A key to the success of control boards is that, to be effective, they need partners in the government they are overseeing. In Erie County, the control board has opponents. That has meant constant conflict, with board members battling both the county executive and the Legislature.
The most recent example occurred last week, when the control board rejected the county's 2007 budget and its four-year plan, labeling them out of balance. As a result, the control board will remain "hard," with greater oversight of county finances. The executive branch complained, through Budget Director James Hartman, who basically said the decision was illegitimate.
Any control board should expect some resistance from the elected officials whose work the board was appointed to oversee. But taxpayers also should expect a relationship that, overall, is cooperative enough to lead to real solutions. County legislators and officials miss the point that it was their work, and their decisions, that created the need for a control board in the first place -- and that a control board is a response to a clearly demonstrated need for change.
Taxpayers get that. The last County Legislature election, in 2005, was all about voter anger. Despite a political culture that almost ensures the re-election of incumbents, nine newcomers were elected to the 15-member Legislature; seven incumbents didn't run, and two who did were defeated. But the new lawmakers promptly ignored that anger. The Legislature's performance remains disappointing.
If the county really thinks that control board actions are either shaped or limited by politics, as some have said, it should challenge the board's conclusions on the budget in court. In the meantime, board member Stanley Keysa makes a valid point about county taxes. "There is a sense on the part of the administration that the taxes here are not high enough," Keysa said just before the board's unanimous vote on the budget.
County leaders point out that the tax rate here is lower than in other counties, but the fact is that the county remains in economic doldrums and one of the reasons is the cost of government. That's not solely a county issue, but that doesn't mean that more couldn't be done to lower costs. Elected officials ignore that issue.
Indeed, one of the reasons county finances became so chaotic stems from the red budget/green budget fiasco of 2004, which precipitated the refusal of county officials, in both the Legislature and executive offices, to come to grips with the expensive problem of patronage.
The best possible answer to such problems again lies in the hand of voters and of those who are considering whether to run in this year's executive and Legislature races. There is an example to follow.
When a control board was created in New York City in the mid-1970s, Mayor Abe Beame refused to cooperate. He wanted nothing to do with it. The consequence was the election of a pro-reform mayor, Edward Koch, whose leadership led the city out of the financial wilderness much more quickly than anyone expected.
Erie County's problems are nothing like New York's were, but county officials are nonetheless doing everything they can to make this year's elections a referendum on the need for greater efficiency. That would be useful for county taxpayers, as long as an Ed Koch comes to the party.