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A force for Buffalo; Townsend, in 8 years on control board, helped city get its fiscal house in order

Ask the average Buffalonian to identify Alair A. Townsend and chances are, you'll draw a blank stare. That's hardly unexpected. Most Americans don't know the names of their elected representatives, let alone the identities of the members of a financial control board.

Yet, Buffalo owes Townsend a great debt -- perhaps she wouldn't approve of that word -- of thanks for serving eight years on what is formally known as the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority. There must have been something she liked about Buffalo for staying with this job for so long, commuting as necessary from her home in New York City.

It's not as though her plate wasn't already full. When she was "hired" at no salary -- Townsend was publisher of Crain's New York Business. She came to Buffalo with a deep financial background, as New York City budget director and deputy mayor in the 1980s, when that city's control board was helping to restore order to New York's chaotic finances.

Appointed by then-Gov. George E. Pataki, Townsend has been a fixture on the control board since its inception in 2003, and her influence made a difference. With her expertise, the city has made remarkable strides. Five years ago, in criticizing the first budget proposed by Mayor Byron W. Brown, Townsend said, "We're hoping to break some old habits and move to the point where the city is on firmer ground."

In 2011, the city is on firmer ground. For the seventh year in a row, the city ended its year with a cash surplus. Its rainy day fund stood at $84 million at the end of 2010. Its total fund balance was $142 million, with $58 million set aside for future anticipated liabilities. The major credit rating agencies upgraded the city's rating to A status last year.

Townsend had a hand in all of that, but as she prepared to take her leave, she offered a caution. The Buffalo Public School District relies too heavily on surpluses to balance its budget, she said, and its expenses are growing faster than revenues.

In addition, she noted, major unions are working under the terms of expired contracts. Those contracts will have to be renegotiated, setting up the potential for even higher expenses. Challenges remain.

At 68 years old, one might have expected that Townsend planned to slow down a little. Hardly. She has been named president of the Greater New York Councils, Boy Scouts of America. Our loss will, no doubt, be scouting's great gain. We wish her the best on her new task and any others that come her way.

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