms.

Regionalism is also a nebulous topic, one that is hard for suburban politicians "to get a grasp on," he said.

"There's still a lack of a clear direction on what approach should be taken," said Clark, who is not up for re-election this year.

UB's Taylor says it may be expecting too much of suburban politicians to take on an issue as potentially controversial as regionalism during an election.

He said that privately, though, most local leaders concede some form of regional governance is needed to stem sprawl. For that reason, he says, the topic is not as dead-on-arrival as it appears this election season.

"They will probably come around," he said of the suburb's skittish politicians. "Regionalism is alive and well."

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