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Politics again trumps qualifications

Sal LoTempio thought it was a real job opening. LoTempio heard that one of the three Water Authority commissioner slots was coming vacant. He thought his 38 years of experience with the Buffalo Sewer Authority -- where he rose to plant superintendent -- might count for something. So the recent retiree put in an application and hoped for the best.

LoTempio instead found out the worst: The authority remains a patronage pit where the county's political bosses -- Democrat Len Lenihan and Republican Jim Domagalski -- get to pad their power at public expense.

It is Lenihan's turn to pick a commissioner. His goal is continuing the long-standing flow of jobs for the politically connected and the paybacks that come with the positions. Which is why Lenihan reappointed Fran Warthling. Compliant county legislators next week will rubber-stamp Warthling, a jeweler whose main connection with water is that he drinks it, over LoTempio -- a candidate with decades of experience in a related business.

"I didn't know about all of the politics when I applied," said LoTempio. "I thought I might have a shot."

Forget it, Sal. It's Erie County.

LoTempio could have invented the washerless faucet and it would not have mattered. What matters is that Warthling, the Democratic party boss in Lackawanna, will not mess with the good thing politicians have going with the Water Authority.

The three commissioners make just $22,500 and no longer get free use of a car. No matter. Their main purpose is to open the spigot to about 50 patronage jobs for the politically connected. Those who are placed on the payroll return the favor with everything from campaign contributions to lobbying family and friends to vote a certain way on Election Day.

Most workers are competent folks hired through civil service exams. But dozens of other jobs go to the politically connected, allowing Lenihan and Domagalski -- who share the spoils -- to reward the faithful.

The lineup includes former Democratic boss Jim Sorrentino, who pads his legal practice with $43,000 for part-time Water Authority work. Orchard Park Democratic boss Dan NeMoyer fills a $66,000 human resources job. Ed Kuwik landed a $103,000 "line maintenance" job after leaving the County Legislature. Thomas Wik, the ex-Amherst highway superintendent, pulls down $88,000 as a "municipal liaison." Ex-deputy director Ed Kasprzak, a longtime Republican fixture, in 2007 got a gift-wrapped $230,000 retirement package.

Somebody pays for the unneeded jobs, questionable management and unnecessary expenses, and that somebody is you. It is part of the reason why folks who live next to Lake Erie have higher water rates than some people in high-and-dry Arizona. It is part of the reason Western New York has five water plants instead of the three we need. It is part of the reason the county -- lacking backup generators -- nearly ran out of fresh water during the 2006 October Surprise storm.

"You could save 10 to 20 percent of the operating budget just by cutting [politically connected] jobs," said George Hasiotis, an ex-Water Authority commissioner who wants reforms.

One answer is to fold the authority into county government. Chris Collins has made noises about it. But he was elected with the backing of Domagalski, so I doubt that Collins will close the candy store. County Legislator Kathy Konst has the guts to buck party boss Lenihan, but hers is a lonely voice among 15 go-along legislators.

Which brings us back to Sal LoTempio, whose years of experience are no qualification for the Water Authority.

It is not about the job, Sal. It is about keeping the spigot open.


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