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Census shows the lessons we did not learn

"Start acting collaboratively or urban [decay] will creep from the city across one ring of suburbs after another, trailing poverty and shriveling economic growth in its wake."

-- Regionalist Neal Peirce, June 17, 1997, on the message of the 1997 Chautauqua Regionalism Conference.

They warned us.

Policy wonks from 15 states gathered 13 years ago this month at the Chautauqua Conference on Regionalism. They said if we did not change our ways, we would miss the global economic train. They said tax-inflating sprawl would continue. They said that migration to more-distant suburbs would suck life out of the city and inner-ring 'burbs.

It was a pull of the communal fire alarm. It is too bad that our first responders -- politicians and alleged civic leaders -- never got out of bed.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you last week's census update. The numbers, once again, recall the experts' warning. People keep leaving Buffalo and such older suburbs as Cheektowaga and the Tonawandas. Even shiny Amherst, once the flight destination of choice, is morphing from winner to loser. It dropped an estimated 1,000 people during the past decade.

The more folks who flee to the Wheatfields and Clarences, the louder the sucking sound of inner-ring abandonment -- and the greater the need for tax-inflating new roads, schools, sewer lines, strip malls, and police and fire services.

Buffalo dropped from the 50th largest city in 1990 to No. 70, down to about 270,000 people -- getting leapfrogged by the likes of Plano, Texas. The Tonawandas lost about 8 percent of their people, with Cheektowaga close behind.

It did not have to be this bad. Experts at Chautauqua laid out self-help remedies to slow sprawl, save dollars and undercut the in-fighting that stops our region from forming a unified front in a global economy.

They handed us a road map. We drove into a ditch.

The laundry list of remedies ranged from a regional planning board to steer development; a growth boundary to slow sprawl and save farmland; better public transit to get inner-city workers to suburban service jobs; channelling tax dollars to needy areas, and ignoring or erasing boundaries that feed senseless intramural squabbles, jack up taxes and sabotage any hope of a shared regional vision.

We did little beyond downsizing some city and town boards and bulk-buying road salt. A region desperately in need of change got short-changed.

Granted, a huge problem is made-in-Albany rules that inflate the cost of everything from public health (Medicaid) to public worker pay and benefits. It pumps up taxes and smothers jobs and business. Even so, we could have done things to help ourselves.

Our cost of government and lack of a shared vision is, I think, cemented by 44 separate governing bodies in one county. From Charlotte to Baltimore to Indianapolis, places deliver services cheaper and better without multiple layers and separate silos of government.

Getting politicians to release their grip on power is like trying to separate a bulldog from its bone. West Seneca officials last year, astoundingly, spent tax dollars to try to stop taxpayers from deciding on the size of their government. Village trustees now threatened by dissolution claim -- absurdly, to me -- that the charms of village life will disappear if their jobs vanish.

In various ways, politicians -- among the few for whom the status-quo works -- fight like cornered animals to uphold what looks to me like a failed, fragmented system of government that handcuffs reform. The more they win, the more the rest of us lose.

Just look at the numbers.


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