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HEVESI BANKS ON COMPROMISE TO MAKE CONTROL BOARD WORK
GOAL IS TO CUT PETTY POLITICS, FIND SOLUTIONS

Raising taxes. Laying off employees. Merging city and county services.

There's nothing magical about how a state control board would bring stability to Buffalo's finances.

The board, in fact, would use many of the same tools local officials use while balancing their budgets.

So what's the difference?

"Everyone's at the table," State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi said during a visit to Buffalo on Wednesday. "These things work because everyone's in the room."

By everyone, Hevesi means every state, city and county official with the power and pocketbook to play a role in Buffalo's fiscal recovery.

The goal is to remove petty politics from the process by bringing together the players who can best deliver a solution for the city and its schools.

"The point is to pick people who can deliver," Hevesi said during a meeting of reporters and editors at The Buffalo News. "The idea is to put those people at the same table."

In Buffalo's case, the table seats seven and the guest list reads like a Who's Who of local politics, including Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, County Executive Joel A. Giambra and Gov. George E. Pataki.

The guest list also includes Hevesi, acting City Comptroller Andrew SanFilippo and the leaders of both the Assembly and the State Senate. Most, if not all, will probably name representatives to the board, but Hevesi doesn't expect that to diminish the likelihood of success.

In the end, he said, each of those leaders will have to compromise for the good of Buffalo or risk being portrayed as part of the problem.

What that might mean, for example, is Giambra sharing more of the county's sales tax revenue with Buffalo. Or Masiello agreeing to more city-county consolidations.

Those are steps Masiello and Giambra could take on their own. But they haven't, and there's no indication they're even close to an agreement on how to help the city.

By putting both of them on Buffalo's Oversight and Recovery Board and relying on the state for upfront funding, Hevesi thinks the political gridlock may end.

State officials claim the same strategy worked in New York City, Yonkers and more recently Troy, the only other New York cities to experience a financial control board.

In each case, they said, the boards brought the various political interests together to make the tough decisions.

"It's a structure that works," Hevesi said.

To succeed, Buffalo's new control board also needs to engage the city's public employee unions. Hevesi thinks the way to do that is give them a reason to be part of the solution.

Control boards don't have the authority to reopen labor contracts, but they do have the power to freeze future wage increases and lay off employees. That alone may bring the unions back to the table.

"The Oversight and Recovery Board is not itself the solution to Buffalo's problems," Hevesi said. "The board is a vehicle to bring together all those in a position to take action so they can work together to create a multiyear program."

Though the board does not have the power to nullify union contracts, it does have other tools at its disposal.

Hevesi said it's premature to speculate on what budget-stabilizing measures might be used, but they might range from re-engineering city services to creating new economic development strategies to identifying new revenue streams.

Hevesi, for example, said he's "sympathetic" to the fact that Buffalo receives a smaller share of sales tax revenue from Erie County than some comparable cities do from their counties, but he stopped short of calling on the county to increase its contribution. He said those decisions have to be reviewed by the control board.

If there was one recurring message from Hevesi during his daylong visit to Buffalo, it was this: Masiello and Giambra are the key players in bringing all the sides together to help the city and its schools.

The comptroller summed it up best when he suggested that "Buffalo and Erie County possess the resources to solve these fiscal problems."

The question is whether they will.

"A new approach must be taken to restore fiscal integrity," Hevesi said. "The city will not succeed if its future contains nothing but continuing budgets cuts, layoffs and hardship."

News Staff Reporter Brian Meyer contributed to this report.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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