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AMHERST CHAMBER TO EXPLORE REGIONALISM

Though critics claim Amherst is slow to embrace regionalism, the community's business leaders are about to turn up the heat on Town Hall.

The Amherst Chamber of Commerce is planning a detailed four-month study of the town's business practices, purchasing methods and possible collaborations with other governments, according to a Chamber spokeswoman.

The objective will be to prod Amherst -- which critics say is slow to consolidate itself -- to collaborate within town borders and with other local governments, said Chamber President Colleen C. DiPirro.

"We're not going to make everyone happy (at Town Hall). . . . We're not asking for their approval. However, we want to make this an initiative of inclusion," she said.

Supervisor Susan J. Grelick said she would be eager to work with the Chamber, though she had been given only an outline of the study plan.

"That's ambitious. . . . That's great. . . . I really welcome that," Grelick said, reacting to DiPirro's comments.

Last week, members of a county commission on regional government cooperation privately criticized Amherst officials, describing them as the slowest to provide information and the least interested in consolidating municipal services.

The town has more special taxing districts for street lighting than any other in the state. A recent move to combine the town tax receiver's and clerk's offices has so far cost money, not saved it. Negotiations to merge the recreation and youth departments have stalemated. Members of Erie County's Who Does What? Commission also say they were delayed for nearly two months in attempts to obtain the town's budget.

Chamber officials believe they have a key role to play in bringing about regional changes, because local governments often seem to be unable or unwilling to reform themselves.

"Government worries about offending voters or powerful entrenched interests. . . . Nobody wants to bite the bullet. . . . It's all immediate gratification," DiPirro said.

However, she added: "If you have more private-sector groups and individuals stepping up to the plate, it gives the public officials the ability to do the right thing. . . . We will then go out and insulate (them) from public backlash."

Chamber officials have begun preliminary work for the study, and they are scheduled to announce details as early as this week. A final report is expected in early May.

Initial stages of the study, dubbed "Amherst for Collaboration," call for researchers to ask Town Board members and other officials for their comments and any information that supports their conclusions, DiPirro said.

They also will seek ideas and comments from the public.

How the Chamber's initiative will be received at Town Hall remains to be seen.

"When I first heard about the study, it wasn't as ambitious. . . . It can only help to have an objective input. . . . I welcome their participation," Grelick said.

Council Member William L. Kindel also was not aware of the Chamber's plans, but he said: "That's exciting. Whatever I can do to cooperate 100 percent, they've got it."

Council Member Bob Brewer also welcomed suggestions about how the town can do a better job.

However, he cautioned: "I don't know what type of labor they'll need from the town to do their work. . . . If this is going to place a tremendous amount of burden on town employees, then we will have to take a look at it."

Brewer also expressed concern that the Chamber will meet its goals: "In the past, I haven't seen a strong follow-through. . . . But I would welcome their input."

Chamber officials expect to organize from six to eight task force groups to study issues identified by business community members, the public and town officials. Each task force also will include an auditor or other business accounting expert, according to DiPirro.

Following the final recommendations, the Chamber expects to lobby officials and agencies to implement the study results.

DiPirro listed town business, personnel and insurance practices, budget process, capital improvement programs and central purchasing as likely areas of study.

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