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Tailoring reformism to suit Alden

Something about Alden apparently screams out, "Change this government!"

In 1996, Robert Overhoff Sr. established a committee whose mission was to have the Town of Alden absorb the Village of Alden.

Twelve years later, Robert Gontarz ran for mayor of the village on a platform of merging the two local governments.

Both men failed to do much more than earn the eternal enmity of people whose paychecks depend on local government.

Now here comes Kevin Gaughan -- the impractical rabble-rouser if you oppose him, the no-nonsense voice of reason if you support him -- whose initiative to remove two members from the Town Board will go before Alden voters in two weeks.

To the dismay and disgust of elected leaders in Evans and West Seneca, voters there have already agreed that three people on a Town Board can do the work of five.

Alden Town Supervisor Ronald Smith doesn't necessarily agree with the thousands of people who have lined up behind Gaughan, but he understands why they're doing it.

"I totally agree with the concept that government costs too much money," Smith said.

He also believes that there is a better way to save money than what Gaughan has proposed.

Smith wants to make what he believes will be substantive money-saving changes in his community. The town and village have been awarded a $25,000 local government-efficiency grant from New York that will be used to hire a consultant who will make recommendations. But Smith already knows the areas ripe for savings:

The separate court systems.

The separate building departments.

Four volunteer fire departments.

Smith said that doing something about the duplication of services could save far more than eliminating board members. Further, cutting board members makes less sense in Alden because elected officials serve the functions that are done in other towns by salaried department heads, such as emergency services or parks and recreation.

"So now if you decide to downsize to three board members, who picks up the slack?" he asked.

Smith said the town applied for the state grant long before Gaughan filed petitions to downsize the board. But one of the curious byproducts of Gaughan's initiative is the alternative cost-cutting and reform measures that it has spawned wherever he goes. A year ago, when Gaughan was trying to persuade Cheektowaga to reduce its Town Board from seven members to five, Council Member James P. Rogowski said lawmakers were willing to cut their salaries by 10 percent to lead by example.

In Blasdell, which Gaughan has argued should be abolished as a village, the Village Board voted in June to establish term limits for trustees and the mayor and to reduce the salary of the mayor and trustees by 10 percent below the average of five similar-sized villages in Erie County.

Gaughan said that although he views similar efforts as a way to distract voters from downsizing their boards, they do have their pluses.

"It seems to me any change, any reform, any cost savings measure should be applauded and affirmed," he said. "To the degree that this downsizing movement has given rise to other notions of reform, that's exactly what I wanted to accomplish."

Smith said he plans to move forward with Alden's efficiency study regardless of what voters decide Sept. 29. So, one way or another, change could be on the way.


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