The difference between success and failure for the financial control board that is headed to Buffalo will depend on just two factors: the powers given to the board and the quality of the people exercising that power. Everything else, including the number of appointments given to the governor or any other politician, is secondary.
The authority of control boards generally has been consistent in New York, where only three other cities and one county have had them imposed. The boards have great influence going forward -- the ability to reject budgets, revenue projections and new labor contracts, for example -- but significantly less when it comes to altering existing contracts.
The proposal for a Buffalo board fits that pattern, which leaves staffing as the crucial issue. Its importance can be gauged by this indisputable fact: Had the right people been in charge of Buffalo over the past 10 or 20 years -- people willing to make hard decisions on how much money to spend and where to spend it -- Buffalo would be in much better shape today to manage its own problems.
The same goes for a control board. Without the right people in charge, the board will lack either the wisdom or the courage -- or both -- to press hard on the right matters. The good news is that members of both political parties are suggesting former State Comptroller and Erie County Executive Edward Regan as a possible chairman of the control board. It would be an inspired selection from just about every perspective, including Regan's reported condition that he would serve only on "a real board with real authority."
Some basic qualities are obviously necessary for service on a control board. They include familiarity with municipal financing, a creative intelligence and a willingness to force a range of difficult actions including budget cuts, service reductions, layoffs and, if necessary -- and only as a last resort -- tax increases.
Achieving that kind of board composition suggests that many of its members, and perhaps most of them, should be from out of this region. Certainly, local perspectives are necessary, and if State Comptroller Alan Hevesi's model is enacted, they should plainly be included among the board's six nonvoting members, and maybe some of the seven voting ones.
But if this board is going to do the necessary job, it will have to crack some eggs. That will be easier to accomplish if members don't have to worry about risking personal relationships, business opportunities or political ambitions. Beyond that, fresh eyes may identify untapped efficiencies more quickly than locals, some of whom got us into this mess in the first place.
The governor and Legislature, who will ultimately decide on the form of any control board, need to act quickly. Unnecessary delay can only make matters worse. But quickly does not mean carelessly. In the decisions they make about the makeup of this board lies Buffalo's best hope for better days.