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The Missing Conversation

Rust Belt doesn’t talk regionalism any more

Regional government consolidation? Progressives won’t touch it. California municipalities careening toward bankruptcy don’t mention it. Leaders of the national movement for land banks talk about inside-the-boundaries development schemes, and sometimes about regional land-use planning, but they throw up their hands at it.

The tax bases of shrinking Rust Belt cities are too small to sustain services and meet infrastructure requirements, so mayors have turned to fallowing land as in Youngstown, and governors have imposed control boards as in Buffalo and in various Michigan cities, leaving old city boundaries intact, as if a structural mismatch of costs and capacities is amenable to efficiencies, tighter budgets, mandate relief, or subsidies. Recently, in California, investment bankers have hatched a scheme that terrifies bankers and delights remaining homeowners—a scheme that would keep what’s left of a tax base inside a municipality by using a local government’s eminent-domain powers to reduce the cost of mortgages.

But except for a recent letter to the editor of the Syracuse daily newspaper, a letter proposing that the soon-to-be-broke City of Syracuse decertify itself as a separate entity so that Onondaga County can become the greater city and take over city functions, American urbanists don’t talk consolidation.

Instead, the newest version of the City Beautiful movement is underway. Buffalo gardeners should be very pleased to know that our friends in Cleveland, who last year brought a busload of enthusiasts up to our Garden Walk, have now created their own Garden Walk in a city that lost 17 percent of its population since the 2000 Census. Buffalo lost only eight percent of its population since 2000, and both Buffalo’s Erie County and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County also lost population overall. In neither Cleveland nor Buffalo is there a single elected official today running for re-election on a platform of municipal consolidation.

Pretty, happy, clever cities are, though, the talk, if not the rage. The Congress for a New Urbanism will hold a big session in Chautauqua this coming fall, in which strong sentiments about the benefits of urban living (and urban-ish living, too) will be expressed. The term “smart growth” now has new salience in New York State, because advocates led by Empire State Future were successful in convincing state elected officials to apply sensible measures of density and efficiency at least to the next dollars they will spend on state offices and functions. The suburbs are no longer fashionable for a segment of the American intelligentsia, but the inconvenient Joel Kotkin and his colleagues at the Manhattan Institute continue to observe what can still be seen here: demand-driven suburban residential development to serve the middle- and upper-middle markets. Commercial real-estate developers are even offering some mixed-use developments, such as the new suburban Buffalo proposal that would swap a public golf course for what was until recently a private one so that the public land could become homes, offices, and shops, in a separately governed suburb next to a shrinking city.

Across the land, city governments and town governments and county governments go it alone, pursuing developments alone, pursuing financial work-outs alone, electing and re-electing crowds of officials each by themselves, drawing up master plans that rarely intersect, hiring consultants to do studies and to propose alternatives that somehow, inevitably, leave every boundary unchanged. A senior bond attorney on Wall Street once told me that while he understands the rationale for consolidation, his firm wouldn’t be helpful anytime soon, because each issuance of a bond by each city, town, county, school district, sewer authority, or other entity was a fee to his firm. The historically low interest rates of today provide a fabulous opportunity to gather up lots and lots of old outstanding debt, bundle it up, create new super-entities (like, oh, regional or metro-wide governments) and get rid of all the clutter—or at least some of it—but the municipal bond industry isn’t the outfit that is going to make it happen.

Meanwhile, luminaries at various Washington think tanks employ the term “metro” and “metropolitan,” but neither they nor their conferees, being generally short on the experience of ever having tried to adjust the boundaries of a shrinking city, address the linked problems of tax-base shrinkage, depopulation, sprawl, aging infrastructure, and abandonment.

They do good education about the metro perspective, but withal they call, without much specificity, for coordinated actions by state governments that leave counties, cities, and towns to exist within existing boundaries, as if the boundaries of cities were created by the laws of physics instead of by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

Looking up to Syracuse's City Hall.

The wave ahead?

In Syracuse, the letter’s author, a self-described “visionary” whose successful architecture business gives him the leisure to think large thoughts, proposed a sensible-sounding solution that essentially means merging the city and county governments in the way that Indianapolis, Louisville, Toronto, Hamilton, and New York City have all done.

