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Higgins speaks truth to power

It is the voice of urgency.

It is the voice of desperation, of frustration and -- rarest of all around here -- of leadership.

This is the voice raised when a once-in-a-lifetime chance is slipping by, when a region crying for help doesn't scream when a rescue ship floats past.

For months, Rep. Brian Higgins was a voice in the wilderness, a one-man army. Reinforcements slowly are coming, with Joel Giambra signing on and Sen. Chuck Schumer jumping in. But Higgins wonders why, in the fight of a lifetime, his voice is raised while others are silent.

We have in our back yard a big resource that only helps us a little. The hydropower of Niagara Falls brought the state Power Authority $537 million in profits last year. About five dozen county businesses get cheap power. Other than that, we don't get much. We now have a chance to get more.

We ought to get more help from our own natural resource. Instead, according to the state comptroller, hydropower profit from our waterfall erases Power Authority losses at downstate plants and cuts power costs in New York City's subways and housing projects.

Higgins, the congressman from South Buffalo, is naming names. Topping his list is the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the region's premier business group. Also absent are state legislators Paul Tokasz, Dale Volker, Robin Schimminger, Jim Hayes, Sandra Lee Wirth, Mary Lou Rath and Bill Stachowski.

Higgins is breaking the unwritten rule of go-along-to-get-along that controls most of our public officials. He doesn't care whom he embarrasses or what enemies he makes. What is at stake matters more than red faces and bruised egos.

The Power Authority's 50-year licensing deal is about to run out. It wants to re-up for another 50 years. Higgins wants to keep the cheap power we get, plus get $10 million a year to pump into our waterfront. The $10 million isn't much, considering the $1 billion deal Niagara County cut with the Power Authority, and the huge profits the authority makes from our natural resource.

"We've got a couple of big things that can help us," Higgins said. "This is one of them."

It is no slam dunk. The Power Authority scared into line local companies already getting cheap power by suggesting they could lose it. It says it will raise customer rates if it has to fork over $10 million a year -- as if folks living in shadow of the falls should pay higher prices, instead of New York City losing its sweetheart deal.

"The only risk we run," Higgins said, "is by doing nothing."

Yet doing little seems to be what the Partnership and others want. My sense is the Partnership is protecting its own. It fears that pushing for a better deal risks the cheap power that local companies -- many of them Partnership members -- already get.

Higgins thinks it goes beyond that. He thinks the Partnership is too cozy with the Power Authority, which is a member (paying $25,000 annual dues) of the Partnership's "Leadership Circle." Lou Ciminelli, until recently the chairman of the Power Authority board, is on the Partnership's executive committee.

"That's why the Partnership is silent on this," Higgins said.

Partnership President Andrew Rudnick says it ain't so.

"If [Higgins] thinks we can be bought for $25,000, he's naive," Rudnick countered. "Maybe for $25 million, but not $25,000. Our position on relicensing precedes the [Power Authority] commitment of $25,000 to the Partnership. . . . We've been working on making more companies eligible for [cheap] power for years."

I don't think the Partnership has been bought off, so much as scared off by Power Authority threats to take away our cheap power. But I don't blame Higgins for wondering why, in the fight of our lives, so many are missing in action.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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