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Our Rock and our Mountain

133 reasons to keep thinking metro

The Nobel Prize-winning essayist Albert Camus wrote a compelling little book about Sisyphus, the ancient Greek king of Corinth. Sisyphus is the perfect “absurd hero,” the guy who offended the gods by attempting to subvert their power over life and death, but who was overpowered by them, and then punished with an eternal command—to forever roll a rock up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again.

“His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing,” wrote Camus.

To advocates of metropolitan or regional government, this story feels awfully familiar. Newly published evidence that poverty in Rust Belt cities is increasing has to make our anti-poverty workers feel not only that the rock has slid back downhill but that the rock is growing ever larger. Recently refreshed Census data pile on, because those data say that our 40-year-long Rust Belt population decline is accelerating—expressly in the places whose governance is fractured and localized, which also happen to be where the housing foreclosure and abandonment crisis has been going on the longest.

But like good Corinthian kings, some carry on fighting the fight. The recent Buffalo State College conference on the stimulus package and its potential long-term benefits concluded that the president’s money will only really work if it’s spent metro by metro, not local government by local government—and that conclusion will soon be presented to the Obama administration, which might actually implement regional thinking. (Stay tuned.)

So maybe, and we are hopeful, Sisyphus might get a win.

It couldn’t come soon enough, because right here in Erie County, we recently experienced a literally absurd situation, truly worthy of Camus, and for which there is very possibly a precise mythical precedent. (I’ll go check my schoolboy copy of The Odyssey.)

It happened when a county legislator went out and asked all the town supervisors, town council members, town clerks, town superintendents of highways, and town assessors whether they would yield control over a function that towns shouldn’t have—namely, land-use planning—and instead empower a nonpartisan, disinterested, and apolitical county planning body.

The county legislator in question, Robert Reynolds, had the deciding vote over whether to override the county executive’s veto of the planning board. But instead of just voting in the public interest, instead of getting Erie County in line with what may soon be a presidential endorsement of a regional approach to governing—an approach that could finally help Erie County government take the next evolutionary step toward being a functional, metrowide coordinator of public health, infrastructure, and economic conditions—he chose instead to ask the very people whose political existence thwarts the public interest whether they would prefer a cut in their power, or the status quo.

It’s a crazy version of the Sisyphus story. What do you think the answer would have been had brave Sisyphus asked the God of Death to stop abusing humanity by forcing people into Hades? Would the hero who thumbed his nose at death have ever asked the gods of Mount Olympus to break ranks and let mere humans decide their fate? Of course not.

Did the one single county legislator whose vote was needed, whose vote could have broken the county executive’s insane endorsement of regional economic death, really think that he would get the town elected officials (most of them allies of the county executive) to break ranks?

Albert Camus won a Nobel Prize for writing about absurdity. We, sadly, are living it.

But unlike Sisyphus, we’re not up against gods in this fight, folks. We’re up against 133 town and village munchkins and the leader of the Lollipop Guild.

133 visionary statesmen

The 25 towns, 16 villages, and three cities inside Erie County are all empowered to do lots of things on their own. That’s how it’s always been around here in the 1,000 square miles of our county. We started evolving toward regional governance in the 1950s, but that evolution stopped when the towns and villages and cities all stayed put even after the county legislature and executive system was instituted in 1960.

Thus once again this fall, there will be an election for local offices—which means that our absurdity-inured electorate gets to listen to people who will parade before us seeking our good wishes, our money, our attention, and our votes, so that they can go back and occupy the 133 town and village offices that are up this year.

All told, there will actually be 152 offices up this November. Fully 133 are town and village officials. We will also elect the mayors of Buffalo and of Tonawanda, a county sheriff and a county comptroller, and 15 county legislators. But the real story is in the towns—of which there are 25 in Erie County—and in the 16 villages.

Meanwhile, down in 400-square-mile Fairfax County, which is right across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, the 10-member legislature is thinking about turning the County of Fairfax into the City of Fairfax.

Apples and oranges, you say? You’d be right. Fairfax is a county of about one million people, while Erie County is a county of about 930,000 people. Apples so far. Fairfax County is dominated by the federal government as an employer and landowner; it’s where the Pentagon is. Fairfax is also a place where our federal tax dollars pay for private enterprises that provide services to our country, including services that they can’t tell you about. Oranges: Government is a relatively small part of the economy here, comprising only 16 percent of the workforce.

And there’s another difference between Fairfax County and Erie County: In Fairfax, there is a county government. There are no towns or villages. And there’s only one school district for 400 square miles. Here? There are 29.