In the weeks since that letter was published, a check of the Syracuse newspaper archives doesn’t reveal much follow-up in either editorial action or reader interest. At the moment, anyway, that city is not likely to experience the conversation that the late daily Buffalo Courier-Express led in 1959 and 1960, when Buffalo’s morning paper published more than 60 articles and editorials about why and how to evolve from a county, three cities, 25 towns, 16 villages, 28 school districts, and many dozens of special-service districts into a single metropolitan government. The direct result of the Courier-Express series was a lateral step: Elected officials changed the form of Erie County government to an elected executive with an elected legislature from its previous shape as a board of supervisors. A regional library system was put in place. The city hospital had long since become a regional facility, as had social services, public health, and some public safety functions, but a 1968 county-wide referendum on creating a single metropolitan-wide police force failed when the residents of villages said no.

In the 1970s, Buffalo and Erie County flirted again with consolidation, while Nashville (1976) and Indianapolis (1977) actually closed the deal. Reflecting on the politics of that era, as Gerald Grant did in his Hope and Despair in the American City, reminds us that the preoccupation then was with how white Democrats could hang on to their constituencies. The pressure was on them from suburban Republicans, and from the do-nothing, abandonment-appeasing Catholic Church, which was the Rust Belt’s largest private landowner. Meanwhile, the development industry rushed the white working class to abandon cities in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Milliken school desegregation case. Then came capital flight, and voila, cities in an arc stretching from the Wisconsin lakefront to the Hudson, from the Canadian border to the Ohio River, emptied.

Yet both Indianapolis and Nashville pulled off the transformation to regionalized tax bases, and their regional economies—and their urban core areas—both have performed far, far better than have un-consolidated middle-size cities and regions. The trouble of sprawl development yet troubles all metros that lack regional limitations on the inventory of land that gets developed, even in the consolidated metros; the simple economic issue is that it’s more expensive to build, extend, and maintain longer supply-lines—water, sewer, roads, utilities—than shorter ones. So as long as state governments and the federal government keep funding projects without a regional rationale, they will keep getting built in low-density areas at the expense of high-density areas.

Good people like Washington Post columnist Neil Pierce and his Citistates group, working since 1975, have consistently, doggedly advocated for decades for functional, practical regionalism. Many good papers have been published. Many, many.

But there is money to be made in the status quo. Racism is an integral part of a system that pays off handsomely in patronage in both contracts and positions. Over-building infrastructure for a sprawled-out, low-density population keeps road-construction and maintenance crews busy. Many more principals of many school buildings have career-advancement prospects to coveted superintendent and deputy-superintendent jobs when there are dozens of little school districts rather than big, efficient, regional school districts.

After Erie County’s Joel Giambra ran and won two county-wide elections in 1999 and 2003, he and former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello convened a blue-ribbon panel to put forward a serious attempt to do what Indianapolis, Nashville, and most specifically Hamilton, Ontario, had done—which was to consolidate the city and county governments as a first step toward creating a regional government. The late University at Buffalo president William Greiner led the panel, which also starred the president of Buffalo State College, the chairman of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, leaders of large religious entities and not-for-profit organizations, and the leadership of both the city and county legislatures. The plan, drawn up by our Erie County team, was vetted legally by current and former city and county attorneys, by outside management consultants, and by professional civil servants in Albany.

But it had no support from then-Governor George Pataki. It was attacked by the staff of the Chamber of Commerce. The commercial real-estate establishment wanted none of it. And then, when a highly personal political pissing contest ended in a $100 million budget crisis (the price tag was about equal to the revenue that would have been generated from a bipartisan enactment of an extra penny of sales tax), the plan disappeared into the archives.

Maybe the coming wave of municipal bankruptcies could begin to change that dynamic. Maybe the hard times ahead for the city of Syracuse, in a county whose executive last year won the Governing magazine award for inter-governmental cooperation, acuity and all-around regional goodness, can advance the effort once again. Maybe the gardeners of Cleveland, flushed with success at getting the greater Cleveland area back into the neighborhoods that the middle- and upper-middle class keeps fleeing, will knit the raveled sleeve of that shrinking region. Maybe Howard Zemsky’s success in bringing new functionality to Larkinville, the refugees’ success in bringing new vigor to Grant Street, will be attractants to new immigrants.

Those individual efforts are, like the garden walks, crackling with positive energyÍwhile the vacancies and abandonments continue, while the sprawl development continues, while governors all across the US shore of the Great Lakes region leave consolidation to the Canadians. The cost isn’t counted in extra local taxes, but in lost regional sustainability, and nobody running even mentions it.

Bruce Fisher is former deputy executive for Erie County and currently director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His new book is Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, available at bookstores or at

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