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Collins' plan on parks a setback for taxpayers

In his 2009 budget, Erie County Executive Chris Collins calls for the termination of the historic parks agreement between Erie County, the City of Buffalo and the Olmsted Parks Conservancy. If Collins ends the agreement, he will shortchange the taxpayers and demonstrate the kind of self-interested leadership that has held this community back for decades.

The parks agreement has been in place since 2004 and was the result of a long and thoughtful community conversation about regionalizing services to save money and improve efficiency. Its benefits include:

*Leveraging hundreds of thousands of dollars in private-sector money through charitable donations to the conservancy.

*Mobilizing hundreds of volunteers to aid the conservancy.

*Accessing state funds for social-service work programs in collaboration with AFSCME 1095.

The parks agreement has had its faults. During the first years, it caused considerable confusion among Little Leagues and park users. I received countless calls from constituents who had been batted between the city, the county and the conservancy, only to find that no one would take responsibility for fixing problems.

But after a few summers of experience and new parks leadership at the city, the county and the conservancy, park users saw less finger-pointing, more teamwork and, while still not perfect, a much improved park experience.

But now, just when the pieces are coming together, the county executive has made a unilateral decision to ignore the benefits and "throw the baby out with the bath water." No one would suggest that Como Park be returned to Lancaster or that Chestnut Ridge be funded solely by Orchard Park taxpayers. Buffalo's parks are no different.

In fact, because of the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted, they are among the most famous parks in the country and have the potential to play a critical role in the revitalization of our entire region.

The parks agreement was an important step forward because it not only sought to save taxpayer dollars through much needed cooperation, but also because it acknowledged Buffalo's Olmsted Parks as a truly regional asset.

If the county executive really wants to achieve overall cost savings to the taxpayer, abandoning proven regional solutions like the parks agreement is not the way to go. Just the opposite. We should be looking for more regional efficiencies, like the merging of our 30 tax assessment offices, which Comptroller Mark Poloncarz has shown would save between $2.6 million and $4.4 million.

Dissolving the parks agreement and shifting costs from county taxpayers to city taxpayers is no real cost savings at all; in fact it is sure to increase costs. Unfortunately, the county executive is thinking too narrowly and rejecting regional efficiencies precisely when the economic realities of our time require us to make them work.

Maria Whyte is majority leader of the Erie County Legislature.

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