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The Buffalo School District, the City of Buffalo and Erie County are on the verge of launching a project the likes of which this area has never seen before. The announced $1 billion Buffalo School District construction and renovation project is yet another brick in the rebuilding of the Western New York economy for years to come.

Gov. George E. Pataki's commitment comes on the footsteps of County Executive Joel A. Giambra's announcement of the county's willingness to collaborate with the city and, more importantly, the Buffalo School District. Giambra's initiative was just the sign Albany needed to show that this area is committed to working together as a community to better the area's largest school district.

The county's commitment of $5 million in taxpayers' money was followed by the city's commitment of similar funds. When combined with state taxpayer funds, they equal nearly $1 billion.

Yet organized labor is attempting to force the hand of elected officials in denying the opportunity for every taxpayer to work on a publicly funded project.

Although taxpayers in this community and throughout the state have contributed to this project through their taxes, some special-interest groups are trying to shut out a large segment of the population. Through a project labor agreement, they want to eliminate open competition and free enterprise and make the school project exclusive to their membership.

You and I experience the quality craftsmanship of merit shop contractors and their employees every time we walk into a grocery store, shopping mall, school or office building. In fact, a majority of all construction in the area is done by merit shop contractors.

However, every time there is a publicly funded construction project, certain special-interest groups look to shut out the majority of the taxpayers and obtain a privately negotiated deal that benefits only them.

Right here in Erie County, merit shop contractors and their employees make up 80 percent of the construction industry. These companies strongly believe in open competition and the philosophy of the free marketplace. Whoever submits the best bid for the highest quality product should be awarded the work.

That's the same philosophy you or I use when we go shopping for a car or a household appliance. We look at all of the options and when it comes to deciding between like products, we go with the best price offered. That is what open competition offers us - the best product for the best price. That is the way you and I conduct our affairs, and that is the way we should expect our government to conduct affairs on our behalf.

By following the American tradition of open competition, the Buffalo School District will have the ability to renovate its buildings and prepare our children to prosper in a new millennium. The district will have the opportunity to provide for more teachers, new computers, new books, better classrooms, better sports equipment and better facilities.

This issue is not about union or nonunion. It is about including everyone in the opportunity to build a better community. It is about including everyone in the opportunity to provide a better future for our children. It is about including everyone in a taxpayer-funded project. It is about including everyone and excluding no one.

SCOTT ZYLKA is Western New York regional director of Associated Builders & Contractors.

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