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Subsidized Suicide

How Governor David Patterson can save Upstate... and himself

Could Governor David Paterson become Congressman David Paterson? David Gershman of New York magazine reported last week that if Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel decides not to run for a 21st term, then Paterson may have an exit from the job he insists he wants. That’s because the Harlem Democratic organization, whose leadership has long included David Paterson’s dad, Basil Paterson, could choreograph Rangel’s exit and David Paterson’s designation as the Democratic candidate in a special election that only a Democrat could win.

Perhaps that is a serious possibility. In the meantime, Paterson is governor, which is the only position powerful enough to change the trajectory of Upstate New York, a region dying of developer-driven sprawl, racial nihilism, fractured governance, and expensive, dumb public projects.

The Rangel scenario rings true with me. That makes Paterson a guaranteed political survivor. Having run many campaigns and advised many others, I love it when a candidate is guaranteed a win no matter what happens, because the candidate can govern fearlessly.

So here’s my suggestion to Governor Paterson: Start enjoying life. Stick around and run a campaign with a new message that is supported by the evidence and that this state sorely needs to hear: Downstate is subsidizing Upstate’s suicide, and New York can’t afford it anymore.

Upstate New York is a beautiful, diverse, fundamentally sound region with tremendous assets of every description. It is also in rapid economic transition—by most measures, in rapid demographic and economic decline. Scholars and courageous community activists have been documenting its problems for a very long time.

Twice in the last 50 years, efforts were made to rationalize government—and especially planning—but racism thwarted the first effort toward regionalization in the 1960s, and nasty, personalized politics in Erie County and in Monroe County thwarted regionalization and rationalization in the first decade of the 21st century. There is every reason to believe that New York City, which has a unified governance structure that covers 300 square miles, should be a model for governing every Upstate metro area, especially because none of these areas is growing in population and because they are unsustainable if their governance remains fractured. A governor from New York City should be able to just say so—that is, if he is feeling free to talk.

If, as a reasonable person would say, the reasonable goal for Upstate New York is that it becomes less of a zone of dependency, decline, and despair, then the following facts have to become part of the political process:

Dependency. More than 75 cents of every dollar in revenue Albany collects from fees and from state income, sales, and corporate franchise taxes comes from Downstate—the lower Hudson Valley, New York City, and Long Island—but Upstate is so poor and dysfunctional that Downstaters transfer billions and billions of dollars to us. In short, Upstate is on New York City’s dole.

• Self-inflicted poverty. Upstate bankers and house-builders collude to make the metro areas of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, Utica-Rome, and Albany poor by building four new houses for every household. Suburban sprawl without population growth results in —and is fueled by—the continued collapse of the value of housing in the old cities and first-ring suburbs. The same circumstances exist in Rust Belt cities in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, but the decline is most rapid here.

• Albany keeps paying local governments for bad policy. Erie County is on the dole: It balanced its budget for two years with $74.5 million in free federal money. The City of Buffalo is addicted to cash handouts, too. So are the region’s citizens, who collectively take in more than $1 billion more in Albany disbursements than Albany gets from us in sales taxes, income taxes, business taxes, or fees. So any anti-tax, anti-Albany rhetoric you hear from any local politician is a big fat lie, because Erie County—and every other Upstate metro area—gets billions of dollars more from Albany than its taxpayers pay in.

How much longer?

Peter Fleischer puts it this way: “The question I keep asking is how can upstate counties, without meaningful new net growth, add the cost of building, financing, operating and maintaining new infrastructure (road, bridge, water, sewer, etc.), the cost of new services (fire, police, schools, etc.) to the cost of the old and failing infrastructure and the cost of existing services and not go bankrupt or have to continually raise taxes?”

Fleischer is the head of Empire State Future, a pro-growth, pro-development organization that is about smart growth. He’s no liberal Democrat: Before heading up Empire State Future, Fleischer was an appointee of Republican Governor George Pataki. But you’d think he was an advisor to President Barack Obama given his endorsement of the progressive litany of policy choices you see so often endorsed in these pages, including reorganized local government, regional land-use planning, public transit-oriented development, tax-increment financing, better state infrastructure funding, age-integrated housing, and the kind of historic preservation tax credits that Assemblyman Sam Hoyt sponsored and that Governor Paterson just signed into law.

The capstone of this consensus: The American Planning Association’s Upstate chapter endorses the program of Empire State Future, and they both endorse a much stronger role for the state’s planning office—which is all consistent with the advice given to Obama’s new secretary of Housing and Urban Development and to his urban policy czar, too.

What’s needed now is for Governor Paterson, who is either on his way out with nothing to lose, or on his way out with a hometown Harlem constituency to address, to speak truth to power—his own power.

According to calculations we’ve done at Buffalo State’s Center for Economic and Policy Studies, more than a quarter of the revenue that Albany gets comes from Manhattan Island. That’s more state revenue than all of Upstate New York generates. Manhattan is one of the five boroughs, or counties, that is served by one single government—one police department, one fire department, one school system, one transit authority—and could-be Congressman David Paterson’s constituents somehow manage to survive with one Public Safety Answering Point, or 911 call center, too. (We have 22 in Erie County.)

So if Paterson starts thinking like a Manhattan politician while he’s still governor, he could do all of us outside Manhattan a big favor—just by telling Upstate to stop picking his homefolks’ pockets, and to stop the trash-talk about the 300-square-mile city that foots the bill for all the little Upstate metros that can’t merge their cities, towns, and counties into 300-square-mile metro governments like New York has had since 1896.

As a matter of campaign strategy, telling the truth about Upstate dysfunction would work perfectly in the place where the money comes from. As a matter of public policy, that message couldn’t come soon enough to this zone of dependency.

Governor Paterson, Congressman Paterson, or just Dave: Take a chance, big guy, and take on the bankers, the politicians, and the house-builders who are keeping Upstate poor by trashing our cities and yours. And you can start by refusing to subsidize our ongoing suicide in your next budget.

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

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