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Commentary: Metro Government Buffalo's Only Hope

By Dr. Donald Clark

Buffalo, NY – It is time to cease the continuing debate on options for bailing out Buffalo's current financial trainwreck and accept the reality that the city is functionally bankrupt after five decades of decline and without a "bottoming out" in sight. Let's face it, the state-of-the-city can best be described as an economic mess, a once great metropolis that has deteriorated past the point of no return and therefore incapable of recovering on its own.

The only course of action open to city officials is to accept a Buffalo-Erie County consolidation and ignore the misguided rhetoric on "regionalism", a subject that has been beaten into a coma in recent months by local activists, that amounts to nothing more than "tinkering at the margin" in addressing the serious economic problems confronting the city and their growing impact on the remaining communities in Erie County.

Let me be blunt: The game is over for Buffalo's government leaders in moving around in an endless circle looking for an annual handout from Albany that represents a Band-Aid solution to a city suffering from malnutrition, gasping and exhausted after a half century of leaders addicted to maintaining the status quo.

Their legacy is having failed to carry out the most important obligation to the residents of Buffalo, i.e., to improve their economic well being and quality of life. Yet, there are those among the city's leaders in the public and private sectors who live in a world of illusions believing that the signs on Interstate 90 citing Buffalo as an "All-America City" represent a community with a thriving economy and quality standard of living when, in fact, it remains an economic basketcase and one of the poorest cities in the nation.

In considering the prospects for restoring Buffalo to financial stability, an assessment of the city's management effectiveness and efficiency highlights the absurdity of efforts to resolve the recurring fiscal crises. A team of researchers from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and Governing magazine conducted a survey of 35 cities with the greatest revenues in the nation in which they examined and assigned grades for various categories of city management.

In their report featured in USA Today on January 20, 2000, Buffalo recieved a C grade for financial management with respect to multi-year revenue and spending forecasts; prudent care of surpluses, debts, and pension funds; and the availability of data to the public. Buffalo was tied with New Orleans for the worst overall grade of (C-) in city management among the 35 cities. So much for the "All-America City" leadership's management capability in coping with the continuing self-inflicted financial mess.

While Buffalo struggles to stay afloat by the amount of government aid it can lobby, the city's economic base over the past half century has continue to deteriorate as a result of the city leadership's failure to retain and recruit business and foster entrepreneurship that offer private sector quality employment opportunities with wage scales capable of supporting an acceptable standard of living.

This is the result of years in which the business community and local government leaders floundered around pursuing a fragmented, unstructured, duplicative, uncoordinated, and ad hoc approach to economic development that can best be described as akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Buffalo's leadership lives in a fantasy land with recurring visions of hospitality and tourism, empire zones, a new convention center, sports, retailing and casino gambling that generate, primarily, low-paying dead-end jobs as priorities in its futile attempts at revitalizing the city's economy, leaving the city disengaged from the 21st century high-tech driven global economy.

Marketing the advantages of out-of-town businesses locating in suburbs in Erie County is extremely difficult when the area's commercial center - Buffalo - is past the point of no return. Yet, in spite of this reality and the dreadful history of the city's decline over the past half century, Buffalo's leadership continues to believe new businesses can be attracted to the city as a viable community to conduct their operations. This type of thinking can only exist in the "twilight zone."

I have spent the majority of my 52 year career working with leaders from business, education, labor, and government involving collaborative efforts in creating quality educational systems aligned with workforce and economic development in communities across the United States, Canada and overseas. Yet, I have never encountered a city so devoid of pro-active leadership in the business community and local government in fostering economic development and improving the quality of life than in Buffalo.

Speaking out on facing these hard facts on the future of Buffalo typically leads one to be labeled a naysayer by those in leadership positions who, over the past half century, bear the responsibility for the embarrassing financial mess the city finds itself in and leaving the city incapable of recovering on its own. Spare me another speech by Buffalo's leaders offering a "vision", i.e., a mystical view of the future, on revitalizing the local economy. They still don't get it....it's over for the "All America City" to function as an independent municipality.

The first and surest path to ending this charade and reversing five decades of the downward slide of Buffalo and its growing adverse impact on the surrounding communities is in merging the city with Erie County into a metropolitan form of government that would result in a metro area better positioned with the capability to carry out coordinated, coherent long-term-economic development planning and improving the quality of life.

Time is short, and Buffalo's leadership needs to get its act together, face the hard facts on Buffalo's future, and accept the reality that a city-county consolidation is inevitable.

Dr. Donald Clark, is a Buffalo native and national professional association chief executive officer.