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UB study cautions citizens on effects of downsizing Calls financial savings minimal, says impact of reduced representation must be weighed

A new study says if citizens want to save money, they may want to think twice about voting to downsize their town boards.

"One inevitable impact of downsizing is a reduction in representation," states the policy brief by the University at Buffalo Regional Institute.

The report also says the financial savings are minimal.

Kevin Gaughan, the citizen activist downsizer who is bringing downsize votes to Erie County towns, said the study is an attempt to instill fear into citizens considering the change.

"The UB Regional Institute has decried government size and cost since its inception," Gaughan said. "To see it strain to thwart someone offering a different path is disappointing."

The debate is heating up, as votes are scheduled this month in two towns. Orchard Park residents vote Wednesday on whether to reduce the size of the Town Board from five to three seats, and Alden voters go to the polls for the same reason Sept. 29.

"The policy brief aims to inform and balance a debate we think has been largely one-sided to this point," said Kathryn A. Foster, institute director. "The brief does not tell people how to vote, but does help people think about how to vote on the issue."

The brief, "Sizing up Local Legislatures," available at regional-institute.buffalo.edu, examines the impact in cost and representation from reducing each of the 44 municipal boards in Erie County by two members. The cost savings is less than one percent, often reaching just one-tenth of one percent, of the annual budget, the report states.

The average municipal council size throughout the nation is six members, the report states. In addition, if there are fewer legislators, the ratio of citizens to legislator grows.

"Any cost savings would have to be weighed against the trade-off for responsiveness in representation," Foster said.

But Gaughan doesn't buy it.

"In essence the study is saying 'let's not save anything,' " Gaughan said. "I did not expect to hear it from scholars."

The report does not tell people how to vote.

"If what people want to accomplish is to reduce the municipal budget, there's much more effective ways to go about it than cutting legislators," said James A. Gardner, vice dean of academic affairs and a professor at UB's Law School, who helped produce the report.

Orchard Park Councilman Mark Dietrick said downsizing has some merits, but he does not believe one solution fits all towns.

"It's about money, it's about politics and it's about power," he said. "He [Gaughan] would like more power in the hands of fewer people at the county or regional level."

Orchard Park Councilwoman Nancy Ackerman, whose seat would be eliminated under the downsizing proposal, said she would like residents to see how three-member boards work out in West Seneca and Evans.

"Why don't we be conservative and wait and see how it works before we jump off the boat into the sharks," she said.

Gaughan said merging services and governments has been suggested for years, but not enough has been done to produce meaningful savings.

"We can continue to talk about changes," he said. "Or citizens could avail themselves of this referendum process and force the changes."

Voting in Orchard Park will take place from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the basement of the municipal building, 4295 S. Buffalo St. Parking in the municipal lot will be restricted to voters.

If the measure is approved, the Town Board would consist of a supervisor and two councilmen starting Jan. 1, 2012. The seats now held by Ackerman and Edward Graber would be eliminated.

e-mail: bobrien@buffnews.com

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