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City lobbyist to seek control board's demise

With the wage freeze apparently ready to become history, City Hall can now focus its sights on the ultimate target -- making sure the control board doesn't continue to call the shots beyond the next 12 months.

That's one key reason why Mayor Byron W. Brown has hired a veteran Albany lobbyist.

William Y. Crowell, a lawyer with two decades of experience lobbying state government, will help to try to convince the governor and State Legislature that "ambiguities" in the law that created the control board need to be resolved.

Crowell started working for the city this month and will be paid a total of $10,000 through December. "We need a lawyer in the room and on the ground in Albany," Janet Penksa, Brown's chief fiscal adviser, said Wednesday, adding that Crowell also will deal with other pressing issues.

The city's hiring of Crowell, one of Albany's most-respected lobbyists, is seen as one more sign that it is working aggressively to reduce the board's clout by turning it into a "soft" advisory-only panel as soon as possible.

"Our effort continues," Brown said Wednesday. "I really believe that as of July 1 of this year, the control board should be dormant."

But the mayor said that based on input he has received from Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, the city is revising its strategy and is now aiming to make sure the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority moves into an advisory mode July 1, 2008.

One major issue that Crowell will help the city fight in Albany involves how much longer the board must remain in active mode.

At the core of the city's argument for a soft control board is the 2003 law creating the board and the city's contention that a "hard" control period ends once City Hall balances three consecutive budgets. Two such budgets already have been approved, and officials have approved a third balanced budget that takes effect in July.

But some control board officials think the clock just started ticking. The panel's outside legal expert issued an opinion in late 2005 suggesting the board's hands-on authority won't end until three years after the wage freeze is lifted.

In addition, the control board took part in selling bonds for the city this year -- an action that Brown claimed was launched without his input. The board's involvement in the sale further muddies the waters as to when the clock toward dormancy starts ticking.

Based on these facts, some could argue that the control board would stay an active panel with all its existing powers until at least July 2010.

Last month, Brown asked the governor to place the control board in a dormant state. Spitzer said that while he supports lifting the wage freeze, he is not ready to nudge the board into sleep mode just yet.

"Until the city and its public employee unions have reached accord on fair and affordable long-term contracts, the continued discipline of [control board] oversight is necessary to ensure the continuing improvement in the city's fiscal condition," he said.

One of the control board's members echoed those sentiments Wednesday.

"It's too early to say we're out of fiscal crisis," said the Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse, secretary-treasurer of the board. "The long-term fiscal health of the city is paramount."

He pointed to escalating health insurance costs and other pressures that could cause a budget crisis. And like Spitzer, he suggested that until the city and its school district reach multiyear contract settlements with unions, talk of putting the panel into a dormant state is premature.

"There is still a lot of work to be done," he said.

Union leaders and city officials don't buy it. They insist that if there ever really was the need for an oversight panel controlling the purse strings, it's gone.

"I don't see any need for a control board," said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore. "If there's a problem, it could come out of dormancy. It could come out of its cocoon."

Common Council President David A. Franczyk agreed, saying he sees no downside to starting the soft control board era as soon as possible.

"They've accomplished their mission. Why hang around just to hang around?" Franczyk asked. "Once a bureaucracy develops, it never wants to go away. That's the nature of institutions."

Ultimately, it may be Spitzer who decides the control board's fate. As governor, Spitzer appoints five of the board's nine members, and three of those expire later this month.

A fourth seat, held by Wade Norwood and recommended by the state comptroller, also is up this summer. On top of that, County Executive Joel A. Giambra will leave the control board when he leaves office at year's end. His replacement could be a Democrat.

Those five votes, when combined with Brown, already a board member, could represent a new majority with the clout to significantly loosen the board's reins.

The heads of 20 municipal unions have sent a letter to Spitzer urging him to appoint former Common Council President George K. Arthur to the control board. Arthur served on the Council for 26 years and had close ties to unions during a political career that spanned four decades, beginning on the old Erie County Board of Supervisors in 1963. He retired from the Council in 1995.

News Staff Reporter Phil Fairbanks contributed to this report.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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