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Throughout Erie County's fiscal crisis, there's one thing we haven't seen much of: leadership by example.

Now Joel Giambra has the perfect opportunity to step up -- or down.

When raising the prospect of resignations last weekend, the county executive typically was talking about someone else's.

But blaming Assemblyman Paul Tokasz or State Sen. Dale Volker for how the state budget treated the county misses the bigger point: The person most responsible for Erie County's plight doesn't sit in Albany, he sits in the Rath Building.

If the county executive thinks resignations are in order, he should be first in line. Why? Because the Highway Department scandal illustrated not only hands-off management, but eyes-closed management. The hiring of friends and relatives turned the county payroll into a grant fund for the favored.

The channeling of business to a company run by a political pal cost taxpayers an extra half-million dollars for office furnishings. He spent more time trying to protect the job of his highly paid chauffeur and patronage czar than protecting vital county services.

And that's just the small stuff.

He has blown through the $85 million surplus left by the Gorski administration, as well as the $211 million in free money inherited from the national tobacco settlement. And what does the county have to show for it?

Well, let's see: thousands of laid-off workers, closed parks, closed boat launches, closed auto bureaus, closed recreation facilities, fewer school nurses, reduced sheriff's patrols -- and the national embarrassment of a toilet paper company donating supplies to clean up the mess.

But in typical Giambra fashion, he tries to deflect blame. How much of the responsibility for the fiscal crisis does he bear?

"A very small percentage," he said.

Instead, he pointed to the fact many counties have had to exhaust reserve funds to pay for rising Medicaid and pension costs. He said state officials added too many Medicaid benefits and are in the pockets of labor unions.

To a degree, he's right. But the fact remains that no other county faces the calamity we're dealing with because other counties prudently raised revenues to deal with reality.

Instead, Giambra took the politically easy route of cutting taxes and going through reserves like a drug addict through crack. He says the county's problems stem from an extra $82 million in Medicaid costs and $47 million in pension costs.

What he doesn't say is that this $129 million is dwarfed by the $346 million the county could have used if it had just kept property taxes at the same level as in 1998, before he initiated a tax-cutting war when running against Dennis Gorski.

He didn't mess up alone. The Legislature was a willing accomplice as the county took the revenue plunge. But Giambra was the guy standing under the ledge hollering "Jump!" Now that county services are, in effect, splattered all over the sidewalk, he's looking around for someone to blame.

Giambra has unquestionably done some good things, like taking over Buffalo parks and kicking in money to jump-start the city schools renovation project. He has also spurred talk about merging governments.

But overall, he has proven himself the worst manager since Casey Stengel in 1962. And at least the leader of the hapless New York Mets was lovable. Giambra can't even claim that, having alienated members of both parties, here and in Albany. He claims not to care.

"Being a nice-guy diplomat carved a $129 million hole in my budget," he said.

No, foolishly cutting taxes, larding the payroll and overpaying for furniture did that. And it's Volker and Tokasz who should step down? Give me a break.

In fact, give us all a break.


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