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On tax cuts, canal stones and casinos

I am ecstatic about getting a property tax rebate from Albany. But don't kid yourself about tax cuts in this state budget.

A huge chunk of local taxes are traceable to laws made in Albany. The election-year gifts make lawmakers look like heroes, but the givebacks are mere stocking stuffers. Albany hasn't touched the big-ticket items that cripple county governments and are largely behind the closing of parks, the sidelining of senior vans and the shutting of library doors.

"A significant part of the blame [for high local taxes] lies with Albany," said Bob Ward of the state's Business Council.

If Albany wanted to do us a favor, it would shave a county Medicaid (public health) bill that rose $72 million the past seven years. Or reform rules that pump up costs on public construction projects. Or cut pension benefits that added $46 million in recent years to the county tax load.

Changing any of that, of course, means biting the special-interest hands that feed politicians come campaign time. It's easier for the Silvers, Brunos, Tokaszes, Volkers, Hoyts, Schimmingers and the rest to distract folks with election-year baubles than to give us the big gift of real reform.

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I thought of Ross Giese on Thursday as they placed the ceremonial first canal stone in the historic Commercial Slip.

It was Giese, a UB geologist, who several years ago exploded the state's "exploding stones" theory. State bureaucrats used it to justify their refusal to excavate and rewater the historic canal terminus. Supposedly the unearthed canal stones would break apart in Buffalo's harsh winters.

Giese went to the site, chipped off a piece of canal stone and analyzed it. It was Onondaga limestone -- hard enough to withstand hundreds of Buffalo winters. The state was exposed and the project changed to save history.

"I've been a geologist for more than 30 years," said Giese, in noting his initial skepticism. "I have yet to see a rock explode."

Ross, this ceremonial canal stone is for you.

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The more you find out, the worse the casino deal gets.

We saw another reason why this week. The Senecas want our pauper city to spend $6 million on sewers, signs and better roads around its proposed downtown casino. There may not be much we can do about it.

The 2001 tribal-state compact says that the city's meager cut of the casino take is partly reimbursement for "costs incurred in connection with services provided to [the casino]." Like, say, fixing the roads around it.

It's another reminder of how little say the public had in so big a deal. George Pataki signed the Indian casino pact and lawmakers OK'd it. Albany gets a nice cut of the gambling take, the Senecas rake in the winner's share and the city slowly realizes it got the short end.

Now the guy with the short stack has to fix roads for the high roller. Talk about busted.

* * *

The more I see, the more Joe Golombek looks like the rare politician who puts principles ahead of self-preservation.

The city lawmaker led the fight four years ago to downsize the Council. He ticked off Democratic bosses two years ago by taking on incumbent Sam Hoyt in an Assembly primary, and nearly winning. He recently backed civic leader Kevin Gaughan's push for the State Senate over party favorite Marc Coppola. Now he supports long shot Tom Suozzi's primary challenge to golden boy Eliot Spitzer for governor.

Every choice showed guts and independence -- qualities that, sadly, hurt more than help in our petrified political culture.

"It's why I'll probably never get anywhere," Golombek conceded. "But I don't believe most elected officials have much interest in reforming the system. It's mostly just wink-wink."


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