So when it comes to managing services in the 400 square miles of Fairfax County, which is like Erie County in that it has transitioned from a largely rural to a largely suburban landscape over the past 50 years, the folks in Fairfax do it without any local governments at all.

And Fairfax has grown and developed so much that its leaders are thinking that it may be time to take the next step.

The chair of the 10-member Fairfax County legislature recently told the Washington Post that “[f]ifty, 60 years ago…we were one of the largest producers of dairy products…now we are a mostly suburban community with some urbanizing areas. The city label more accurately describes what Fairfax is.”

E pluribus chaos

Back here in Western New York, our 25 Erie County towns each have supervisors. They each have councils. Most have a few other offices. We get to elect them all, even though the details are mind-numbing—in part because many but not all town offices are up for election this year.

So while in Fairfax County there are 10 elected officials who are having a conversation with the state government there over whether to remain a county or to become a city under state law, here where we live, we will get the chance to…change nothing.

Oh, sorry.

In a few of our towns, we will get a chance to reduce the number of council members from seven to five, or from five to three, so that next time, there will be 129 instead of 133 town elected officials to vote for.

But this September and again this November, there will be races for town supervisors in Alden, Amherst, Aurora, Boston, Brant, Colden, Collins, Concord, Elma, Hamburg, Holland, Marilla, Newstead, Orchard Park, Sardinia, and Wales, and council members in all those towns and in the City of Lackawanna.

There will be races for various other offices in Cheektowaga, Clarence, Colden, Collins, Concord, Eden, Elma, Evans, Grand Island, Hamburg, Holland, Kenmore, Lancaster, Marilla, Newstead, North Collins, Orchard Park, Tonawanda, Wales, and West Seneca. These would be town clerks, town superintendents of highways, town assessors, town receivers of taxes and assessments, and town justices.

Two of the three cities are electing mayors, but only half of the 25 towns are electing supervisors. And although the sheriff, the comptroller, and all the county legislators are up for election, the county executive, the county clerk, and the district attorney are not.

What are we getting to vote for, anyway?

Substance versus form

With Fairfax County on the mind, a question naturally arises as we look forward to the fall election season in Western New York. Some now ask why we need so many town board members. I ask this: Why do we need any town governments at all?

There are those who would say that it is the smallness of government in Fairfax County that is exemplary, and that we should emulate that smallness. Local government, those folks say, enabled the tremendous growth in population, wealth, and income in the suburbs of Washington, DC.

That, of course, is nonsense. Study after study has definitively proved that it was precisely because of the massive expansion of the federal government, especially the defense budget, that there came great growth in the Washington, DC area.

What is evident, however, is that the citizens of Fairfax County, Virginia, have a countywide, unified and functional government that encompasses about the same densely developed area as our densely developed area. Put Buffalo, Tonawanda, Amherst, Clarence, Cheektowaga, Lancaster, West Seneca, Lackawanna, Hamburg, Elma, and Aurora together, and you get about 400 square miles.

Were we governed like Fairfax County, decision-making could be done by a functional, empowered county government rather than by four dozen separate municipal entities. The economic and demographic transition from rural county to suburb to densely populated urbanized region here, as there, would naturally lead to a sensible conversation about what the next evolutionary step actually ought to be.

But here, we are stuck back at the base of the mountain. We have a chance this fall to push 133 little stones back up the mountain—or, if the two downsizing referenda work, 129. Then next year, we get a chance to do it all over again, Sisyphus-style.

Small wonder, then, that participation in these local elections has dropped so badly.

Of the voters who are eligible to vote in the Democratic primary for City of Buffalo Mayor in 2009, the expectation is that only 35,000 will participate—about 32 percent of the 112,000 registered Democrats. Less than 15 percent of eligible voters in the Town of West Seneca bothered to show up to vote on whether to shrink their town board; in Evans, less than 12 percent voted on shrinkage.

Maybe the passionate reformers are shrinking away from conflict, leaving only a tiny, embittered core of scowling negativists. The Census says that our county will shrink by another five to nine percent over the next 10 years, and that the City of Buffalo will itself continue to fall, as it has already, from over 400,000 under Jimmy Griffin to 328,000 under Tony Masiello to 270,000 under Byron Brown.

But this is no time to despair. The good news is that we have it a whole lot better than Albert Camus’s existential hero. The rock will still be heavy, but when the Obama administration gets the message that a bunch of Rust Belt activists send—that we want and need metro solutions because localism is literally killing us—the day will be closer when we may actually get over the hump. So let’s keep pushing on that rock.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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