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Protect the conservancy Olmsted stewardship working well, merits safeguarding by city and county

Even if it's true that the deal handing the City of Buffalo's 180 public parks, playgrounds and recreational facilities over to Erie County has been a bust, the creation of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy has been a boon. It cannot be allowed to suffer in any way as the city and the county work out the future of their 2004 deal.

As part of his efforts to hold the line on spending, County Executive Chris Collins has proposed an end to what was supposed to have been a 15-year pact that turned the city's park maintenance duties, and $1.8 million a year in city funds, over to the county.

Collins says the county has been losing $2 million a year on the deal and, continuing to sound more like an outside critic than the sitting chief executive, also says that the county has done a poor job of park maintenance to boot.

"The city will take better care of their parks than we ever could have," Collins told The Buffalo News editorial board last week.

Doing a better job, though, is likely to involve more spending. City officials say it might take three times the current $1.8 million payment to staff up, buy equipment and not only do what the county has been doing, but also what the county should have been doing in terms of everything from mowing the grass to making the playgrounds safe.

The hope that the consolidation of the city's park system under the county's umbrella would be a first step in a march to more, and more efficient, regional government was never realized. That's sad but, unless towns and villages in the Buffalo suburbs were also enticed into handing over their own parks to the county's care, it would be increasingly difficult to justify billing taxpayers throughout the county to maintain parks mostly used by Buffalo residents.

And the chances of the 'burbs giving up their parks, and the signs with their mayors' names on them, are slim.

That despite the fact that a thriving Buffalo city park system, like a healthy city generally, is a benefit to all the surrounding constituencies. A rotting core never serves the interest of the outlying communities.

Thus it was reassuring to hear Collins promise that the county's exit from the park business would not mean the end of the Olmsted Conservancy and its successful care of the city's six major parks -- including Delaware Park, South Park and Front Park -- and many parkways and circles.

"We will protect Olmsted," Collins said, "one way or another."

As an independent entity, the conservancy is eligible for many foundation and private grants that neither the city nor the county is likely to receive. Its management is also exclusively focused on the maintenance and improvement of its signature properties, never forced to strike a balance between the needs of those parks and those of the many other services provided by city and county government.

The opposite of regionalism, perhaps, but it works.

The Olmsted Conservancy also has drafted an ambitious, and inspiring, $428 million Plan for the 21st Century, further upgrading the city's most important public spaces and making them a jewel that will improve the quality of life for all of those who live in the area -- not only in the City of Buffalo.

That's why Collins must be held to his promise, no matter who has responsibility for most of the city's parks, that the Olmsted Conservancy will not be left in the lurch.

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