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IN AMHERST, A GO-IT-ALONE STANCE TOP SUBURB RESISTS ALL-OUT PARTICIPATION

A $48 million prize awaits taxpayers.

All that's needed is for governments in Erie County to pull together and rule more wisely, a commission of Buffalo's top business leaders reported this week.

But while commission members prepare to sell the public on their 17 money-saving ideas, many believe the opposition will come from the suburbs, especially Amherst.

That's because Buffalo's premier suburb, now the region's commercial hub, still clings to small-town attitudes, viewing itself as a success that doesn't want to get dragged down by its poorer neighbors, critics say. Even some town officials agree.

"I think it's the culture. This goes back a long way," said Democratic Amherst Council Member Daniel J. Ward. "The feeling is, we can do it better ourselves. . . . We're not regional players."

According to Republican pollster Barry Zeplowitz, the town has a "very inward focus."

"Surveys (of residents) have always found a generally high level of satisfaction with the way things are going," he said.

In fact, Amherst can't even seem to consolidate successfully within its own borders: The town has more special taxing districts for street lighting than any other in the state.

A recent move to combine its tax receiver's and clerk's offices has so far cost money, not saved any. And negotiations to merge the town's recreation and youth departments have stalemated.

What's more, Amherst's highly successful industrial development agency has stood firm in rejecting repeated overtures from neighboring communities, as well as many county and state officials, to work with a regional development agency.

The go-it-alone attitude that Amherst so proudly displays is what members of the county's Who Does What? Commission said they encountered when their research on the government operations study took them to the prosperous northern suburb.

The commission's frustration with Amherst, in fact, seems to be creating a rift between Amherst Supervisor Susan J. Grelick, a Democrat, and Republican County Executive Joel A. Giambra.

"The supervisor in Amherst has not been as aggressive as other supervisors, or willing to engage the county in discussions about change," Giambra said. "It all boils down to leadership. Where's the leadership?"

The county executive, Grelick responded, has never talked to her about regional issues.

"He's never contacted me. In fact, when he got elected, I called him and asked him to be a part of his transition. He never got back to me," she said.

Privately, commission members said Amherst officials were the slowest to provide information, taking weeks at a time.

A committee studying buying practices was daunted to find that Amherst has no centralized purchasing and that town officials weren't ready to discuss it. Instead, town officials said they were still studying the benefits of pooling purchases of such items as paper and ballpoint pens.

Just securing a copy of the town budget proved to be a two-month challenge for the commission. A staff member finally had to write a personal check for $27 to persuade town officials to turn over a copy of the Amherst spending plan.

"When we first went to Amherst, we didn't get the open door that we had received at some of the other towns, and it took a while ultimately to get that door open," said P. David Campbell, president of Dunlop Tire Corp., who headed the commission's committee on management practices.

Defending Amherst's role

Grelick denied her town was anything but cooperative with the Who Does What? Commission.

"I don't understand where that is coming from," she said. "I think that is totally false. I think it was a communication problem. . . . I think there's been total cooperation from the town. (Commission members) were on a different time line. They wanted to get the report published."

Grelick thinks Amherst is being made a victim of its own success.

"Amherst is often blamed for our success by others in the region who cry for us to dissolve our agencies, disband our (industrial development agency), privatize our services and disassociate ourselves from some of our finest achievements. That isn't the region's best road for tomorrow," the supervisor said.

Regionalism experts say it's not surprising for a wealthy community like Amherst to be hesitant to take a lead role in the discussion.

"Haves" such as Amherst usually resist surrendering their perceived advantages to help "have-nots," supporters of regionalism say.

"Amherst is the understudy that has taken over the lead role in Western New York. . . . It now has the leading tax base . . . the most capital," said regionalism advocate Kevin Gaughan. "But that's no excuse for their resistance."

Because Amherst has emerged as a powerhouse, regionalism supporters fear that efforts to streamline governments in Erie County will have a tough time succeeding without the town, Gaughan and others said.

"People need to understand this (regionalism effort) is a serious item. There's not an underlying agenda on anything. Everybody's going to have to participate, and if they don't, they're going to have to answer why," Campbell said.

Seeking further progress

In Grelick's view, Amherst already is at the forefront of the regionalism movement.

She noted that the town is a commercial hub, creating jobs that attract workers from throughout Erie County. About 80 percent of the jobs lured by the Amherst Industrial Development Agency are held by people who don't live in Amherst, she maintains.

Grelick also cites Amherst's history of working successfully with neighboring governments to address border issues, and she lists efforts to redevelop University Plaza on Main Street near Kenmore Avenue and improve traffic on Transit Road, among others.

In contrast to this border-mending, the Who Does What? Commission suggests that municipal governments go much further, forming groups to jointly buy insurance, manage school buildings and other noninstructional services, establish a centralized purchasing consortium, and assess and collect property taxes.

Grelick said she had not yet read the report, but based on what she heard, she praised a number of the commission's recommendations -- especially one calling for local governments to pool their investment funds. Other suggestions need to be studied, she said.

She also defends telling the commission that the town wasn't ready to meet to discuss its purchasing practices.

"We really have to get our internal house in order before we begin considering getting together with other municipalities," she explained.

As an example, Grelick noted that, when she took office, the town's building maintenance employees were not working out of the building department. Now they are.

And while other Amherst officials oppose consolidating the town's crazy quilt of street lighting districts, Grelick supports the idea.

As it stands, the 300 lighting districts -- some with as few as five houses -- are each assessed at a separate rate, and property owners pay only for the lights in their immediate neighborhood.

As a result, Amherst maintains the largest number of special taxing districts in the county. Erie County has a total of about 1,000 taxing units covering such services as lighting, sewers and garbage removal; nearly 400 of them are in Amherst, which has about 10 percent of the county's population.

Those opposing a consolidation include Amherst Republican Councilman Bill Kindel, who lives on a street with no lights and therefore pays no tax. Kindel argues that Amherst residents in one district shouldn't have to pay for lights in other districts.

Bailing out Buffalo?

To some, the lights are a symbol of Amherst's attitude toward regionalism.

Amherst officials who grapple with the lighting issue often have expressed concerns that regionalism means bailing out Buffalo -- a city that suburban officials often blame for its own problems.

"If you are looking to go into partnership with someone, you are looking for competency," Kindel said. "There is a perception the City of Buffalo doesn't exhibit a high level of professionalism."

But Giambra has attempted to push the debate beyond city versus suburbs, instead laying out a plan aimed at benefiting the entire region. In fact, many of the 17 commission recommendations focus on cooperation among suburbs, not just on issues affecting Buffalo.

And some who have watched Amherst's property values decline in recent years now believe the town's fate hangs on the success of Buffalo and the rest of the region.

Colleen C. DiPirro, president of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, said some might consider town leaders "smug," but she feels business leaders and many town residents appear to be more open.

"We realize that, as successful as Amherst is, we cannot be isolated," DiPirro said. "We have an obligation to Buffalo as our urban core and to the entire region. Any time we can enhance the region by sharing resources or consolidating and collaborating components, it's to the benefit of the entire region."

Gaughan, who has been credited with pushing regionalism in Western New York, agreed.

He believes Amherst suffers from "typical turf protectionism" and the satisfaction among residents who believe things will always be fine in the town.

"Amherst is doing well, but that is a short-term prognosis for them to cling to without a vibrant, successful City of Buffalo," he said.

"The challenge is, how do you create incentives for both successful and possibly less successful towns to see the wisdom of supporting city investment?" he said. "In the long term, Amherst's stake will depend on Buffalo's success. There's no question about that."

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