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DIGGING IN
BUFFALO'S ELECTED LEADERS STILL TOO INTERESTED IN TURF BATTLES

Buffalo is walking along a road that some serious people think is leading to insolvency. And even if those fears are exaggerated, one would think Buffalo's elected leaders might be looking to travel in a new direction. Apparently, that's not the case.

County Comptroller Nancy Naples appeared before the Common Council's Regional Governance Committee the other day with a proposal to consolidate the city comptroller's office with her office. One office that would serve both city and county taxpayers would save Buffalo $1.7 million a year, according to Naples.

For her trouble, Naples was treated like an alien being trying to infect the healthy body politic of Buffalo. In response to her proposal, Ellicott Council Member Brian Davis suggested that officials take a look at the possibilities of the city comptroller's office taking over the county operation. Given that the city has to borrow simply to pay for operating expenses, and its own finance commissioner admits that even if the borrowing is authorized, the city still will need a new source of revenue to operate, the suggestion was ludicrous.

To be fair, Davis' suggestion might simply have been a defensive reaction to what many Council members see as a nonstop drive to kill the city in the name of consolidation. One person at the meeting called it a throw-away line. It is, nevertheless, instructive as to how serious the city's elected officials are in dealing with Buffalo's atrocious fiscal situation.

The city is in terrible, some would say desperate, trouble. It simply is not in a position to take over anything. County Executive Joel Giambra and business leaders said Buffalo's deficit could balloon north of $50 million in just two years. The city disputes that, but what it does not challenge is that without a new source of revenue, the crisis will play itself out again next year.

No one, however, has any idea where that new source of revenue will be coming from. If the state, even with its own fiscal problems, lets the city borrow close to $50 million to pay for new police and fire contracts and operating revenue for the upcoming fiscal year, it certainly won't repeat that largess the following year. That means that city leaders, if they are responsible, will look for major savings through efficiencies. One way is to seek consolidations with the county.

But when Naples suggested one such consolidation, the reaction was: How dare you?

A consolidation of the two comptroller offices would be complex, requiring changes in the City Charter and votes in the city and county. Even then, it might end up in court. And, in fact, the proposal Naples presented was, in some respects, flawed. She misstated the number of audits the city had done over the past few years, for example.

Some of those flaws resulted from the failure of the city comptroller's office to supply Naples with current information, despite requests. Buffalo Comptroller Andrew San-Filippo said Naples is more concerned with simply taking over his office. He said he could make a case that the city could do more audits with less manpower than Naples' office. And so it goes.

The answer to why the city shouldn't take over the county office is obvious: It's the government that appears to be heading for insolvency. At some point, the city's leaders ought to be more concerned about the taxpayer than whose job is saved.

We're not saying that Naples' proposal will do what she says it will do. What we are saying is that for the past quarter-century here, every year has been worse than the last. Isn't it reasonable to expect the city's officeholders to at least study good-faith proposals to help reverse that trend? And if they don't like the ideas they're hearing, it would be nice if they came up with some of their own.

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